Engaging in ethics clarifying conversations

One of the things we coaches need to become masterful at is the ability to have conversations with potential clients, as well as at any time within a coaching session with a current client, about the boundaries of coaching.

I feel honored to have listened to a few thousand coaching sessions (yes that many!) in my role as a Mentor Coach and an active ICF Assessor for MCC, PCC and ACC credential applications, since 2005, and continue to learn a lot about the boundaries of coaching.

The International Coaching Federation provides a Code of Ethics and Resources. View ICF Code of Ethics

This is article is a portion of my just updated (10 page) resource document, “Ethics Traps for Coaches,” which is a gift you receive access to when you subscribe to my monthly, “Coaching Brief” newsletter. You can subscribe on the right column of this blog page, and unsubscribe yourself anytime at the bottom of the monthly newsletter email.

Sometimes without realizing, a coach will cross an ethical line or miss an ethical issue to discuss with their client or potential client. It’s critical for the well-being of the client, and the integrity of the coaching profession that coaches are aware of when they might no longer be having a coaching conversation and instead have crossed a line or boundary into another profession or expertise.

Ethical boundaries can include therapeutic, financial advice, legal advice, intellectual property advice, or any other type of mentoring or advice a “coach” could be giving to a coaching client, which may have ramifications to the client in their personal or professional contexts.

Instead, coach remains vigilant to remaining in coaching mindset, where coach is fully aware of how to use coaching skills to support their client to become aware of their self-knowledge, and support the client to make their own choices and decisions. If the client doesn’t have the knowledge, then coach can coach their client to clarity, and/or support their client to find the best resources for them to find their answers.

Opening a Conversation – example of how to approach your coaching client about a possible ethical conflict

Coaching may or may not continue at the same time as other professional support being engaged by the client; it will depend on each situation as to what is right and best for the client, and in ethical and personal integrity of the coach.
Once you’ve heard what the client has shared and you are not sure if you can coach them, next is to inquire if you can ask some clarifying questions in order to better understand what they have shared. This is where the coach becomes really curious and non-judgmental, with the intent to “listen and learn” about your client.

Let’s say the client says they were speaking to someone “the other day” about their “ADHD.” You realize this is unique biology of this person and want to understand more. Whether you know a lot about ADHD or not, next is to find out if it’s okay to ask some clarifying questions to understand their experience of ADHD and how it informs working together.

Example questions might be:

  • How long have you known about your ADHD?
  • What support have you already sought out for understanding and working best with your unique biology?
  • What do you know about yourself that would be useful to being coached effectively?
  • What is the best way to use your ADHD as a strength and asset?
  • What might be areas of challenge to be aware of?
  • What is the best way for me to coach you, given what you know about yourself?

Perhaps the coach determines through curious clarifying questions how to coach the client in the best way for this client. The client agrees to reveal to the coach self-knowledge about their unique biology, and they continue to be curious together to best utilize the client knowledge as a strength/asset for the client. It might be the coach does some research between sessions to understand ADHD as well.

It can be that a coach trained in excellent coaching skills, can be a very effective coach for an ADHD client. Yet for another coach it may feel “unethical” for them to coach a client they don’t know as much about.

To Summarize

While coaching a person diagnosed with ADHD is not an ethics issue, perhaps after further inquiry, the coach and client agree the client may instead benefit from another professional, or a coach specializing in ADHD biology.

The important part is the coach has become very curious, asking clarifying questions, engaged from a collaborative, partnering mindset that is supportive of the client. There can be even more trust developed between client and coach as a result of having this type of conversation, because the client feels seen, cared for and treated respectfully.

In Closing…

Consider what learning and development will support you to become an even better coach, and more aware of ethical boundaries. Work your coach, or mentor coach, to practice the ability to easefully have conversations as outlined in this article.

Become trained in Emotional Intelligence or other knowledge about emotions. Learn about the Grief Process. Develop your empathy for the human condition as we are human, wanting something better for ourselves and those we impact.

It’s our responsibility as a Professional Coach to continually recognize when we might be on a slippery slope, and possibly crossing an ethical boundary, such as outlined by the International Coaching Federation Code of Ethics.

As a Professional Coach, we need to be clear in communicating, and further clarifying at any time what the coaching process is, and to define the boundaries of a coaching conversation.

Written by Carly Anderson, MCC

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