No Image Available


Read more from TrainingZone

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

Too close for comfort?


Successful coaching has to be grounded firmly on trust. Respecting the boundaries between personal and professional relationships is paramount if the client is to gain any value from the experience. Matt Henkes reports.

Huge efforts are being made by the coaching community to increase the credibility and professionalism of the practice in the eyes of clients and the public. A recent round table event involving several of the leading professional coaching bodies agreed the first shared list of professional values for coaches.

Jonathan Coe, chief executive of Witness, a charity that aims to highlight issues surrounding the fine line between professionals and the public, says there needs to be a clear distinction in coaching between the professional and the personal relationship.

"There needs to be debate about where the limits are. What is the boundary between a personal and professional relationship for coaches?"

Jonathan Coe, Witness

"In various parts of the health service in particular but also in social care situations, there have been cases where the professional boundaries have been seriously crossed," he says. "That leads to abuse and harm of people using the services."

He argues that the industry doesn't provide adequate training in this area. "It's something the coaching community is going to have to start taking very seriously; looking at education and how detailed their codes of practice are going to be," he adds. "There needs to be debate about where the limits are. What is the boundary between a personal and professional relationship for coaches? The history with other sectors shows that if it's not spelt out, it's a recipe for confusion."

But many in the coaching community would argue these discussions are already taking place and that training does address boundary issues. The Association for Coaching regularly holds forums all around the country where groups of coaches get together and discuss issues inherent to their profession. "There are a lot of coaches talking about their own experience and finding out what they can learn from each other," says Lynn Macwhinnie, an executive coach and the Association's vice president. "There's plenty of opportunity for people to be open to that kind of learning."

People will only hold the boundaries in the context of what they understand them to mean according to their training and experience. "We're constantly looking at how to keep people informed and up to speed, and at widening perspectives," she adds.

Adult to adult

But it's not always easy to recognise where these lines should be drawn. Should a coach accept a social invitation from a client to attend, say, a wedding? "A therapist wouldn't do that because they are careful about not letting the client see the real person," says Jenny Rogers, executive coach, author and a director at the leadership development specialist Management Futures. "But I think in coaching the client should see a real person, and a real person goes to weddings, funerals and birthdays."

"I think it's inevitable that there will be feelings of warmth between the client and the coach. If the coaching is working then there should be."

Jenny Rogers, Management Futures

"It's not doctor to patient, it's an adult to adult relationship," she adds. "I think it's inevitable that there will be feelings of warmth between the client and the coach. If the coaching is working then there should be."

Where a problem can arise is where the relationship starts to approach a friendship. "You cannot coach your friends," asserts Rogers. "You can get very close to clients. Some of mine I've worked with over a period of several years, but they're still not friends."

She doesn't feel that a prescriptive set of rules are what's needed, rather a healthy application of common sense. One social event is neither here nor there, she argues. "If you find yourself accepting more than one social invitation from a client in a short time, you should really think twice about what's happening," she adds. "If you feel queasy about it then you're probably right."

Handle with care

The nature of the profession and the intimate discussions coaches have mean that clients may feel they've made a life changing connection through exploring their emotions in a way they're unable to do with their closest family. Coaches have to be aware of this and the complications that it can entail.

Author and professional coach Olivia Stefanino has been in situations where clients have made it explicitly clear that they would be open to pursuing a more personal relationship. "In a way you expect it, not because you're the best thing since sliced bread, but for them it's the first time that they've opened up to this level of knowing themselves," she says. "And actually it's about them falling in love with themselves, not with you."

For further information on the 'First UK Agreed Statement of Shared Professional Values', click here.

In this situation the onus is on the coach to hold the boundaries, that's part of what they are paid to do. "It's about carefully handling the situation so they don't feel let down," adds Stefanino. "I think that's one reason why coaches need to have experience of the world of work, and need to have some life experience under their belt."

But what about coaches that lack years or life experience? Stefanino thinks there should be some kind of training for each coach to help them understand that one of the by-products of coaching is that people become more aware of themselves. "They need to learn to realise that romance is not in the air. Their client is connecting with themselves for the first time," she says. "That's a beautiful thing to witness unfold and know that you're the catalyst. But it's not about you, it's about them."

Lynn Macwhinnie welcomes all calls for wider debate on any professional coaching issue. "You can be prescriptive with boundaries but everyone's interpretation will be different," she says. "Coaching is a very broad church, that's part of the challenge. The more we can have discussion and explore what it means, the more we can raise questions and encourage reflective practice."


Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.

Thank you!