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Boundaries in Coaching

Posted by Sukh Mishraa, PCC | August 27, 2018 | Comments (7)

Coaches understand what boundaries are but, at a closer look, we discover the dimensions and underestimated impact of boundaries on coaching partnerships.

With the following examples, you can see how perceptions of boundaries may affect the coaching relationship.

A client says:

“I’m not sure to what extent my coach may share information from our session with my boss.”

“My coach is a buddy; I can speak to him at any time.”

“My coach knows me so well; her advice always works for me.”

A coach says:

“I want my client to succeed/make great progress in the coaching journey.”

“I’m upset that my clients do not come prepared for the session.”

“I’m not sure if my client trusts me, since she’s not open enough in coaching conversations.”

Establishing Boundaries

Most coaches know this area of coaching practice. At the start of the engagement, the coaching contract establishes the ground rules, the roles and responsibilities of the coach–client partnership. Contracting is an explicit way to position and clarify the professional aspect of coaching work. A coaching contract establishes clear and healthy boundaries for all involved and negotiates responsibilities and actions.

At the start of the engagement, there’s immense enthusiasm and interest from all parties. Coaches characteristically are nice and pay extra attention to building rapport; understanding a client’s learning preferences; remaining unbiased, open to listening and feedback; and committed to what works. Clients do the same. As adults, we want to make the best impression and share all that shows us in good light. Everything in this phase usually goes as planned.

Blurring Boundaries

As the coaching partnership furthers, the two personalities unfold. Adding to that complexity are coaching stakeholders who may be known to and have an interest in both the client and the coach. Now, the psychological aspects of a coaching relationship come alive and demand that attention be paid towards implied boundaries.

Here are some common experiences to ponder about:

Knowing Your Own Triggers

For a coach, setting boundaries is about knowing who you are, what is important to you—especially when you partner with clients in their coaching journey, what your description and understanding of being in a partnership is, and what is acceptable (and not acceptable) for you in a coaching partnership.

When you have clarity on the above, you are more likely to honor the boundaries of others like coaching clients. As a coach, get an understanding of your own preferences and biases.

Caring Too Much

As coaches, we have a genuine interest in the well-being and progress of our clients. But do we know when we may be caring too much?

Coaching is about supporting and challenging a client. It’s like being on a seesaw. Depending on your client, you’ll figure out when and how much of a support or challenge may work.  When we communicate or act from the “caring too much” space, we may be stepping into a caretaker/rescuer zone.

Valuing Time Commitments

Have you ever had a client that was always late for a session or maybe a client who takes his boss’ calls in the middle of a session? What is your behavior like during a coaching session in relation to time?

If you consistently exceed the allotted coaching session time, for whatever reasons, you are blurring boundaries. Going beyond the session time may convey that you don’t value time. It may even create an impression with stakeholders that it’s OK to play with the coaching time. Being mindful of timelines serves all stakeholders.

Being Aware of the Hat You’re Wearing

You may find yourself transitioning into other roles such as mentor, counselor or adviser. Or, your relationship transitions into another, such as from friend to coach or from coach to good friend.

Since we would like to maintain our professional image of being a coach, setting clear boundaries with respect to the role we are slipping into is essential. Let your client know when you are transitioning between roles. You can say things like, “I’m wearing my coach hat now” or “I’m taking off my coach hat now and donning a mentor hat (with approval).”

A practice like this sets the expectations and rules of the relationship you are in. Likewise, clarifying boundaries after the completion of a coaching engagement is essential. Imagine your situation when an ex-client meets you and discusses their coaching progress…what hat would you wear!? Many coaches struggle in such situations; some say, “It seems I’m still a coach but now in pro bono capacity.”

Maintaining Neutrality

You may get drawn into a client’s story and loses objectivity. Or, you may feel familiar with the client and see either yourself or someone close to you in the client.

It’s easy to get hooked on topics that generate a lot of interest, such as global or organizational politics or sports. It can be tempting to take sides or say yes to something, but when you do, it also means that you are saying no to something else.

Interestingly, even the most seasoned coaches experience it, but they are quick to notice when it happens to them. Many would vouch for supervision to help them see what otherwise would go un-noticed and impact their work.

sukh mishra headshot

Sukh Mishraa, PCC

Sukh Mishraa, PCC, transitioned into professional coaching in 2012 after having held leadership positions with Citibank NA and NIIT. She believes “Leadership development is incomplete without Leadership Coaching” and supports organizations in their initiatives toward deepening and expanding the leadership pipeline. She’s an ICF Registered Mentor Coach, a founding director of the online coach training company PEER Coaching India, and a Certified Coach Supervisor.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

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Comments (7)

  1. Sukh, thank you for sharing that! It reading it was like a supervision session for me, helping to validade some things I’m doing right and some I have to work on.

  2. says:

    Glad you found it useful. Supervision conversations re-source coaches, and they always walk away with what’ll serve them and their practice in future.


  3. Olga Rybina says:

    Thank you! You write easily and simply about important things. Very useful.

  4. says:

    Great insight Sukh. Easy and smooth reading. you made a complex subject simple…thank you!

  5. I love that you highlight how important it is to know your triggers and set boundaries with a coach. I’ve been in the process of looking for a new life coach because boundaries were not set with my last one. This advice will be so helpful when I’m talking to potential new coaches.

  6. Iris Smith says:

    Thank you for mentioning that knowing who you are and what is important to you is vital for creating boundaries as a coach, especially when working with clients on their coaching journey. My sister wants to receive professional mentoring for the next steps. I’ll advise her to seek out adult job counseling that respects client-coach boundaries.

  7. Tisha Patel says:

    Amazing reminder of what is required for Boundary setting. Thank you greatly.

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