August 3, 2023

Using coaching skills ethically

„Please don’t help, it is bad enough as it is” is a saying we use often in our family, when someone is deep into figuring something out and not willing to explain where they are at to a potential “helper”. As coaches, we know how to “help” professionally, without getting in the way of the other person’s own development and potential. We know how to be curious, to ask questions, to appreciate and so on. So what happens when someone in our immediate family or circle of friends has an issue that we could “help” with professionally? Should we offer our help? Should we bite our tongue and do nothing? Should we contract with them professionally?

This is an area with very fuzzy borders. Compare it to plumbing skills – if you are a plumber and a friend’s drain is clogged, you would bring your professional tools and help out. If you are a medical doctor and your kid has a cold, wouldn't you look at the symptoms with your medical expertise before calling another doctor?

And yet, as coaches, we need to be sensitive to our involvement when it comes to “helping” family and friends. Of course, we cannot switch off our skills and start asking stupid questions or making insensitive remarks just because we want to refrain from coaching without a mandate.

One solution could be to contract with our friends and family and clarify where we are coming from: are we talking as a friend / family member or are we being asked to help as a coach. If we clarify that, we could potentially coach a family member just like a manager may coach an employee. We will be impacted by the outcome of the coaching process and therefore need to be extra aware of not pushing the client into any direction. We need to notice when we stop being a coach and start being an affected party. If we cannot differentiate, we’d better refer to a colleague (maybe swap: I will coach your friend if you coach mine)

Another way could be remaining a friend. Making it clear for yourself and your friend or family member that you are NOT talking in a professional capacity. This is especially important if the person is talking about mental health issue which you could not help with in your professional capacity. As a private person, you can listen to your friend’s stories. You can admire their courage, support them emotionally, give them hugs, ask what they really, really, really want. Might this look similar to coaching? Yes, but it also looks similar to being a very good friend or family member. The main thing here is that all involved understand that you are not acting as a professional coach.

One might argue that you should never, for example, use coaching skills with your spouse, as you would be breaching the code of ethics standard 24 which precludes sexual or romantic engagement with clients. This, for me, is another example of the importance of differentiating as who you speaking: spouse or coach. You should not officially coach your spouse.

The ICF ethics are for ICF professionals and the definition is: “individuals who represent themselves as an ICF Member or ICF Credential-holder, in roles including but not limited to Coach, Coach Supervisor, Mentor Coach, Coach Trainer, and Student of Coaching”. The coaching relationship is defined as a relationship that is established by the ICF Professional and the Client(s)/Sponsor(s) under an agreement or a contract that defines the responsibilities and expectations of each party.

In my opinion, clarity and transparency for all parties of roles is very important:

- If you are engaging as a friend, spouse, family member, you don’t have to throw your coaching skills out the window, but you are well advised not to coach officially

- If you are engaging as a coach who happens to coach a friend or family member (not spouse, see code of ethics), you need to treat this relationship with extra care regarding conflicts of interest (ethical standard 18) and be self-aware enough to recognize when too much of you as friend or family member shows up in the session

- If you are talking to a friend or family member about mental health issues, it is crucial that you clarify that you are not speaking as an ICF-professional

I am really curious about what you think – this is such a difficult field and probably what can go wrong will go wrong. Let me know by maybe coming to one of our free meetups and exchanges or dropping me an email, or commenting on social media.

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