May 24, 2024

When coaching clients seem romantic...

We know that coaches are ethically prohibited from entering romantic relationships with their clients. However, clients have signed no such ethical code, and sometimes they seem to be sending signals which make the coach doubt whether the client may have developed feelings for the coach.

Here are a few situations that I have heard about or experienced:

- A client sends text messages accompanied by lots of little heart emojis.

- The client overly compliments the coach: how attractive she looks, what a wonderful person she is etc.

- The client is asking for meetings outside of the coaching relationship.

It seems that these situations happen more frequently to female coaches than to male coaches, but, obviously, I do not have a statistic on that. I tried asking my colleagues on what they would do in such situations on LinkedIn, but only received a few replies. So here are my thoughts mixed with theirs plus a genuine invitation to let me know what you would do, as this is quite a conundrum.

Ask what the client wants to communicate

The insecurity of what the client wants or means makes it really hard to coach. So venturing into interpretationland, I would describe to the client what I am seeing as neutrally as possible and then ask what they mean: “I am seeing that you are accompanying your messages by a lot of emojis, and I am not sure what you want to convey here – could you tell me how you would like me to interpret them?”. That takes courage from the side of the coach and may well not be met with an honest answer. But even if the client says that the heart emojis have no meaning, the coach can then clarify that, indeed, romantic relationships between coaches and clients are not something they can get involved in.

Terminate the relationship

If the client comes back and says that they do have romantic feelings for the coach, the coach must first and foremost say that a relationship is not possible. (I won’t talk about mutual feelings here – that is a different ballgame and can be solved by terminating the coaching relationship.) Also, it would be very wise to offer to the client to terminate the relationship at this point. If they have feelings for the coach, it is likely that they are not going to be present for and as themselves in the conversations which make coaching difficult.

Utilize the feelings

Sometimes human beings fall in love with what they are missing in themselves (I certainly have!) So instead of running headfirst into a relationship, wise humans explore what it is that they really want: a relationship with the object of desire, a successful chase plus entailing ego-boost, the qualities of the person they have a crush on? If the coaching relationship is one of trust and appreciation, and if the client is able and interested, coach and client might notice the fact that the client has romantic feelings without attachment and without responding to them. The feelings could just be there, like any other feelings. Coach and client might then explore if this has anything to do with what the client wants from the coaching. Maybe the coach is assertive and the client would like some of the coach’s assertiveness. It could be that the coach is one of the few people who listens to the client without judgement and the client really needs more of that in their lives. This is difficult and probably very rarely possible, but it could offer great learning opportunities.

What not to do

A big caveat: it is sooooo easy to stay in interpretationland. Coaches might develop many unhelpful thoughts about clients when they feel that clients have romantic intentions. Here are a few that I have heard:

- The client is not taking me seriously as a coach.

- The client is a dirty old man.

- The client is not interested in a coaching relationship.

- The client is trying to intimidate me.

Stay clear of those! Even if they are true, acting out of these assumptions will make it impossible to coach. Also, in all of these, the coach sees themselves as a victim which is one of the worst positions to coach from. A natural, appreciative, curious and assertive stance is the best way to go.

Another caveat: when I am talking about “signals”, I mean heart emojis, comments that might have been misconstrued etc. I don’t mean sexual harassment or worse. If the latter happens: terminate the coaching relationship immediately and potentially take legal action. If you at all can, make sure that the person understands the impropriety of their behavior and does not continue behaving that way. But that is a different topic.

Please come to our free meetup and exchanges to discuss or comment wherever you read this post!

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