Can't coach; won't coach: Part 2

Why Are Boundary Issues Difficult to Spot in Coaching?

In Part 1 we discussed how easy it is to get lured into coaching clients that in retrospect is often not a good idea.

In Part 2 of Can’t Coach; Won’t Coach we will look at what to do if you’ve already found yourself deep in an awkward situation and need to find a way out of it that still maintains your credibility and professionalism.

Next to contracting issues, boundaries are also a popular topic brought to supervision. However rather like contracting, coaches rarely state this outright; “Today, Julia, I’m bringing a boundary issue”. Often it is wrapped up and disguised unconsciously as something else and doesn’t emerge as a boundary issue until we’ve unpacked it a bit together.

As we mentioned last time the two main boundary issues tend to be: 

  1. An internal coach starts to coach someone who they know at work possibly from a prior relationship (Line manager, peer, colleague or team) and then finds they are party to information that may influence how they coach this coachee.
  2. An external coach receives a referral from a known contact to coach someone who is connected to the coachee in some way (however nebulous), meaning that all three are interconnected in some way and this starts to influence how the coach coaches the coachee.

Many other dilemmas are variations on the above themes and can be interchangeable for internal and external coaches. They may look appropriate at the outset of coaching but can quickly unravel through no fault of the coach (or coachee) because of changes that can happen along the way.

One coach I supervised had started to work with two different coachees in separate teams and separate departments in a Legal Practice, and was happy that there was a good “distance” between all three of them, then unexpectedly there was an organisational restructure, one coachee was promoted and became the line manager of the other coachee practically overnight!

So what is a boundary in coaching?

Take a look at what the Association of Coaching states in its Global Ethical Code:

2.16 Members will not exploit a client or seek to gain any inappropriate advantage from the relationship – financial or non-financial.

2.17 To avoid any conflict of interest, members will distinguish a coaching or mentoring relationship from other forms of relationships, such as a friendship or a business relationship.

2.18 Members will be aware of the potential for conflicts of interest of either a commercial or personal nature arising through the working relationship and deal with them quickly and effectively to ensure there is no detriment to the client or sponsor or the member.

2.19 Members will consider the impact of any client relationships on other client relationships and discuss any potential conflict of interest with those who might be affected.

2.20 Members will disclose any conflict openly with the client and agree to withdraw from the relationship if a conflict arises which cannot be managed effectively.

The code is only a guide as it can never cover every eventuality and each situation can be open to interpretation. If we take 2.19 as an example, that may need to be examined with someone else like a supervisor so that a coach can really hear themselves verbally working through what the relationship actually is and how it came about and what could potentially happen.

As my supervisor rightly pointed out, you have to be prepared as a coach to think ahead about what might happen rather than what has happened. It may be better to plan for many eventualities and then take the decision on whether to work with a particular client just in case.

Without someone being a devil’s advocate we can all be masters of self deception and convince ourselves of our ability to work cleanly by saying:

  • “It will be fine, I can keep what I know already quite separate”
  • “I used to line manage this person but it was 2 years ago now, so it’s not a current relationship”
  • “The coachee thinks it s OK that we can work together so I thought I would go with their agenda”
  • “I need to get in as many coaching hours as possible so I felt I could handle what I already know about them”
  • “I don’t think my coachee will need to talk about the person who referred them onto me so that’s OK”
  • “I was recommended as a coach to the client so didn’t feel I could say No”
  • “I can coach the line manager because he doesn’t want to talk about the staff I’m coaching”

An external coach can feel the pressure of making a living from coaching that may lure them into saying yes instead of no sometimes. For internal coaches, the pressure maybe about being seen to be doing a good (and helpful) role and justify the cost of investing in coaching training.

So what happens if you find yourself in a tricky situation and now realise it might be a problem?

  1. Explore the whole situation with an experienced supervisor who will help you to see the entanglement and work out a strategy between you of what to do next. They should also help you to reflect on your learning from this as it’s not just about this one client but any triggers that got you into this in the first place. Valuable with future clients.
  2. Take the opportunity to do a review with your clients so you voice what’s occurring for you that you hadn’t planned for at the start. (NB You don’t have to throw yourself on your own sword or roll in the dirt by saying “I was a rubbish coach and didn’t notice a conflict of interest”. Try language like “Something has arisen recently that wasn’t there for me at the start of our working alliance and I want to discuss with you how it might impact on our work together and what we can do about it”.
  3. Reserve the right to operate in the role of the coaching expert (because you are, compared to your coachee). They may resist if you try to end the coaching by saying its Ok with them (because they like you and what you do!) This can be a nice ego boost but can lure you to make decision without your ethical hat on. Also think about what’s best for both you and the coachee in the long run.


My ultimate advice as a supervisor of 10 years is this:

If you are an external coach, and if there is any connection between you and your client beforehand, pass them onto another coach. Nothing untoward may happen if you work with them but better to be safe than sorry. In my experience, after the disappointment clients are often very impressed with this level of honesty and the explanation of your ethical stance for your safety and theirs.

If you are an internal coach, the likelihood of your being completely clear of any prior knowledge of a coachee is going to be more difficult. By definition, you are in the same “system” as your coachee which has advantages but also the pitfalls we have talked about. Only you will know if something is too close for comfort. Don’t work it out by yourself. Consult your supervisor and hone your radar so you are more prepared when it happens again. It will then get easier with time to recognise quickly the ones to turn down and the ones to embrace.

Remember also that the fact you took this to supervision will also stand you in good stead if the worst should ever happen and there was a (rare) formal complaint of some sort made against you. Your supervisor is there in your corner to speak up for you and/or share the risk.

For specific advice or more information, please contact Julia Menaul


10 months ago : Jul 14, 2017

By Julia Menaul


Julia is a wonderful coaching supervisor. She has been a valuable resource on my coaching journey. Julia is incredibly generous in sharing her ideas, thoughts and resources. She also provides a wise sounding board and has provided just the right balance of challenge and support. I would highly recommend Julia as a coaching supervisor for both experienced and inexperienced coaches. Liz Scott, NewScott Coaching, Coach and Facilitator

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