Resource Guides

How to Refer Out in a Coaching Session

Learn when it's essential to refer a coaching client to another professional. Recognize the signs, ensure their well-being, and maintain ethical standards.

Picture it: your sessions have not been going well with a client who seems to need more than you can offer. Do you plunge ahead, determined to help at all costs? Or give up, knowing that they might require something that’s beyond your ability as a coach to give?

New coaches can occasionally find themselves in a sticky situation where they’re not sure whether they need to refer a client out or not. 

The good news is, the International Coach Federation (ICF) offers guidance on how to navigate these moments! As a leading global voice for the work of coaching, the ICF upholds certain standards and ethics to maintain the credibility and integrity of the coaching profession. Among these is the understanding that coaches should always operate within the boundaries of their competence.

When a client's needs surpass these boundaries, it’s important to know when and how to refer out. Let's take a closer look at how to recognize them, and what to do in these situations.

Recognize the Boundaries of Coaching

Coaching is a partnership where the coach supports the client in achieving personal or professional goals. 

Unlike therapy or counseling, coaching does not seek to address past traumas or psychological issues. Coaching is not about giving advice, or treating medical issues. Knowing what coaching is and is not is an essential part of deciding whether a client needs a different set of resources than you provide as a coach.

More Resources:

What Coaching Is and Is Not Pt 1
What Coaching Is and Is Not Pt 2

When to Consider a Referral

There are several specific situations that might warrant referring a client out of your coaching practice. These include:

  • Beyond Your Expertise: If a client requires advice or knowledge that's outside your area of expertise, such as financial planning or legal counsel.
  • Mental Health Concerns: When a client shows signs of severe emotional distress or discusses thoughts of hurting themself or others. 
  • Preoccupied with Past Issues: If a client consistently revisits the past, displays evidence of trauma or struggles to move forward due to unresolved issues.
  • Medical Issues: When a client's challenge revolves around a medical condition or they mention symptoms that should be addressed by a healthcare professional.
  • Not Your Client: If your client would best be served by a different kind of coach or you cannot overcome your personal triggers and need to find another resource for the client.

Take Care of Yourself

Realize that just because you are referring a client out does not reflect badly on you as a coach. If anything, it’s a sign of how much you care for your clients and the professional level you are operating on as a coach. 

Referring out is a part of the process, and not every client will be right for coaching or right for YOUR coaching. Connecting them with the resources they need to flourish is taking care of your client in the way they need it most.

The Ethical Way to Refer Out

Luckily, this is a common enough occurrence that there’s guidance on what to do and how to do it. The ICF's ethical guidelines emphasize the importance of confidentiality and the client's well-being. 

If the time come where it seems appropriate to consider a referral, you should:

  • Discuss Openly: Communicate to the client your reasons for recommending different resources and outside help. Make sure that the client understands it's for their best interest.
  • Provide Multiple Referrals: If possible, give the client a choice of several professionals or resources. Make it clear that you are not benefitting personally or professionally from these referrals. (In the event that you are receiving a referral fee from a partner or affiliate, this must be disclosed.)
  • Keep it Confidential: Never share the client's information without their direct, clear consent.

Build a Referral Network

As a coach, having a strong network of trusted professionals that you can call on and refer out to is essential. Consider putting together an arsenal of therapists, financial planners, nutritionists, doctors, and other coaches with different niches/specializations. Take some time to review and update this network, (perhaps even asking other coaches for recommendations) to ensure you're offering the best resources for your clients.

Educate Yourself

More learning brings with it more experience and wisdom. In fact, continual education is a cornerstone of the ICF standards for coaches. While you should never operate outside your scope, understanding the basics of related fields can help you identify your own limits as a coach and draw distinctions between the work that you and what others do. This extra education will make it even more clear to you when a referral is necessary and helps to ensure a smoother transition for your client. 

Document and Follow-up

After making the decision to refer a client, maintain confidentiality while thoroughly documenting the details. If you can, get the client’s permission and follow up to ensure they got the support and care that was needed. This not only upholds the ICF's standards of professional responsibility but also demonstrates genuine care for your client's well-being and privacy. 

While it may be difficult at first, it’s essential to recognize when and how to refer out as a coach. It safeguards the client's interests, builds the integrity and trustworthiness of the coaching profession, and ensures that every individual receives the support and resources that they need. As a coach, referring out cements your own reputation as someone who operates ethically, responsibly and with a high level of regard and respect for your clients.

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