Setting Boundaries with Coaching Clients: Why, How, and The ICF Standards

Explore the essentials of setting professional and ethical boundaries in coaching relationships, emphasizing ICF standards, meeting methodologies, confidentiali

The Everything Life Coaching Podcast, featuring Lumia Coaching founders John Kim and Noelle Cordeaux, is a deep dive into the experience and business of being a life coach. Subscribe to get new episodes weekly!

Why Set Boundaries Within the Coaching Relationship?

In the world of coaching, boundaries aren't just a good idea – they're essential for maintaining a professional and ethical relationship with our coaching clients. 

In this podcast episode, Lumia co-founders John Kim and Noelle Cordeaux discuss different ways to set yourself up for success, and take a closer look at the ICF (International Coaching Federation) Core Competency of setting agreements with clients.

Examples of boundaries in coaching:

  • Clearly stated policies
  • Understanding the scope and limits of confidentiality
  • Practices to maintain emotional safety, objectivity, and non-judgement for your client
  • Sustainable business practices that honor your time and expertise as a coach

The biggest thing to remember about boundaries is that it’s all about removing assumptions, bringing clarity and saying the unsaid. Setting the agreement up front (and in a more limited sense at the start of every coaching session) is all part of being a professional coach.

More Resources: How to Create a Coaching Contract

How To Establish Clarity In Coaching

When do you meet with clients? 

The first step is determining how often you meet and what the context is for your meetings. This could range from meeting in a one-off session, weekly sessions, ad-hoc meetings, or even part of a group program or group coaching experience.

How do you meet with clients?

It’s important to agree up front as to how you will meet, and what form your meetings will take. Thanks to technology and varying client needs, there’re many different ways that coaches can work now:

  • Zoom or other online platforms
  • Traditional phone calls
  • In-person meetings
  • Engaging in activities
  • Online group sessions
  • Regular in-person group sessions
  • Retreats (both virtual and physical)

Once the method has been set, keep to it unless you re-structure the agreement to allow for a change.

How will you interact between sessions?

The relationship doesn't fully pause between sessions – many coaches have different ways of staying in touch with a client. But how should you keep the momentum going?

Some possibilies include:

  • Formal progress tracking systems: Apps and specific program-based systems are growing in popularity
  • Informal Check-ins: This is more relaxed, with the coach expressing interest in hearing from the client. This could include texts or casual emails.
  • Formal Check-ins: These are geared towards making sure that an agreed-upon action step is being followed.

The coaching contract is essential

Every agreement, from meeting times to confidentiality, should be written down in a contract and signed by both parties – client and coach. This written agreement acts as a reference, especially if boundaries get blurred. It also serves as a tool for both coach and client to stay on course.

Does confidentiality matter?

Confidentiality should be maintained before, during, and after the coaching relationship. Coaches should never reveal the identity of their clients without explicit permission. This rule applies to everything, including:

  • Social media
  • Public encounters
  • Professional settings

There are no grey areas here! Mentioning to anyone, even casually, that you have coached a specific person (without their permission) is absolutely against the rules.

However, there are exceptions to the expectation of confidentiality that are worth mentioning in your coaching contract. Unlike a doctor or therapist, coaches do not have a legally privileged relationship with their clients.

According to ICF Code of Ethics, confidential information does not include information that:

  • was in the Coach’s possession prior to its being furnished by the Client;
  • is generally known to the public or in the Client’s industry;
  • is obtained by the Coach from a third party, without breach of any obligation to the Client;
  • is independently developed by the Coach without use of or reference to the Client’s confidential information;
  • the Coach is required by statute, lawfully issued subpoena, or by court order to disclose;
  • is disclosed to the Coach and as a result of such disclosure the Coach reasonably believes there to be an imminent or likely risk of danger or harm to the Client or others; or
  • involves illegal activity.

Can you become romantic with a client?

Any romantic inclination from the coach's side warrants ending the contract. If a client seems to show such feelings, it's the coach's ethical responsibility to decline any advances and end the coaching engagement, possibly referring out to another coach that may be a better fit.

Resource: How to Handle a Difficult Session (And When to Refer Out)

Can you see clients socially outside of coaching?

Can you hang out with clients outside the coaching sphere? While not strictly forbidden, any social interaction should still maintain professional boundaries, particularly for ICF-credentialed practitioners. Coaches can and should be held to a higher standard, so this may be difficult to maintain in all situations. Better to err on the side of caution, especially in the first few years as a professional coach.

What does life look like after the coaching relationship ends?

Post-coaching relationships can take multiple forms: friendship, vacations, or even business partnerships. While these are possible, confidentiality remains non-negotiable. 

In case of a budding romantic relationship, waiting for a period of 2-3 years is customary. 

For any ethical dilemmas, the ICF ethics hotline (859-226-4245) can serve as a valuable resource to get clarity and insight.

Setting boundaries in coaching is essential, not just for the integrity of the coaching partnership but also because you as a coach are part of a profession. In an unregulated industry, it's up to us as coaches to hold ourselves and one another to the highest standards. Remember, as a coach, your behavior is a reflection of your brand and the quality of coaching you stand for – make it dependable and trustworthy!

Resource: Life Coaching Ethics - What Are They, And Why Do They Matter?

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