Authenticity vs. TMI as a Coach
How to show up in partnership with your coaching clients authentically... without crossing boundaries and oversharing our own story when we are in session.
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Transparency In Coaching
by John Kim
As a life coach, practicing real, authentic transparency can be a very powerful tool.
It produces glue, builds trust, and creates buy in. I developed an entire coaching practice and brand based on the idea of a therapist practicing transparency - showing himself. And I’ve learned that your client wants to see you as a real person instead of a “coach” or “mentor.”
Transparency involves a "with-you" rather than "at-you" approach, which will make you a more relatable and powerful coach in my opinion. Because relatable means you have buy in, trust, attention, and traction to make a difference in someone’s life.
But transparency can also be dangerous. If it's not done right, it can be disruptive and ruin the coach-client relationship pretty damn fast.
So what does practicing transparency look like for a life coach?
Transparency doesn’t mean verbally vomiting on someone. There’s a responsibility to it.
You are only sharing your story if you believe it will help your client. You are sharing so they don’t feel alone. So they know someone else went through something similar. So they know you get how that may be feeling.
You are NOT sharing to vent - in that case, you’ve quickly made it about you.
I think many coaches believe they are being transparent whenever they are sharing something personal, regardless of whether it’s relatable or benefiting the client in any way. The client may not have a negative response to it at first. But trust me, they’re going to reflect back on the session later and get pissed that you made it about you.
So how do you know if you’re practicing healthy transparency?
It’s really simple. Just ask yourself if what you’re about to share will benefit the client and/or the relationship with the client.
If the answer is yes, then share. If the answer is no, don't.
Also, remember the client may not necessarily benefit from the content of your share, but the share may make you closer or cause them to trust you more. And that’s okay. That’s a good thing. You’re still making it about the client since building the relationship will help the client and their experience.
During the session, right before you’re about to share, quickly ask yourself: Will my client benefit from this share, or will it benefit our relationship?
If you believe, in your heart of hearts, that it will, then share away.
Sometimes you may share something personal with all the right intentions and believe it will help the client and/or the relationship, but not know if it actually does.
Unless you directly ask the client, there's no real way to be sure. And even then, they probably won’t be completely honest with you. Clients are usually honest when something has helped them but not so much when something didn’t because they don’t want to hurt your feelings.
So at the end of the day, you just have to be honest with yourself and trust you.
Again, are you sharing your story because you truly believe your client will benefit from it in some way? Or are you sharing to seek approval/validation or to brag or to vent?
I was in a session with a therapist once, telling her how my partner at the time wasn’t treating me well and the problems we were having. Right after my share, she responded to a text from her husband (which I thought was rude) then proceeded to go on and on about how great her husband was.
There was nothing in her share that helped me in any way. There was no point or examples. It was just her telling me how amazing her husband was, almost like she was trying to convince herself.
It seemed like me complaining about my partner made her think about hers, and she wanted to convince herself everything was good. I don’t know. But it’s the only thing I remember about our sessions, that one time when she bragged about how wonderful her husband was.
I never saw her again after that.
That’s a great example of how being transparent can repel instead of attract. Push away instead of bring in. Her transparency wasn’t healthy because she was making it about her. And maybe she didn’t even know it. She probably didn’t. But I wonder if she had thought about whether what she was about to say was actually for me, if she would have caught it and not shared.
At the end of the day, you have to decide for yourself if you’re practicing transparency... or if it’s TMI.
On the marketing and social media side of your coaching business, there really are no rules. But when you're in session as a coach, there are a set of ethics and guidelines that can help keep you on track.
The International Coaching Federation has developed a set of Core Competencies for life coaches, and they give us some clues about where the lines are in a coaching relationship. Here's a few examples of how those standards play out in real life:
- A Coaching Mindset acknowledges that our clients are responsible for their own choices. It's not our job to intervene or prevent them from making mistakes by sharing our own "lessons learned."
- When clients are indulging in their own personal sharing without a clear purpose, it's our job as coaches to help get them back on track. Ask: "How can I be of service to you?"
- Bring self awareness to the process. Consider: Are you sharing in order to serve other people, or to feed a personal need for validation or approval?
- Coaching is NOT about giving other people advice. When you feel an "answer" coming out of you in session, ask yourself: "What am I trying to accomplish with this story/share?"
Also, the key word in all of this is practice. Because it takes practice to know the difference. And if you share TMI unintentionally, that's okay. Mistakes happen. It’s all part of the learning process. This is how we evolve as coaches. What’s important is that you reflect on your sessions, make an effort to be aware, and recommit to making it about the client the next time.
No one’s perfect, including life coaches. Be easy with yourself. But honest with yourself too.
John Kim, Lumia Coaching co-founder
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