You may think that a coach should have and set limited or very flexible boundaries with clients. The answer is yes and no. This is true if you are a life coach or other type of coach who invites their clients to feel deeply and express honestly within the coaching container. We do not want our coaching clients to feel like they cannot be heard or understood. We do want our clients to feel safe to express to us. We recognize and understand that may clients come to us lacking the skills and tools necessary to express, to feel heard, and to feel understood without attempting to encroach another person’s boundaries.
We are taught that true love has to do with surrendering your own boundaries for another person as an expression of commitment and loyalty. If you love me, you will be completely selfless and put me first. We as health coaches start out accepting this role to an extent. We play the part of selfless lover while we build rapport and teach skills like self-assurance, resilience, and internal validation to our clients. This is a lot of work up front and we should know that the relationship boundaries will need to change and tighten up as the client begins to learn and practice skills of self-soothing and internal validation.
If we as coaches do not have secure and explicit boundaries set for ourselves that are in alignment with that process, we may wind up feeling burned out, frustrated, and downright annoyed. Those feelings are based on the relationship we have with ourselves but can bleed into the coach-client relationship and wreak havoc. Here are just a few boundaries to set (with yourself of course) that will make your coaching career and your life much easier to manage.
Time is the most obvious and often the most important boundary you can begin to set. This is one example of a boundary that you can and should actually communicate to your client. For many coaches, time is money. You set a value on your time and you should also set an expectation to respect that. This has to do with valuing your offering, respecting yourself enough to stay in alignment with that offering, and also being efficient in the offering you have with your clients. If a client is paying for an hour, you should provide an epic hour of services, not more or less.
It is a great idea to set a time boundary up-front at the beginning of a coaching conversation as a part of your Motivational Interviewing skill fidelity. This particular skill is called Road Mapping and it involves laying out the time commitment and what to expect in the conversation. It can sound like this “ We have an hour to talk today. Within this hour, our goal is to get to xx, xx, and xx. We will end with xx and then make sure you are scheduled for your next conversation”. Now the stage is set, so if you choose to do time check-ins later in the conversation it will feel authentic and not forced. “We are about halfway through our hour, let’s move on to the next xx.”
Motivational Interviewing is a pillar of the Behavior Change Coach Certification Curriculum hosted on the SSOHealth website that teaches how to road map along with many other techniques and skills that help you facilitate change within your clients. Road-mapping and staying true to a free offering like an initial 15-minute free call can be the most challenging time boundary to establish. Check out the blog that outlines a sample workflow for staying on task with a free 15-minute call here. In that blog, you can download a sample script so that you can practice Road Mapping and other MI skills in this context.
Safe and acceptable topics are other areas where I can see an appropriate coach-client boundary. There is no such thing as an over-share or an unsafe topic for most health coaches to listen to from their clients, but you will have to decide on what is appropriate and comfortable for your specific practice. It might be beneficial to make a list of topics that you do not feel comfortable approaching and then to create an action plan for when these topics do come up. When you stick to your action plan instead of discussing this topic, you are successfully upholding your boundary with your client.
There is no need to tell your client up-front that you have these boundaries in place unless it makes explicit sense. One example of when you might want to communicate this is if you have a legal scope of practice limitation. As an exercise physiologist, when I coach my clients I do tell them that back pain with these specific symptoms is out of my scope. They should not call me for that, they should call their doctor or go to the ER.
If you can think of a topic boundary that is explicit for safety or legal reasons, those can be communicated. Otherwise, setting topic boundaries can be very useful; like committing to redirecting a client back to their own feelings when they begin to focus on the faults of someone else. This boundary may be something along the lines of “I will be discerning when a client talks about another person’s experience and I will redirect any time a client thinks they know what another person is thinking, feeling, or acting from.”
Another example of a topic boundary is committing to sticking to the actual program topics that are important to the growth and development of your client. While things change and there are good reasons to be flexible and dig into issues that present in real-time, don’t abandon the thoughtfully developed programs that you offer. Your client chose you to work within part because of the program offering you have. Keep that offering in mind when setting boundaries. It is easy for clients to get derailed and want to go down a rabbit hole on a different topic, it might be useful for you to have a game plan for when that happens.
Great breakthroughs do not need to be highly emotional, but sometimes they are. Great coaches should be ready for and accepting of both. This is a term and practice we call holding space. Feeling safe to express any and all emotions while in a coaching conversation is a really great gift to give your clients. I had to do a lot of work around the righting reflex (another Motivational Interviewing skill I cover in the Behavior Change Coach Certification Course) in my own coaching practice to be able to tolerate highly uncomfortable emotions while holding space. We want to help and fix, but often it is best to just listen without judgment.
I write a lot about this in my blog content so you will see this theme everywhere. Holding space or not, It is still a good idea to set a boundary with yourself on what you are comfortable with and what you will need a strategy on. For example, if a person begins to communicate suicidal ideation to you, are you comfortable speaking on this? If not, what will you do to ensure your boundary is not encroached upon while also supporting your client? This may be a topic boundary as well as an emotional boundary.
A great boundary I have set within my coaching practice is to resist the urge to request more information. Coaches can get intrigued and pulled into the drama of someone’s story. It is natural, but not always helpful. Some of the best coaches I have had never asked me about the details of my trauma situations. Some of the worst coaches and therapists I have had asked me to explicitly dig into the details of the traumas and it resulted in being stuck in the old emotion instead of gaining that higher perspective of how to heal. It is not about the details of what hurt us.
Yes, there is something incredibly healing about being witnessed and truly known. That kind of cathartic confession of pain is beautiful and necessary, but it only helps initially once or twice. When that is out of the way, it usually does not need to happen again and can prevent clients from getting out of their emotionally charged thought patterns. What is more important is how we are dealing with these details.
When the urge to request more information arises, instead, ask about their experience of the details. What did you learn from this? How do you want to feel? How do you want to act? What is preventing you from feeling and acting in this way? Help them move toward solution-building. What are some things you can do to move toward alignment with what you want your life to feel like and be like, even in the context of this trauma? This is not meant to bypass hard things, it is meant to be used in times where clients get stuck in hard things and need help seeing a path through it.
We as coaches do not need to know the details to help someone find their higher perspective. That is both freeing and relieving for me, I hope you feel the same way too. If a client is committed to telling you details, see if you can return to the space holder role. If you suspect that the sharing of details is derailing them into their trauma, an acceptable boundary for you to hold with yourself is the commitment to redirecting them to the pursuit of a higher perspective. You will have to use your set boundaries and your expertise to navigate this, but I hope you have a more clear understanding of how to do that after reading this blog.
These are hard things to do, and again, congratulations on doing the work and showing up for yourself. We get better at these skills by practicing in a safe container. If you are in need of a safe container to practice relational skills, consider my 1:1 Coaching Package to get started on being more authentic and creating safety in your intimate relationships.