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Coaching and Mentoring, and Boundaries

2021-10-18 — Michael Haupt

When is it "OK" to not coach, in what is supposed to be a coaching session?

Many first-time coaching clients come to their first coaching session with the desire to "get your advice on this", "pick your brain about this", or "hear your opinion about this". This indicates a desire for mentoring rather than coaching: a coach will serve the client by being a catalyst for the client's thoughts, a mentor will share experience and give advice.

Since coaches are expected to stay in their role, one possible reaction to a client coming with a desire for mentoring can be to gently point them towards mentoring providers, or to help them find a mentor that suits them. It's also possible to convert the session into a mentoring session on the spot, if the coach is also capable of mentoring the client in their field of interest.

Both of these may be missed coaching opportunities. Given this is about first-time coaching clients who haven't had prior exposure to coaching.

What I usually do when a first-time client expresses a desire for mentoring is to clarify on the spot what the coaching/mentoring difference is, and that we could also have a mentoring session, "but rather not now, this is a coaching session". The client, being aware they haven't got any coaching experience, will usually agree to give it a try. In the overwhelming majority of cases, that works very well.

One approach that has led to very nice and sometimes surprising outcomes is to turn the "I need mentoring on X" situation into a coaching situation by shifting the focus from the client's immediate desire ("mentoring") to the situation ("X"). Diving deep on the "X" will typically reveal the client's real needs - the needs underlying the expressed desire. Once the perceived need for mentoring is replaced with the actual need coming from the situation, coaching gets into full swing.

There can also be cases where the ethical boundaries for coaching need to be invoked. When it turns out a client actually needs counselling or therapy, e.g., because their situation looks more like a full-on burnout, it's better to err on the safe side of not coaching on that topic. (I'm not a qualified therapist, so I must not attempt to do something about a burnout, lest I cause more harm than good.) When that happens, a coach can still point a client to the right places - often, companys' HR departments can establish contact with professional counsellors or therapists.

While this ensures the coach doesn't violate the necessary ethical boundaries, it can still give the client a feeling of being pushed away if the coaching session is cancelled on the spot. One thing I usually try in these (rare) cases is to ask the client if they had any practical topics (time management, for example) that somehow have to do with the burnout, but aren't the core topic. That way, the client can still get tangible value out of the session.

Tags: coaching, work