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Coaching Fundamentals Part Nine: Boundaries

Boundaries. One of the first words you hear in coach training, usually accompanied with an overlapping Venn diagram consisting of the practices of counselling, coaching and mentoring. Where does one stop and the other starts; how to avoid getting drawn into the client’s history (that’s counselling), or how never to give advice even if you know something the client doesn’t (that’s mentoring).

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It doesn’t take long, however, and clients start crying in front of you, or telling you about their sick child or cold and distant father, and that nicely chunkable goal that you’d been discussing just evaporates in a messy mist of emotions, stories and deeply held beliefs. And then what do you do? Try and bring them back to the objective you’d agreed you’d be working on, or follow them into their messy world? And what do you do then? What’s the guarantee that you won’t end up just being a shoulder to cry on, a foil for a whinge-fest, a silent ineffectual witness to their suffering? What happens then to objectives, goals and actions that you’d so carefully agreed?

What happens is that – with practice – you start discovering the secret doors in those Venn diagrams, the links and connections to different disciplines, and the boundaries suddenly start becoming porous, open to the exchange of energy and stories. What happens is that you gradually start trusting your hunches (see: Part Eight), and somehow know, almost imperceptibly, which boundaries are a two-way street, and which are brick walls. You start relaxing and being more fully present with the client, safe in the knowledge that both of you have all the resources you need to navigate whichever waters you end up in. You start accompanying them into their messy emotional mists, knowing that you alone have the skill and the knowledge to bring them out, and overlay – not cover, not conceal, not force – a level of practicality and rationality on to their emotions and memories.


What happens to boundaries then? And are there any boundaries in coaching worth keeping? For me, so far, the only boundary worth protecting with a barbed wire – or, failing that, at least a barbed comment – is the boundary of confidentiality. The boundary that says: no, I will not discuss my coaching clients and their issues with anybody, whether they be a partner, a friend or the client’s HR manager. I will not use the stories I hear to amuse or amaze, to impress or impart knowledge. I will not share this human story – or any of its elements – with anyone else. It is not my story, my life experience, my sense-making of the world. With any luck, I can be a midwife to the birth of a new story, new world-view, new decision, which is the client’s to share, to live and to grow further.

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