Many years ago when I was a new coach I learned a valuable lesson about my own capacity for trusting and respecting my clients.
A man in his late twenties came to me for coaching, and during our initial exploratory conversations he told me he did not have the money to pay my full rate. He explained his financial situation, shared openly about his income and expenses, and went on to propose a rate that was approximately 30% below my fee. He very much wanted to work with me, and I with him, and so after some thought I accepted his offer.
It was during our fourth session when he told me he had a confession to make. Something was weighing on his conscience, and before we went further with our work he wanted to share it with me. He then said that when he had asked for a reduction in my fees, he had misled me as to the reason he wanted the discount. Even though his income and expenses were as he described them, he did have the funds to pay my full fee. The real reason he had kept this from me was because he wanted to use the money he would save to spend on prostitutes.
Now we all know that the ethics of professional coaching require coaches to maintain, as ICF’s core competencies phrases it, “ongoing mutual respect and trust.” The Worldwide Association of Business Coaches coaching standards state it as our ability to “treat people fairly and with respect and dignity.”
When my client laid this revelation on me, did I do that? Well, yes and no. On the surface level, yes, I can honestly say I responded as a professional coach: I upheld the dignity and personhood of my client in the face of what may have been an embarrassing or shame-inducing revelation. I listened openly, while acknowledging him for having the courage to reveal this truth. It would not have been an easy decision for him, and if he had never shared it I would have been none the wiser. I also believe that he chose to share it because of the level of trust he had in me as his coach, that I would not fall into judgment, disrespect, or recrimination. And I didn’t.
So on the surface, and in my ongoing engagement with him, I remained a highly respectful, professional coach. He gained enormously from the process, as the entire situation shed light on a number of personal issues that were now open for exploration. But on a deeper level, in the weeks following the revelatory session, I could sense something was amiss within me. I was not fully at peace with what had happened. On more than one occasion I noticed myself questioning my client’s integrity and choices in a more negative light.
When I sat with it, some interesting insights came up. I noticed what was bothering me had nothing to do with his choice to spend money on prostitutes. Since he was just coming off a divorce, his newfound sexual freedom was one of the areas he had identified for exploration in our coaching, and his behavior was aligned to that.
No, what bothered me was simply the fact that he chose to mislead me at all.
In the back of my mind the thought that he had knowingly deceived me was festering away, and I could sense it eating away at the fabric of trust. Usually coaches think trust is about our client’s level of trust in us and in the coaching process.
But what happens when the coach’s level of trust in the client diminishes? What happens when the coach starts questioning his or her client’s integrity?
Very subtly, the door opens for disrespect and invalidation to arise.
I’ll be honest with you, to this day I believe that even though I did my utmost to maintain a highly professional relationship with my client, at some level my client sensed what was going on within me. There is nothing I can put my finger on to say, yes this is how I know. I just know it. Our relationship was never quite the same after that day.
We are all connected in ways that we cannot comprehend. When we question our client’s integrity, choices, or behavior at any level of mind, no matter how well we attempt to mask that with a professional demeanor and attitude, it will affect the coaching space, and it will limit what is possible within that relationship.
I’m not here to provide answers on how to transcend this. Rather I want to encourage you to be truly honest with yourself as to what you think, feel, and believe about your clients and their choices in the deeper recesses of your mind. It’s absolutely worth noticing what’s there, so you can do the inner work to clear it out.
The more you are free of this stuff, the more your coaching relationships will blossom into the fullness of their potential.
And what a potential that is!