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Confidentiality in Coaching

Hello everybody. In this edition of The Coaching Conversation, we are talking about confidentiality. Strict confidentiality between coaches and coachees is a reasonable expectation - but when it is paid for by an employer who has a vested interest in the progression of their employee where does the boundary lie and how can you ensure you keep private what you need to be kept private?



On the face of it, it seems perfectly sensible and straightforward that any coaching session would be strictly confidential between the coach and the coachee. I think that's a reasonable expectation, but in reality, there are a number of factors at play that make that not entirely accurate.

First of all, most coaching sessions are paid for by an employer, and whilst a coachee might be the owner or the leader of that business, they may well not be. They may well be being put through a development program (which is what the coaching program is) in order to accelerate their personal career progress, which means that the employer, the sponsor, has an investment, has a vested interest and believes therefore that they have an expectation to understand how things are going.

Equally, as a responsible coach, you are going to find things out in the course of a coaching program that may or may not put you in a different position. Vis-a-vis your relationship with what is effectively your client, the sponsor. And so, agreeing on the ground rules right at the outset of exactly what is confidential and what is not going to be confidential, both with the coachee and the sponsor is pretty crucial. Clarity, transparency, upfront, at the beginning. It will save an awful lot of embarrassment and difficulty later in the program.

Now for me, I say a number of things to the coachee. First of all, I say that what is said in a coaching session stays in a coaching session unless you tell me that you've committed a crime, unless you tell me that you're doing something to the detriment of the sponsor of the person who's paying for the coaching program, in which case are we morally legally obliged to share the information.

I also make it clear again, reasonably light-heartedly, but I want them to tell me anything and everything they feel is important to be shared in order for them to get the most out of the coaching program. But I'd rather, they didn't share things that were not relevant to the program or were in some way very personal and something which causes embarrassment during the course of the conversation.

Now that's the conversation with the coachee; the conversation with the sponsor, the employer that the client, the person paying the bill is similar, but very much along the lines of managing expectation. Which is for us to get the best out of this program. The coachee must feel entirely at liberty to let the conversations go wherever they need to go, and to do that, they must feel safe. They must feel that this conversation is in some way protected.

Therefore, I will share with you the things that I can, and that is relevant for you to know that progress is being made in the areas particularly that you're interested in and more generally in terms of the nature of the program. I book sessions for review typically at the halfway stage, and obviously, at the end of the program, I will take whatever time it takes to review progress for the coachee versus the objectives that the client has set, and if relevant the one the coachee has set themselves, but I try to avoid any kind of analysis, any kind of deep dive by the sponsor to understand what the machinations are, what might be the political detail of how the individual has gone about the task.

However, sometimes with the agreement of the coachee, I will talk to the sponsor and explain that they are changing that behaviour. They're going to be experimenting with new ideas and that they may see things they've not seen before in the way that the person goes about their business and that they should be alert to this and supportive of this as opposed to critical or challenging or in some way, negative towards what is a developmental stage for the individual. This is particularly true where there are relationships at stake or whether the client is attempting to develop their interpersonal skills, which use the kinds of quite a significant personal risk.

So, confidentiality is important and managing expectations is important from the outset and it's important because it's fundamental to enabling the coachee to actually make the progress that they want to make. Let me explain why that would be so important.

The only way somebody can open themselves up to learning is to admit fault. I'm not very good at this. I need to get better. I can learn about this. It will help me with these other things, but the starting point of that conversation is to admit to yourself and then out loud in the coaching session, that there are areas for improvement. By that very definition, they're exposing themselves to criticism. They're exposing themselves to political mayhem in certain kinds of cultures. But if they don't open up, if they don't say these things, then it's impossible to take the next step, which is to make improvements. It's impossible to understand where they are on the spectrum of development in that particular subject.

So, for example, if it's a sales executive and he or she is unable to work out things like margins or markups or profitability in deals, that could be career suicide if it became public knowledge. But within the context of the coaching program, the coach can help them work their way through this new learning and become totally happy with it.

And so that's an example of where confidentiality is crucial. If the sponsor was aware of that at quite a low level of detail, they might lose a whole heap of confidence in that person's ability. So, confidentiality is the protection that enables learning to take place.

It also enables mistakes to be made - Just because you've admitted to something and you said ‘I need to get better at it’, that's not a guarantee that that's what's going to happen. And therefore, it's very important that the coachee gets the space to practice, gets the space to make mistakes, gets the space, to revisit the learning again, space in a safe place.

Coaches are not critics in the context of finger-pointing and blaming. They are supportive parts of the process. And so, a coach needs the space to do that too. If there’s a blind need to report back to the sponsor with what's going on, on what's going right and what's going wrong, then they can't do that in confidence.

The subject to confidentiality really isn't as simple and straightforward as it might seem. And to revisit the beginning of the conversation, working out what you as the coach believe is acceptable by way of confidentiality and agreeing on those terms of reference with the coachee and with the sponsor right at the beginning, before anything really happens is pretty well the cornerstone to perform as a coach, to allow that coaching program, to perform in any way.

It happens, not all the time, but it happens fairly often that sponsors are really infused by the way that the program is working with that coachee. And therefore, trying to understand from their own point of view, how it's working, how it's going and encourages them to poke their nose in. And so, as a coach, you do have to develop subtle, careful ways of maintaining that distance and the relationship with the sponsor, because it's not about saying ‘I can't tell you. I'm sorry. That's none of your business. It's not like that’. That's not the relationship.

There is a triangular relationship here. There is the sponsor and he or she will talk directly to the coachee, whether you like it or not, and they'll want to talk to you and I want to hear very consistent, similar messages to have confidence in the program.

So, if you find a sponsor is becoming overly inquisitive, despite what the rules were that you agreed at the beginning, you’ve got to develop as the coach, an ability to handle that. It’s about being sensitive. It's not about just putting a barrier up of respect.

When you're dealing with a team dynamic, if you're coaching a team of people, then there is interconnectivity between people which gets exposed in team coaching. That's really what you're trying to develop more than anything else; you're trying to build the coordination and the effectiveness of the way people work together.

And so, when there is a team dynamic and the sponsor is keen to find out exactly how individual members are within that, that can make this a very, very tricky conscience. It's very important that you understand how far you can go and give them reassurance as to how far you can go in getting their support to help you with challenges, but you can't break the fundamental rules of confidentiality without endangering the program and your relationship with the coach.


So, there you have it, the latest edition of The Coaching Conversation. I hope you found it interesting. I hope you found it useful. You can find out more about our coaching programmes at

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