12 Ways To Avoid Collusion In The Coaching Relationship

Self-awareness may be the best antidote to collusion.

Whenever I’m training wellness coaches and use the term “collusion” a definition is required. The term can have a variety of meanings and a search done on “coaching and collusion” will yield an array of articles that seem to add to the confusion. While murder mysteries love to portray collusion as two of the bad guys conspiring to evil ends, the collusion we’re talking about in coaching is more subconscious, more unintended, than conscious or deliberate.

Collusion occurs when a coach somehow merges with their client’s view of themselves and the world instead of helping their client explore it. Let’s examine what appearance collusion takes on, what results from it, what can be motivating it in the coach, and most importantly, how to avoid it.

Appearance: What Collusion Looks Like

While coaching is a client-centered process the colluding coach may allow the client to meander rather than explore. The client’s wanderings may not be productive or hold much focus, but the coach gives them totally free reign and never challenges or helps with focus. The coach is going far beyond a client-centered approach. This lack of challenging may be on more specific issues. There is a reluctance to give honest feedback, a lack of what we call in coaching “truth telling”.

There may be a “softening of accountability” regarding coaching commitments. “Oh, that’s okay. I know it’s hard to keep track of all of this.” At it’s worst, the colluding coach’s unique perspective meshes with the client’s and a valuable coaching tool is lost. The client no longer benefits from the point of view of someone other than themselves. The coach buys the client’s story about themselves and fails to help the client discover how they no longer need to be a prisoner of that story. Coaching is no longer about possibility thinking.

Live out of your imagination, not your history.
Stephen Covey

Results Of Collusion

When a coach colludes with their client the biggest result is a lack of progress by that client. They are stuck and the coach’s interaction with them is aiding the stuckness instead of spurring “forward momentum”. The coach and client go round and round in a combination of story telling, commiserating and endless attempts to “fix the problem”.

The hopeful and growing part of that client, who would have appreciated being challenged more, gets discouraged and usually drops out of coaching. In wellness coaching, the lifestyle behavior doesn’t change and the health consequences mount.

Motivation For Collusion

So how does a coach slip into collusion with their client? There are a number of motivations that can play into a coach’s own self-deception. (See my previous post on this: “Self-deception and Living Well” https://realbalancewellness.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=396&action=edit)

Collusion happens outside the coach’s awareness. Often it is motivated by a desire to “protect” the client. There is a confusion between empathy and sympathy. The coach feels sorry for the client and their plight and may extend great caring and kindness, but also wants to shelter their client from how tough life can be. A client capable of so much more, but doubting themselves, proposes taking an action step that is far below their capacity and the coach accepts it without question or challenge. A client begins to become emotional talking about their body image and the coach “rescues” them by talking about how most people their age and sex have issues with body image. The client is whisked away from processing their feelings and encouraged to get intellectual about the subject of their emotion.

“We collude with a client’s illness, not their wellness.”
Michael Arloski

Be empathic, but don't "rescue".

Collusion can also occur when the coach over-identifies with their client and their experience. This is the classic error in the human-helping professions of failing to get your self out of the way! The middle-aged male coach with the mid-riff bulge is quick to discount the importance of their client’s desire to loose their belly fat. The single-mom coach is quick to agree with their client that their parenting stresses make self-care almost impossible. The coach may become quite tolerant of their client’s resistance to change because they resist similar changes in their own life.

Even more serious collusion may occur when the coach shares a wound similar to their client and it has become a “blindspot”. The coach may have not done their own emotional healing work in this area and blindly colludes with any client who has experienced something similar to them.

How To Avoid Collusion

Like the definition of self-deception, sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know! In our Wellness Mapping 360°™ Wellness Coaching Methodology (www.realbalance.com) , “Ongoing Evaluation” is a key component. We encourage the coach to work with their client to be evaluating how coaching is going throughout the course of coaching, not just at the end. Have coaching conversations with your client about the coaching’s effectiveness as well as the client’s progress. Get and give feedback.

Here are some quick tips for how to increase coaching awareness and avoid collusion.

1. Listen to your gut. If it doesn’t “feel” right it probably isn’t.
2. Supervision. Engage it this at least occasionally.
3. Work on your own stuff! Gather your courage and face your own demons through counseling or whatever works for you.
4. Self-examination. Listen to recordings of your sessions.
5. Look carefully at client progress/stuckness.
6. Stick to the coaching process. Stay professional, remain a coach.
7. Be aware of clear professional boundaries.
8. Don’t be afraid to challenge your client. Examine your own reluctance to do this.
9. Be very clear about the distinction between sympathy and empathy.
10. Look for patterns in your coaching process with this particular client. Collusive behavior repeats.
11. Have clear agreements, not expectations. Your client is not here to live up to your expectations.
12. Be real. Be authentic, genuine, true to yourself.

Please feel free to comment and add your thoughts to this very important topic.

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About Michael Arloski

CEO and Founder of Real Balance Global Wellness Services, Inc. (www.realbalance.com). Real Balance has trained thousands of wellness coaches worldwide. Dr. Arloski is a board member of The National Wellness Institute, and a founding member of the executive team of The National Consortium For Credentialing Health and Wellness Coaches. He is author of the leading book in the field of wellness coaching: Wellness Coaching For Lasting Lifestyle Change, 2nd Ed.
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