The old New England expression that “good fences make good neighbors” applies to the world of professions as well as it does to rows of piled rocks in the old fields and forests of places like Vermont and Maine. The concept of professional boundaries seems to expand the more you look into it. In this and a following post we will look at role definition, ethics and scope of practice, boundary crossings and violations, self-disclosure, and other issues from the unique perspective of the health and wellness coach.
Since its inception just over twenty years ago the ICF (International Coaching Federation) has developed a Code of Ethics (http://coachfederation.org/about/ethics.aspx?ItemNumber=854) which it revises on a regular basis. The ICF also maintains an Ethics Community of Practice (http://coachfederation.org/members/landing.cfm?ItemNumber=2108) where you can bring ethics questions and learn from presentations.
Law & Ethics in Coaching: How To Solve And Avoid Difficult Problems In Your Practice (2006) by Patrick Williams and Sharon K. Anderson houses considerably valuable information from the chief authors and other contributors. (https://www.amazon.com/Law-Ethics-Coaching-Difficult-Problems/dp/0471716146)
With the development and growth of the field of health and wellness coaching, the question of ethics and scope of practice emerged with the realization that such coaches often face unique situations, sometimes interacting with the medical world, that require a fresh look. While the ICF Code of Ethics is to be embraced by all coaches, the need for something more became evident.
As an Executive Team member of The National Consortium for Credentialing Health and Wellness coaches (http://www.ncchwc.org) I was honored to chair a committee last summer of extraordinary coaches who are part of our NCCHWC Council of Advisors. Through our efforts “in August 2016, the NCCHWC created the
Code of Ethics and Health & Wellness Coach Scope of Practice to serve as a reference for health & wellness coaches and faculty. The NCCHWC expects all credentialed health and wellness coaches (coaches, coach faculty and mentors, and students) to adhere to the elements and Principles and ethical conduct: to be competent and integrate NCCHWC Health and Wellness Coach Competencies effectively in their work.” Please download the NCCHWC Code of Ethics and Health & Wellness Coach Scope of Practice here: NCCHWC Code of Ethics (http://www.ncchwc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Final-Code-of-Ethics-Oct-3.pdf) NCCHWC Health & Wellness Coach Scope of Practice (http://www.ncchwc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Final-NCCHWC-Health-Coach-Scope-of-Practice.pdf)
You can also find copies of both documents in the Wellness Resources section of the Real Balance website (https://www.realbalance.com/wellness-resources)
Codes of ethics such as these serve as the primary guides to help form professional boundaries that we can adhere to. In Section Three of the NCCHWC Code of Ethics we find most of the references to boundaries. The most obvious boundary here is #23 – to avoid any sexual or romantic relationship with current clients, sponsor(s), students, mentees or supervisees. But, we also see in other items in this section, that much of the issue of boundaries also refers to creating clear agreements with our clients about the nature of coaching, how it works, confidentiality, financial agreements, etc. The client-centered nature of coaching is emphasized along with complete transparency, spelling out the rights, roles and responsibilities for all involved.
The issue of boundaries is more directly addressed in item #22. Hold responsibility for being aware of and setting clear, appropriate and culturally sensitive boundaries that govern interactions, physical or otherwise, I may have with my clients or sponsor(s). Here we are looking at how we create a safe environment for our client where they feel respected, comfortable and safe. While most individuals are at least somewhat sensitive to this in most social interactions, the coach must be especially sensitive about it because of the trusting nature of the coaching relationship. While not on the same level as clinical relationships, coaching clients must feel free to express themselves at a trusting level. The health and wellness coaching client who is attempting to gain insight about how they hold themselves back from being successful at weight loss, for example, needs to feel that they can reveal information about relevant feelings and experiences without feeling vulnerable. This shows up mostly in two areas, the appropriateness of touch, and self-disclosure.
While not inherently wrong, behaviors such as giving/receiving a hug from/with a client after a triumphant moment in coaching, may be misconstrued in its intention. For one client it may, according to some authors, “engender healthier relationships”, while for another it may feel like a boundary crossing, which other authors would argue, might “pave the way to a boundary violation.” Coaches learn early on in their training to ask permission. Seeking permission first and respecting our client’s wishes can avoid such boundary crossings/violations. We avoid the pitfalls of assumptions and honor our client’s personal and cultural boundaries in this way.
Self-disclosure also has different boundaries in different cultures and with different individuals. We looked closely at this topic in a previous blog post “Self-Disclosure in Coaching – When Sharing Helps and Hinders” (http://wp.me/pUi2y-8m). We can remember from that post that coaches who do not self-disclose at all are not trusted, while those who disclose “too much” are thought to be incompetent. Our own self-disclosure, should never put undue pressure on our client to also self-disclose. Differences in culture, social class, family upbringing, etc. all can set very different boundaries around the issue of appropriate self-disclosure.
In our next post we’ll look further at the issues of healthy boundaries for health and wellness coaches and address some very specific questions.