When I hired my first coach, I wondered about the credentialing of coaches. Is it necessary they be associated with the International Coaching Federation? What about all those other certification programs? What are those, and are they any good? Considering that my background (engineering) is in a regulated industry, the unregulated coaching industry seemed like a minefield. Until then, the only experience I had was executive coaching from someone who had ICF credentials but hadn’t helped me much. It’s more about how you relate to the coach than the credentials.
I’ve been in the coaching industry for a while now, and there are some essential distinctions I want to make so that you can follow your intuition in choosing your coach. The lack of regulation makes for potential pitfalls because there is no established code of ethics. If someone hasn’t demonstrated their knowledge through examination, how do you know if they know what they’re doing?
Above all, whether a coach has an ACC, PCC, MCC, or has been trained through any of the numerous personal growth programs, you want to be sure they serve you. A credential may be nice, but it doesn’t mean they abide by the code of ethics.
Coaching vs. Therapy
Coaching is not therapy, and therapy is not coaching.
Coaching focuses on motivating and encouraging people to achieve a specific goal, whether uncovering your purpose or mapping out a career development path. Generally, coaching looks forward, and a coach doesn’t treat mental health. If a coach attempts to act as a therapist, it’s a red flag. We, coaches, do not have the depth and breadth of training to handle mental health considerations.
Therapy treats mental health, using psychotherapeutic techniques to treat mental illness and other issues. Typically, a therapist will have a degree in psychology or social work. All therapists are licensed, and the industry is regulated, adhering to a strict code of ethics. (I highly recommend the book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb to learn more)
Coaching and therapy can work hand in hand, as they complement each other. Healing in a therapeutic setting can help you overcome obstacles as you take action toward your goal. Most fears keeping us from taking action are rooted in the conditioning we’ve undergone in our families of origin, school, and generally moving through life up until this point.
In Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown writes, “Boundaries are a prerequisite for compassion and empathy. We can’t connect with someone unless we’re clear about where we end and they begin. If there’s no autonomy between people, then there’s no compassion or empathy, just enmeshment.”
Because the coaching industry doesn’t have a regulatory body that sets an ethical code, finding a coach who adheres to a code of ethics is essential. A few red flags indicate when a coach is overstepping their professional boundaries, and I’ve experienced most of them in my coaching journey. These include:
- Gaslighting (a.k.a. made me feel like I was in the wrong when the coach crossed boundaries).
- Being manipulated into choosing things that weren’t right for me because it meant I continued paying the coach for an extended period instead of finding another program.
- Being dismissed for questioning the coaching I received.
The cognitive dissonance (or mind f*ck, if you’re a bit salty like me) experienced when these situations occurred was real. When paying someone thousands of dollars to coach me, the imbalance of power was off, and it was easy to shelve what I observed not only in my own experience but heard from other people in the name of “the coach/authority figure must know better, and we’re not getting it.” (Hint, they don’t, and yes we do)
The moral of this story is: Make sure your coach holds professional boundaries. While boundaries don’t have to be as strict as in a therapy relationship, there still should be a give-and-take between people in the coaching relationship. For example, you pay the coach for their program; then they ask you for your professional expertise to help with an event. If they don’t pay you for your expertise, they take advantage of you.
How to Know if Your Coach is Ethical
Yes, we are all reflections of each other, and what we find triggering is often something about ourselves we don’t like. When you’re working with someone empathetic, it can be a source of healing and growth.
However, blaming and gaslighting are manipulative techniques used to get someone to pay more money, hire a coach for extended periods, and keep the other person in a place of diminished power.
The biggest mind f*ck comes when, through the course of spiritual awakening, which is messy and vulnerable, we hand our power over to a person thinking they can “fix” it.
A coach is a guide. A coach’s job is to ask questions and help you navigate what you hired them to do, whether working through the endless questions of awakening or figuring out a path forward in your career/business.
Coaching contracts are something else to consider. Ensure the contract gives you the power to end the coaching relationship if it isn’t working. A red flag in a contract is when you can’t get a refund or you’re obligated to pay the total amount even if you decide to stop working with them. One-sided contracts show you the coach is only interested in serving their interests, not yours.
And above all, if your intuition is screaming, “This isn’t right!” take time to examine it. Ask yourself some clarifying questions, and if you still feel like something’s off, have a conversation. An ethical coach will be open to a discussion; an unethical coach will attempt to turn your intuition into something wrong. Your intuition is always correct. When the niggling thought or feeling is constantly trying to get your attention, it’s essential to pay attention.
A coach should never blame, gaslight, or otherwise manipulate your experience. If they do, fire them.
It’s an important distinction. Ensure the coaches you hire are ethical and operate from a place of integrity.