Prior to a coaching engagement, no amount of conversation about personal boundaries can prepare us for the moments when they’re unexpectedly pushed. However, we can be ready to seize on the learning opportunities that they present to us. The question is how do we ensure this happens in the moment, with the best possible outcomes?
For coaching contracts, I define “personal boundaries” as rules or limits in the coaching relationship and conversation that the coach and client co-create, including guidelines on how they will respond when one or both parties passes those limits. Let’s look at two examples.
COACHING CONVERSATION 1 – WHEN THE CLIENT UNEXPECTEDLY BREACHES A BOUNDARY
My client arrives at the session without her usual positive energy. I ask how she is feeling in the moment and her response catches me by surprise: “I imagine your wife or girlfriend may be very tired of you and your questions.” I use my silence to remain present for her, while feeling a stinging sensation surge in my chest.
I decide to withhold my emotional reaction and hold the space for her. After a pause, I say that her comment appears to be coming from a difficult space. She replies that she is upset about what is happening at work. With the coaching agreement in mind, we explore options on how to respond to work-related stress and how they may impact her communication with colleagues. This session turns into one of the most powerful ones she has ever had.
THE 7-STEP PROCESS
In any coaching conversation, having a process ready for how to mindfully respond to unexpected boundary breaches can help us seize the learning opportunities in the moment.
1. MINDFULLY PAUSE.
Use several moments of silence to hold the space, for both yourself as coach and for the client, thereby asserting your coaching presence while taking in what has happened. Silence heightens awareness of our thoughts and feelings in the moment.
2. VERBALLY ACKNOWLEDGE WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE MOMENT.
Follow up with questions to allow both the coach and the client to verbally respond. Possible questions: “What is happening with you right now? What thoughts and feelings are arising for you? What are they telling you?”
3. OFFER OBSERVATIONS AND INVITE THE CLIENT TO RESPOND.
Get permission from the client to share what you observe to be happening. For example: “I feel your comment about my wife or girlfriend being tired my of questions may be coming from a difficult space. How does that resonate with you?”
4. CLARIFY LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES.
After acknowledging the situation, capitalize on the awareness-building potential and clarify what we can learn from this experience. Possible questions: “What are you taking away from this? How can you make this a learning opportunity? What does this mean for you?”
5. IDENTIFY THE BOUNDARY AND CO-CREATE NEW NORMS.
Invite the client to clarify how they would move forward with the coaching. Possible questions: “How do you describe the boundary? How would you like to deal with this boundary moving forward? What relationship would you like to have with this boundary?”
6. CO-DESIGN NEW ACTIONS AND MEASURES OF ACCOUNTABILITY.
Revisit the original coaching agreement and invite the client to apply the experience to their overall learning goals. Possible questions: “Based on the awareness raised, what actions do you want to take? How would you like to apply today’s learning to your work situation? How will you hold yourself accountable?”
7. INVITE CLIENT TO ENGAGE IN SELF-REFLECTION.
What have you learned about yourself in this conversation? How do you want to remember this experience? How will it help you moving forward?
COACHING CONVERSATION 2 – WHEN THE COACH UNEXPECTEDLY BREACHES A BOUNDARY
My client describes a difficult relationship with a colleague at work and her desire to clarify boundaries. I ask what that would look like for her and the challenges that may arise. Visibly stressed, she says she does not know how to answer my questions. I ask again in another way. She replies that she does not know and asks me for advice.
I offer to make an observation, and she accepts. I say that I feel that she is avoiding my questions and that we are approaching emotionally difficult territory. She acknowledges that my questions are evoking uncomfortable feelings. I ask what she is learning from them and how she would like to respond. After a long pause, she begins to approach the previously uncomfortable questions with curiosity.
Whether there is a personal boundary breach or not, there is an opportunity to transform a difficult coaching conversation into a powerful learning experience.
The seven-step process is applicable to this kind of coaching conversation, too.
Even though my questions are respectful and appropriate, there is a moment of emotional discomfort, an awareness that we have entered into a conversation that has become very personal and emotionally challenging for the client. We must respond with compassion.
© 2020, Andrew Shaffer