5 Steps to Setting Boundaries with Coaching Clients

July 05, 2022 by Amanda Reill

Whether you’re just getting started as a coach or you’ve been at this for a long time, you may occasionally find yourself in situations with your clients that you just aren’t sure how to handle. Some of these situations are surprises you simply couldn’t have planned for. But others can be a result of weak or unclear boundaries.

What are boundaries? 

Simply stated, boundaries are a set of expectations between the coach and the client. They lay out the respective responsibilities of coach and client to minimize confusion and unmet expectations. These boundaries are best set down in writing at the beginning of the coaching relationship. Putting these boundaries down in writing better helps memory retention, thus creating a firm line in both the coach and the client’s mind, but also allows those boundaries to become a contract. This contract, once signed by both parties, serves as a legal, moral, and mental record. When things get hazy, or hard, it’s good to have a written agreement to fall back on when needed.

5 Steps to Setting Boundaries with Coaching Clients

Boundaries are a tough thing for some people to establish and maintain, coaches included. And whether or not you’ve ever thought about this or tried to put boundaries into place, it’s never too late to set both personal and professional boundaries with your clients that you may never have considered. Boundaries are essential to a successful coaching business to maintain a professional, but helpful relationship, without overstepping or potentially causing trauma.

Here are 5 steps to setting boundaries with coaching clients that will free both you and your clients up for personal and professional success.

  • Know your limits. People have natural tendencies toward friendship, and that’s a great thing, but it’s important to be aware of what a healthy friendship looks like between a coach and client. It’s not that you can’t coach friends or become friends with clients, but you should still establish personal boundaries protecting the professionalism of the relationship in the context of your coaching sessions. You may also have limits in the area of personal trauma and triggers. Though it’s useful to “get curious” with yourself when you feel these issues come up in a coaching session, and maybe even discuss with another coach or therapist, it’s also okay to acknowledge that there may be clients that aren’t a good match for you emotionally. This doesn’t indicate any sort of weakness on your part — we’re all on different journeys and we all have different strengths.
  • Choose your clients wisely. The more established your coaching practice becomes, the more you can be discerning about who your clients are. Not everyone will be a good fit. If you feel like a client is:
      Taking advantage of your time/habitually lateNot serious about pursuit of their goalsWould benefit more from therapy than coaching at this timeHolds perspectives that present ethical conflictsDoesn’t treat you respectfully

…it’s okay to decide not to coach them anymore, or not even take them on as a client in the first place. Not all clients are going to be a good fit. Turning one client away frees more time for you to pursue and work with your ideal coaching clients. This boundary enables you to show up for your work with as much enthusiasm and passion as day one, without feeling the dread of a client that doesn’t fit your own personal and business needs or boundaries.

  • Commit to your hours. Sometimes coaches who have a big heart for helping people fall into the trap of feeling like they need to be available to their clients at all hours of the day and night. This is a habit that can creep in slowly and burnout happens before you realize it. Your commitment to your clients is a beautiful thing, but it can’t be at the expense of your own needs for rest and work/life balance. Remember, you’re also setting an example to them (good or bad!) as they seek to create boundaries in their own lives.
  • Discuss session expectations. If both you and your client are not clear on what is expected during your coaching sessions, it will be hard to measure your client’s progress. Set deadlines, for both communication requests and assignments to be completed. At CTEDU, we recommend using a format that clarifies the client’s desired session topic — and how success will be measured — within the first ten minutes of your session. This will help keep both you and your client on track and help them to see the progress they’ve made.
  • Write them down. Most of us can relate to thinking we clearly communicated something with someone only to find out that their interpretation of our words was completely different. Getting something in writing that both people can see and agree to minimizes this risk.

How to communicate your boundaries

The best way to communicate about boundaries is on the front end — before you feel that lines have already been crossed. But it’s not possible to anticipate every single situation. So what can you do when you feel like you’ve entered into a sticky situation that you need to backpedal out of? These conversations can be daunting. 

Consider taking a perspective of gratitude in these situations. Think in advance about what you will learn and how strong you will feel after the difficult situation is over. Remind yourself that you’ll be a better coach for having to face uncomfortable situations and you’ll better serve your remaining clients even if you lose some.

Finding the right words can pose a challenge, but it’s best to be honest. You can let the client know that you don’t feel that the coach/client relationship is benefitting one or both of you, and that they may be better served by another coach, a therapist, or something else. It’s great to have a network of coaches (and therapists) that you’re ready to refer the person to.

Setting boundaries can sometimes feel like you are shutting people out or not making yourself available for people as much as you’d like. In fact, the opposite is true. If you set up healthy coach-client relationships from the start, it will actually reduce stress and miscommunication, freeing up your time to more effectively do what you love to do: coach.

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