Creating Boundaries Within the Coaching Relationship

This article was updated in November 2020 to add resources that were not previously included.

Under normal circumstances, life coaches who have been proprly trained have a good working grasp of what boundaries in coaching look like. But even the most experienced practitioners encounter moments when it's difficult to know just where to draw the line.

In order to avoid sticky situations, it's useful to lay out some ground rules with clients up front. There's a reason that having coaching agreements in place is considered a best practice, and this is it!

Examples of Boundaries in Coaching:

  • Clearly articulated policies
  • Understanding the scope and limits of confidentiality
  • Practices to maintain emotional safety, objectivity, and non-judgement for your client
  • Sustainable business practices that honor your time and expertise

Why Do We Need to Set Coaching Boundaries?

As wellness practitioners, boundaries in the coaching relationship play an important role for our mental and emotional health. Without clearly defined limits, we can end up allowing too much of ourselves to become available to our clients.

Healthy boundaries are a crucial component of self-care. That’s because “in work or in our personal relationships, poor boundaries lead to resentment, anger, and burnout” (Nelson, 2016). - How to Set Healthy Boundaries, Psychology Today

It’s also important to set professional boundaries to help ensure that neither party is misunderstanding the other, or exploiting the relationship.

As Brene Brown reminds us: "Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind." Boundaries help to preserve the relationship with your client, so whenever they have a coaching session with you, you're always at your best, most present, most authentic self.

Tips for Creating Boundaries With Coaching Clients

Understand your limits

Before you enter into any coaching relationship, whether this is your first client or your 100th, it’s smart to have a clear awareness of your own capacity.

How much time can you offer to this client? What about your other obligations? How do you assure that you’re not stretching yourself too thin? What will you do if things get emotionally demanding? What exactly is “emotionally demanding” for you?

There are many important questions you should ask yourself when it comes to understanding your limits. Do a Q&A session with your own personal coach or a good friend if necessary to ensure you have a firm grasp on yours!

Have a coaching contract

A strong coaching agreement puts you and your client on the same page from the outset. In addition to outlining what you each can expect from the other, a good contract will also touch upon the frequency of sessions, desired outcomes, what happens if a session is missed, and other business policies.

Communicating mutual expectations and agreeing to them ahead of time is the first step in building safety and trust in your coaching relationships. Doing so is also an ICF core competency, and something we teach all our coaching students at JRNI.

Be responsible with time

As a coach, your time is your product. In that sense, it truly is your most valuable commodity. So use time wisely - both yours, as well as your client's. Start and end appointments on time. Have clear policies regarding late arrivals and no-shows.

If there’s no coaching session on the books but your client wants to get on the phone for “just a few minutes”, consider the implications of this moving foward. Quick questions between sessions may be fine for some coaches, but not for others. Think hard about how available you want/need to be. Whatever your chosen approach, be considerate... and also be firm.

Remember, too: coaching is not a theraputic relationship. If you have a client with a lot of "emergencies", it may be time to consider whether coaching is the right venue from them.

Communicate coaching boundaries effectively

Model respectful, direct communication for your clients. If something isn't working, don't sidestep in the hopes it will resolve on its own - address it!

Boundaries exist to help create safety and trust in our relationships. Communicating coching boundaries in a professional and kind manner demonstrates self respect, and is a valuable example of self-care for our clients.

Know when to be assertive

Out of a genuine desire to be of service to others, many life coaches can end up with tangled schedules. We let small boundary lapses slip under the radar, telling ourselves that it's a "one-time thing". But before you know it, you're missing family dinners and weekend activities in order to hold sessions at times that are more convenient for your clients than yourself.

Learning to be assertive regarding your own needs and limits is an essential skill that every life coach must develop. Lest you think that assertiveness will turn off clients, consider this:

Being assertive is a core communication skill. Assertiveness can help you express yourself effectively and stand up for your point of view, while also respecting the rights and beliefs of others. Being assertive can also help boost your self-esteem and earn others' respect. This can help with stress management, especially if you tend to take on too many responsibilities because you have a hard time saying no. - Mayo Clinic

Learn to say no

If you have problems saying no, you’re not alone. We’ve all found ourselves saying yes to requests we would actually prefer to decline.

For some of us, we may have been socialized to accomodate by putting our own preferences and needs behind those of other people. Or we may be reluctant to say no because of how it touches upon our own need for acceptance - If I say no, will they still like me?

It takes time and practice to get comfortable with the word no.

A relationship-building way to say no to a client is to couple it with a "yes". Here's a few examples:

  • I can't schedule you for Sunday night, but I can offer you an evening session on Tuesdays.
  • I don't receive texts from clients, but I do provide one email exchange between sessions if you'd like to check in.

Coaching is not therapy. Refer out.

As coaches, we work with individuals who are at baseline mental and emotional health. If a client comes to you grappling with untreated trauma, or is constantly rehashing the past, know when it's time to make a compassionate referral to a qualified therapist.

It's neither kind nor eithical to address wellness issues that are beyond the scope of what you've actually been trained to provide.

Some clients may choose to work with a coach and therapist at the same time, and if so that's great! The work is different, but need not be mutually exclusive.


curly-haired woman in eyeglasses sitting on a couch looking down on her phone

Why Do We Struggle With Boundaries?

We aim to please

The fear of being perceived as rigid, uncaring, or as "the bad guy" may well be the top reasons why so many people (including life coaches!) struggle with limits.

Why is that? In addition to social conditioning, it might also feel like setting boundaries is in conflict with our values. If you value helping others, setting a boundary around your availability can feel uncharacteristic and awkward at first.

The thing about boundaries is that setting them requires inner fortitude. But resolute isn't the same as mean - remember that.

We don't want to alienate clients

This is a common fear for newer coaches in particular. When you're just getting started, you're hungry. You want to book clients! It can be easy to get caught in the trap of believing that if you don't give the prospective client everything they're looking for, they'll disappear.

Here's how this fear often translates:

  • Giving away too many free sessions
  • Deeply discounting your rates, or charging less than what you need to survive
  • Not setting aside days off during the week

Boundaries in the coaching relationship aren’t there to alienate your clients! They exist to protect you, your well-being, and your long term business sustainability.

If part of the reason you became a coach was to have the freedom to set your own schedule, then do that! If part of the reason you became a coach is because you have valuable expertise and insight to share with others, please don't undervalue yourself.

We think it will consume too much energy

It's true - setting personal and professional limits will consume energy, especially if this is a muscle you are just starting to build. Here's why we do it anway: a slow leak of energy may go unnoticed for a long time, but often costs us far more in the end.

Make no mistake, not having clear professional boundaries as a coach WILL drain you dry.

The easiest way to avoid pitfalls, awkwardness, and uncomfortable conversations is to get clear about your boundaries before they get violated. Having it all spelled out in the coaching contract makes it much easier to refer your client back to your mutual commitments if there's a misstep. In this way, it may not feel so personal - it's just the terms of engagement.

Want to add more skills to your coaching toolkit?

Coaching is a rapidly growing field that is continuously evolving. Even for seasoned coaches, there’s always more to discover. If you’ve not already earned your ICF coaching certification, there’s no better time than now to get started!

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