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Confidentiality: The Foundation of the Coaching Process

Written by on August 26, 2015

Confidentiality is at the core of every successful coaching relationship.

In my experience, when clients understand they are in safe space, and can speak freely without reprisal or judgment, a door opens for positive change and growth. Confidentiality isn’t just a tacit promise to my client; it’s an explicit part of the coaching engagement.

“The Strictest Levels of Confidentiality”

In maintaining this professional standard, the International Coaching Federation has very clear and rigorous guidelines. Certified coaches agree to adhere to this code of ethics, which, in part, reads: “I will maintain the strictest levels of confidentiality with all client and sponsor information.”

For the most part, people understand – and expect – that coaching is a confidential platform. For the most effective process however, it is critical for the terms of confidentiality to be broached immediately with clients and with their “sponsors” (e.g. the client’s leader, boss, CEO, owner, etc.) as a first step in the engagement, so everyone involved has clarity right from the start. To ensure this, I provide my clients with an introductory package, and within this, confidentiality terms are spelled out clearly so they have a point of reference – and, perhaps, some extra reassurance that whatever we work on together is completely private. The client is the only person who can discuss the coaching conversations, and only if they choose to do so.

Sharing Feedback While Respecting Confidentiality

At certain points, many companies want to know what is taking place within their employees’ coaching sessions. This is only natural – the sponsor pays for the work, and provides the time and resources for it. While they do not have a right to the details of the conversations, they certainly have a vested interest in the outcomes.

As I work with the client to determine their goals, I encourage them to think about how their sponsor can be of assistance in this confidential process, and to schedule a preliminary conversation with their sponsor for feedback.

The purpose is not to talk about what’s been shared in coaching conversations, but to gather input from the sponsor. Do they have suggestions around potential objectives? What are the strengths and growth opportunities they see in the client? If coaching is successful, what will the organization be able to notice?

This conversation gives the client insight into what their leader might be looking for them to achieve, and what the organization values. That doesn’t mean it has to become the sole focus of coaching, but it does help provide a broader perspective for the client, and can help shape what they choose to work on.

This preliminary feedback conversation is also only one of a multiple meetings I encourage between clients and sponsors, to ensure that they continue to check in throughout the coaching process, and keep lines of communication open.

Clients Own Their Growth

Respecting confidentiality, while discussing goals and sharing feedback with sponsors, can be a new experience. To help clients feel at ease and set boundaries for dialogue with sponsors, I advocate the following:

  • Get to know the client and understand their goals. Before talking with their sponsor, the client and I discuss which of their objectives they are open to sharing with their sponsor. They may not wish to share all of them. Preparing beforehand allows the client to establish their own boundaries and feel more comfortable.

  • Ensure the client knows that they own the agenda—not the sponsor, and not the coach. Clients take responsibility for their growth by arranging the meetings, setting the agenda, and deciding which high-level objectives they’re going to share. Knowing that they’re in control helps them to get the most out of these conversations.

  • Frame it as a gathering-in process. The most critical part of this meeting is the client gathering feedback and input from their sponsor. However, there are also a number of questions and concerns that can arise during this process, including: Am I on the same page as my leader? What if they’re looking for something that is not one of my objectives? These questions might be uncomfortable, but are imperative to address in order to make the most of the coaching process. They can help the client to better understand the perspective of their leader, and determine their own coaching plan.

Added Value

Check-ins with sponsors are intended to provide useful input for the client, while still ensuring confidentiality. An often unexpected benefit of these conversations is that it also encourages the sponsor to think about changes the client is working on. How will they notice progress? How will they know the client has changed? By what metrics can they track growth? It helps the sponsor’s awareness of the process and open up a more continuous feedback conversation. It can also lead to the sponsor becoming an internal resource for the client, reinforcing and supporting learning throughout and long after the coaching process.

As simple as it sounds, explicit guidelines for confidentiality, with a process for inclusion of sponsor’s feedback and support creates an invaluable combination for success.