Meeting a therapeutic boundary within coaching


“Be careful of what you unpack in case you cannot hold this.”


In this post I am going to discuss situations that coaches can find challenging — ‘boundary’ points where it is perhaps unclear whether coaching or therapy is the best approach for a coaching client. However, I would like to emphasise to any new coaches that these situations do not frequently arise, and the boundary you are going to meet more frequently and need to manage is the boundary between coaching and mentoring.

Over the last 30 years, the focus of executive coaching has deepened from an orientation on performance to include a more developmental and existential focus, as coaches and coach training have been heavily influenced from a variety of psychological modalities. 

In view of this continued evolution, we believe it is vital that coaches can recognise and hold the boundaries for a coaching programme compared with therapy. As per the Global Code of Ethics from the EMCC Global:

Members will have the qualifications, skills and experience appropriate to meet the needs of the client and will operate within the limits of their competence. Members should refer the client to a more experienced or suitably qualified practicing member where appropriate.

EMCC Global

Many therapists have also moved into the coaching profession, so it is important that we all continue to educate our clients so they understand the differences, as the reality is that coaching is often more acceptable than therapy.

A helpful steer is to consider the spectrum between developing mental wellbeing (coaching) and supporting mental-ill health (therapy).

At one level, there is a simplicity when the coachee shares a significant event such as being in the midst of a divorce or their experience of grief from the loss of a loved one. At a deeper level, there is of course complexity, for instance, in our current work: it is normal for coachees to present feelings of anxiety in the midst of a global pandemic and the resultant pressures of this at work and home. Yet are you sure that you would notice the signs if this topic was pointing towards an underlying mental health condition?

For example, you might encounter a client that is feeling anxious about an upcoming presentation to their Board that needs to be successful, which of course is in the domain of coaching. However, as your coaching session and exploration deepens, it might become apparent that the coachee has experienced anxiety throughout their life and cannot recall a time when they were not anxious.

In view of this complexity, each case needs to be considered separately and often with the support of a Professional Coach Supervisor.

There are some key ‘red flags’ to watch out for:

  • A significant event or past event that is impacting your coachee’s functioning now.
  • A significant life event that is happening to them and is not work related.
  • The coachee’s level of functioning at work and within their daily life.
  • The coachee’s ability to regulate their emotional response during the coaching session.
  • The perceived risk to the coachee and therefore the depth of support required (remember therapeutic relationships are designed to hold and contain the client in a different manner to coaching, eg. meeting on a weekly basis).

When you meet a therapeutic boundary within the coaching relationship, in coach training, we often encourage our participants to “trust your gut,” as you will know when the conversation starts to move outside of the territory of coaching.

This leads us back to the quote that we started this blog with: “Be careful of what you unpack in case you cannot hold this.” It refers to the coach’s capacity to be present and hold what is happening within the coaching session at the time. It also means ensuring that the coaching session can contain what is being experienced by the coachee. We must always remember our duty of care and that the coachee needs to leave the session in an adult state to return to their work.

If you find yourself encountering one of these ‘boundary’ moments,

  1. Stay centered and present (re-center) – be aware of your potential hooks. Take a breath or two and connect to your felt sense of the ground, your resourcefulness, so that you continue to be available to the client.
  2. Acknowledge what has been expressed so the coachee feels heard.
  3. Hold the coachee in a safe space of non-judgment, mutual trust and respect.

We would then recommend the following:

  1. Spot contract with the coachee and acknowledge what you are touching into and remind them of your contract and the purpose of coaching.
  2. Discuss whether there is an Employee Assistance programme (EAP) available to the coachee.
  3. If they do not want to use the EAP, suggest that they contact their GP.
  4. For coaches in the UK, refer coachees to the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy website, so they can find a therapist within their local area in UK.
  5. In an extreme circumstance, if you are concerned about risk, contract around this (this brings it outside of the contracted boundary of confidentiality). If you will then be speaking to anyone on your coachee’s behalf, it is important to contract with them regarding what you will be sharing.
  6. As a coach, it is helpful to create a list of professionals (counsellors and psychotherapists) that you trust and can share with a client when required (a coachee will sometimes ask you for a recommendation).

Following the session, we would always recommend that you follow up with the coachee to ensure they have accessed the professional support that they need. This will also ensure the coachee feels held.

When the coachee is receiving therapeutic support the coaching may need to cease — depending on the coachee’s need.

If the coaching is going to continue, we would recommend:

  1. Contracting with the coachee to ensure they have discussed this with their therapist and that in their professional opinion it is okay for the coaching to continue alongside therapy.
  2. Re-contract the focus of the coaching and reset boundaries between this and the therapeutic intervention.
  3. Agree with the coachee that you will both check-in if either of you experience the coaching conversation starting to stray into the same territory of their therapy.

We cannot overstate the importance of having access to a professional coach supervisor to support you through this process if you meet this within your practice.

We hope this blog has provided you with support and as a further resource, you may wish to watch a webinar we recently recorded on the boundaries of coaching and mental health (see below)

YouTube video

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