Since the pandemic, many coaches have experienced significant growth in their virtual coaching practice, with online coaching now accounting for a very large proportion of their work. More coaches are also experimenting with the integration of online platforms within their practice (platforms that offer text messaging and email communication with clients between sessions).
This shift has provided benefits to both the coach and client; for example, it offers convenience and accessibility for both coaches and coachees, allowing them to connect, form a coaching relationship and work together regardless of geographical locations.
However, if you’ve been coaching virtually, you may have experienced different and challenging behaviours from your coachees — and you may have been wondering why this happened. A phenomenon known as the online disinhibition effect may help to explain what may be happening.
This phenomenon refers to a reduction in inhibitions and a sense of anonymity that can occur when people communicate virtually. It can lead to altered behaviour and a lack of self-restraint that may not be typical in physical face-to-face interactions. This means that the coachee may say or do things online that they would not normally do when working with a coach in person.
The ‘disinhibition effect’ term was first used by the psychologist John Suler in 2004 to describe this psychological effect that can be present in remote therapeutic relationships.
Whilst disinhibition can be benign where the coachee is taking responsibility for working through their challenges, it can also be toxic when they act out unpleasant needs without any attempt at personal growth.
So, for coaches working virtually it is helpful to understand this phenomenon and the forces driving it. Six factors have been identified that interact with each other in creating this online disinhibition effect, namely:
This is the most common principle behind the effect. Being coached online can provide a certain level of anonymity. This anonymity can make people feel less accountable for their actions and more comfortable expressing themselves. Some coachees may feel less vulnerable and share a depth of personal information quickly — and then later regret this level of disclosure. This in turn may leave the client feeling exposed and embarrassed meaning they may not return for the next session.
Online interactions lack the physical presence of others. For example, consider the use of email-based online coaching. Without immediate consequences or feedback, individuals may feel less restrained and more inclined to say or do things they wouldn’t in offline situations. Another consideration for coaches is that this method of coaching lets coachees pretend to be someone they are not.
When communicating by text or online, the asynchronous nature of the correspondence (i.e., where interactions are not occurring at the same time) may lead to the coachee disclosing information with you that they would not have disclosed if they were being coached by you in real time.
This is a common-occurring human phenomenon where the coachee or coach may create an ‘image’ of the other person that they are communicating with online. One of the key differences of working online is that the coachee and coach will not see all of each other, they might only see their head and shoulders or if working without an image, they may only hear their voice.
As a result, either party may be filling in the gaps and assigning imagined characteristics to the other — and this may lead to professional boundaries being crossed or transference and countertransference.
The online environment can create a sense of detachment from one’s normal in-person identity. The coachee may feel that the usual ground rules for professional interactions do not apply. People may view themselves as separate from their online persona, leading to a greater willingness to engage in behaviours they wouldn’t normally exhibit.
Minimisation of status and authority
The absence of physical cues, such as body language, can diminish the perception of authority. Status and authority can be seen very differently online and coaches may find there is a different power balance when working virtually. As a result, coachees may disregard or challenge authority, leading to more impulsive or aggressive behaviour.
As we have seen, the online disinhibition effect can have both positive and negative consequences in the context of coaching online.
On the positive side, our coachees may feel more comfortable opening up and sharing their thoughts and feelings due to the perceived anonymity. This can facilitate a deeper level of self-disclosure and trust in the coaching relationship. However, as we have also seen, there are also potential pitfalls to be aware of, such as coachees pushing boundaries e.g., over sharing of a personal nature.
So how can you manage the potential of the online disinhibition effect in your virtual coaching practice? Here are some tips.
- We would always recommend being in regular coaching supervision, so that you have a confidential space to reflect on your practice and any coachee behaviour that you are experiencing when coaching online. Your supervisor will enable you to respond in a resourced and conscious way.
- You will need to prepare the coachee more for online sessions, as you will have less control over the environment that you are meeting them in. What might need to be discussed with them? Remember that sometimes as a coach you’ll need to educate the coachee on how to be coached and to get the most from their coaching.
- It’s essential for coaches to remember ABC – ‘Always Be Contracting’ and to continually reinforce your shared expectations and boundaries for the online coaching programme.
- Encourage open communication, ongoing reflection and reviews on how you are both experiencing working together virtually. Hold your authority compassionately and address any inappropriate behaviour or communication that may arise due to the disinhibition effect.
- Prepare for each session, so that you arrive in a present and resourced way. This means you will be able to notice any subtle changes in the coachee’s and your own behaviour and feelings during the session.
Source referenced: Suler, J. (2004) The Online Disinhibition Effect. Cyberpsychology and behaviour: the impact of the Internet, multimedia and virtual reality on behaviour and society.
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