When a coach is a paid friend

The actor Woody Allen is said to have talked to his psychoanalyst four times a week almost all his life. Maybe it kept him functional, I don’t know and I don’t want to judge. However, I think that becoming a “paid friend” is something that coaches should take care to avoid.

Sometimes coaches are the only impartial confidants that clients have: clients cannot talk 100% openly to their direct reports or peers in the company because there are always other agendas, they might not want to talk about their work to their friends or partners in their free time because, well, it is their free time. So the coach can fill that gap and offer unconditional positive regard, appreciation, sparring, sounding-board, listening — everything that a good friend would also do.

*hear me sigh*: BUT! Coaching is a thought partnership to help clients develop their potential, to help them grow and flourish and not make them dependent on the coach! My coach friend Peter, who is also an excellent therapist, mentioned this in one of our masterclasses recently: if we have the feeling that we are the only people that fulfill the relationship / friend / confidante need of the client, it may be more ethical to mention this to the client. We could ask whether this is ok for the client for now or if the client might be interested in exploring other ways to fill that need.

There will be situations in which it is completely ok to rely on a coach for a while. Especially during the pandemic, having a secure open ear out there was invaluable to many clients. Sometimes clients have way too much to do and really want to go the extra mile to accomplish what they want to accomplish: there might not be time just now to go looking for friends. Sometimes the topics they wish to address are so sensitive that they would rather talk to a professional before they open up to their friends.

As coaches (and I think the same is true for all helping professions) I think it is our duty to be attentive to how dependent our clients become on us. We should not be “tourists in their lives” but make sure that we are helping them reach their goals. This is also what the founders of the Solution Focused approach, Insoo Kim Berg, Steve de Shazer and many others at the Brief Family Therapy Center stressed. Keeping the coaching relationship as brief as necessary was a means for them to avoid dependency on the coach. I don’t think we have to be “as brief as possible” if the client has the resources and is happy to continue talking to us — we do have to check the “paid friend” dynamic, however.

One good way of doing this is engaging in coach supervision to have another set of eyes and ears help us recognize how we can best be helpful to our clients.

If you want to come and discuss, learn about our courses (also an EMCC accredited course in Coach Supervision — I hope that wasn’t too much of a cheesy marketing plug), come to our free coaching meetups and exchanges:

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