Does malpractice really happen in coaching & mentoring?
Malpractice can only happen to Doctors, Lawyers and Educators? Wrong!
Professional malpractice occurs when a professional and the person claiming, has been physically or psychologically injured by poor practice. This article is going to address some of the issues that coaches and mentors may face in their roles as professional 'people helping people'.
Many people are aware of the bigger and serious cases of malpractice; those that constitute abuse, that clearly demonstrate gross negligence or a deliberate misuse of power - you know the ones, you read about them in the newspapers or listen on the radio but...
In my experience, very few coaches and mentors realise the responsibilities that come with their role. When you are a person helping another people to alter their thinking, invest in their business or make major changes in their life then this comes with risks...most coaches do not find themselves in a potential malpractice lawsuit deliberately, their actions are not purposefully it is often through a lack of thorough understanding.
Poor practice, negligence and over stepping boundaries can all lead to malpractice, so let's unpick what we mean by these first:
Poor practice in the broader sense means that the coach or mentor isn't putting the needs of the client first. Maybe you have had your own coaching session cancelled?
I am don't mean once or twice but all of your planned sessions rescheduled?
It might mean a coach or mentor isn't fulfilling their obligations as an expert? or making promises that cannot be kept.
Negligence is a little more serious. A classic example of professional negligence in coaching could include misplacing written client notes or telling peers/ friends or family members about the conversations that have taken place and are private and confidential...essentially breaking a Duty or Care.
Overstepping boundaries happens a lot. I see lots of coaches oversharing their experiences during their sessions. I have personally observed coaching and mentoring sessions where the professional dominates the session with their own stories, issues or experiences, the client becomes the listener and ends up feeling more overwhelmed, unhappy and full of anxiety...and to add insult to injury they have probably paid for the privilege!
XX was a life coach who was being taken to court because her client wanted her 'cost of therapy' back from her insurance company. The insurance company requested the clients notes but because the coach’s notes weren't detailed enough the insurance refused to pay out and pushed the client to take the coach to court to sue for 'lack of detailed notes', whilst the client really liked the coach they needed the money returned. the coach settled outside of court and returned the payment to the client.
YY was a professional mentor working with people to build resilience and a healthy mindset. The client developed feelings for YY but YY was unsure how to deal with the client especially when boundaries were being overstepped such as turning up at their house, calling out of hours, calling YY babe etc. YY didn't have any processes in place to tackle this behaviour and because the client was paying for YYs services, YY felt obliged to continue to work with the client at the detriment of their own health and wellbeing, the client was never satisfied and complained about the lack of progress being made.
ZZ worked with entrepreneurs, helping them to build leadership and management styles. ZZ was amazing at questioning and probing into issues but didn't have the knowledge, skills or expertise to appropriately support the client when a disclosure was made. One of ZZ clients opened up to ZZs questions and disclosed that she was in an abusive relationship and that this was impacting her ability to do her job and grow her business. ZZ gave well intentioned advice but information that was not protective towards the client and the situation that they were in. There was a full failure in the duty of care.
There are some simple steps that can be taken to put safeguarding measures into place so that as coaches and mentors you can protect yourself, those you work with and your business from the risk of malpractice.
1. Start by having the correct processes in place
Most coaches and mentors have pre-qualifying questions for their potential clients before they start working with them but many of you will still end up working with the unknown?
Having processes in place that helps guide the delivery of the coaching or mentoring sessions will show potential clients that you take your responsibilities seriously.
2. Set personal and professional boundaries
Working in an industry that builds relationships with other people can leave you open to overstepping boundaries. Many people are aware of the boundaries that constitute abuse, but other unethical practices could include:
- telling people what to do or making the client feel that they are making the wrong
- not having physical contact e.g. hugging, touching, even kisses on the cheek can get
mistaken and caution should always be made when embracing a client.
- over sharing: people are paying you to support them so deal with your own shit
before your coaching session...remember they are paying you!
- Manage your own expectations...it is never acceptable to transfer our own
expectations and goals onto our clients. Always make sure it is all about them.
When you know and adhere to your own personal boundaries and you know what is professional, appropriate for your clients and comfortable for you, then the risks of 'accidental overstepping' will be reduced.
3. Understand the power you can have and have a clear Duty of Care process
The trust that people put into their coaches and mentors is huge and these need to be taken extremely carefully. There will always be a natural power imbalance that is tipped in your favour based on the fact that the client is trusting you, choosing your ton help them over your competitors and will listen you advise. Using your power to gain advantage over someone else is unethical and is not only very poor practice but abuse. However, sometimes as people helping people we don't realise the power and potential for control that we have and if not carefully managed can cause potential grounds for malpractice.
4. Know your own limitations, invest in your learning
Professional mastery and a strong, resilient mindset is absolutely crucial for coaches and mentors and should be the minimum standards we set for ourselves but not knowing personal limitations, what you can and can't support with and understanding your own bias, unconscious ethics and judgements is a disaster waiting to happen.
Personal fitness for practice is all about have the mental resilience to take on other people’s concerns and being about to effectively manage these issues so that they don't impact your own state of mind. Many people in a supportive profession experience burn-out so it is essential that you undertake reflective practice, have professional peer support and have something that will help you relax.
Professional Mastery is important to build up your coaching mastery so that you are able to offer fluid and flexible support, which is key to maintaining professionalism and being able to create huge impact for your clients. Coaching isn't just about producing knowledge and experience in your niche but is a profession all on its own, so taking action to master the craft of coaching will lead to professional practice that is based on best practice standards.
5. Take your responsibilities seriously
It is rare in this industry that a coach or mentor will work ONLY on their niche, there are usually underlying issues that surface as we build the confidence, trust and relationship with our clients. Being able to work with individuals to release their own power is a privilege and failure to take your responsibilities seriously WILL lead to malpractice that leaves you and those you work with vulnerable, damage to your reputation and potential costly legal bills.
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