By Leon VanderPol
It is always worth it to shine the light of awareness on all the ways we judge others, and to notice the subtle ways that our judgments cause harm.
What defines unethical behavior? The simplest line I can draw is this: whenever there is harm done to another person, no matter how justified the act, it is unethical.
I know the philosophers in the room could argue this one to death, citing all sorts of situations where harm could be construed as ethical. And who could argue? Ethics is by definition a contextual assessment, a personal framework constructed out of one’s own belief system of right and wrong. By nature it’s gray, and I have just painted it black and white.
Yet for coaches there is, at times, a black and whiteness to it: action that hurts or harms a client is a baseline for determining the ethics of that action.
Coaching stands in support of life coming to life, and harm is the opposite of that stance. If it’s harmful—if it causes pain, turmoil, or distress to another person—it’s unethical.
I’ve never meet a coach who intends to hurt a client, but that does not mean harm is not done by coaches. Judgment is perhaps the most insidious type of harm that can be inflicted. Do you ever judge your clients? No? Not once?
I once had a client who, after our fourth session, revealed to me that the real reason he had requested a discount on coaching sessions with me (which he did receive) was because he wanted to use the saved money to spend on a prostitute. It’s nice to think that judgment would not have crept in here, but it did. Interestingly, my judgment was not that he used a prostitute, as exploring his newfound sexual liberty after a failed marriage was one of our coaching objectives, but that he had deceived me. That thought would not leave my head, playing like a broken record in the background…and in crept judgment. Oh so insidious! Oh so harmful!
Despite my best efforts to mask it, I have always sensed that my client picked up on it. Judgments, no matter how subtle, are harmful, and this is unethical in coaching. And our clients do not come to buy a judgment.
What a massive challenge it is for a coach to become free of all judgments! To become a spacious space in which people can show up as they are, and to know that in that space they are as accepted and loved as they will ever be.
Years ago I met a well-known coach who told me how he was once approached by a billionaire for coaching. Through their initial conversations, the coach found out the businessman had some dubious dealings, dealings that could be considered unethical if not criminal. The coach had some very clear-cut ethical guidelines of his own, and despite the significant amount of money being offered for coaching, the coach told the man that until he had cleaned up his unethical business dealings he would not coach him. On one level, I admire the coach for standing strong within his own ethical framework. One the other hand, I always felt that the businessman was being judged by the coach, being seen as less than worthy of being coached. Being worthy of coaching meant he had to come into the coaching space in a way that the coach deemed acceptable. This always felt off to me, that people would have to meet my ethical standards before I would coach them. At the end of the day I have to ask, was the businessman harmed in anyway by the coach’s words or action? In their interaction, did the businessman feel judged, belittled, made to feel less than? If so, then in my view the coach violated the ethics of coaching.
It is not the most pleasant of tasks, but it is always worth it to shine the light of awareness on all the ways we judge others, and to notice the subtle ways that our judgments cause harm. The more we clear of selves of this tendency, the better a coach we will be. Not only ethical but infinitely enlivening!
Leon VanderPol is an internationally-recognized coach mentor, master teacher, and founder and director of the Center for Transformational Coaching. He is the creator of the Deep Transformational Coaching training program, which now has graduates from more than 25 countries. Leon travels the world teaching people how to catalyze deep transformation in soulful, spirit-based ways. Visit www.centerfortransformationalcoaching.com to learn more about Leon and his work.