First published in Coaching World International Coaching Federation (ICF) – 18 January 2018

How many times have you found yourself in a situation described by your client that immediately triggers something you may have experienced? And how many times have you been tempted to share your experience or tell them how you felt in that similar situation? Perhaps they may have even asked you, human to human, what your experience has been or how you feel about subject x and whether situation y has happened to you as well.

How can you know whether you are not crossing the very fine line to an extent where you are no longer serving your client? And how can you manage the delicate, sensitive part of our human nature to connect with others, especially when we are supposed to work in an equal partnership with our clients co-creating along this journey?

In coaching people through career transitions, I am often asked how I made my transition. My response is that “I will share my journey; however, let’s have a look first at what it would look like for you.” I do this to avoid unintentionally influencing them, and I use a framework to show on paper what it would look like for them.

Once we feel we have exhausted how they see the issue, only then do I share my journey. I make sure I share the context and circumstances of it. I also make a point of sharing the journey of at least other two people, and then I ask the client how these examples add to what we have discussed about them. So, at this point, I direct the focus back to them and support a process of making sense and adding value to their situation with the objective of expanding on existing perspectives and thinking about aspects that the client may not have previously thought about.

It may be more helpful not to think of self-disclosure in binary terms—you either self-disclose or you don’t—but rather to think of the circumstances, which include the timing. If we looked at the purposes of self-disclosure, it could include modeling of behavior. It’s in a way working with one’s vulnerability, being less guarded, and giving the message that it’s OK. In the example above, this would be sharing things that didn’t work out. As a consequence, you have rapport, and trust may increase in the coaching relationship. In addition, it may support the client in developing new perspectives when they see how others have handled similar situations. In other cases, the mere realization of “I am not the only one” may help them with self-acceptance. In my experience, this last aspect can be very instrumental because they feel empowered to move on.

If not done carefully, self-disclosure may compromise the professional relationship by creating expectations. It may move the focus away from the client, and it may even pressure the client to do something that they may not be ready for. For example, I am very aware that one of my personal biases is to be an optimist, have a can-do attitude and believe that everything is possible. These are my beliefs, but they are not everyone’s beliefs. If I am not careful to be in tune with my client’s state and share my optimism at the wrong time, when they are still processing a negative situation, I may unintentionally alienate them simply because they are not yet ready to move forward.

Another helpful way to look at disclosure is what is referred to as intra-session disclosure, which includes aspects that are happening in the “here and the now,” or during the session. For example, you could offer, “I feel like we are going around in circles today; what is your impression?” Even though this type of sharing is around the coach’s feeling, it’s also about the process. It’s feedback, and it’s direct communication about what is happening. Following the framework provided by Marjorie Shackleton and Marion Gillie, these questions can help keep us, coaches, on track: What’s going on for me? What’s happening between us? What do I observe in my client? What part of my reaction might be useful to my client?

Overall, an effective way to self-disclose would include recognizing and acknowledging the client’s experience and asking for permission to share your own relevant experience, which must be tied back to the client’s story in a relevant way. This could be followed by a powerful question that connects the two stories, which should help the client move forward with their own process. The rationale for telling your story needs to also be explained, and you should ask the client if it created any new awareness about their own story.

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