‘Mentally, the client had invaded that space’

Tia Moin on delivering online coaching – does it give you a false sense of safety and security?

Like many of you, I have set up a small office within my home, so that I can continue my work as a Coaching Psychologist through the pandemic. I have split this off from the rest of my home with a wooden screen. I’ve ensured the background is not too bland, but also not too personal. Sure, elements of my personality are there… the choice of screen, a painting visible on the wall behind me. I don’t see this as a bad thing. It offers an opportunity to connect with people on a personal level, supporting the establishment of a relationship under virtual conditions.

I’m female, and a fairly cautious and sensible operator. I’m conscious of safety concerns when delivering in-person sessions. I avoid coaching in empty office buildings after hours or in a male client’s home when no one else is present. An advantage of virtual delivery is no longer needing to worry about these kind of risks… or so I thought. 

Tuning in

In a similar vein to therapy, the relationship between coach and client is an essential component of effective coaching (Grencavage & Norcross, 1990). One way to establish and build the relationship is to practice effective listening (Lai & McDowall, 2014). I have spent many hours developing my listening ability, which involves more than the use of my ears to hear what people are saying. It involves the observation of facial expressions, body language, vocabulary, tone of voice and tuning in to much more than what is being explicitly communicated in the coaching room (Hawkins & Smith, 2007).

Another key element of establishing the relationship, and something I take great pride in perfecting, is the practice of ‘unconditional positive regard’ (Rogers, 1951); that is, accepting completely and without judgment what the client is presenting as. My role as a Coaching Psychologist is to reserve judgement and ‘box off’ my opinions, to listen unreservedly. By doing so, I allow my clients the safety, freedom of expression and space to reach clarity and determine a way forward – without tainting this with my own influence. This aligns with my ethical commitments and values as a Psychologist. I place the respect, wellbeing and safety of my client at the forefront of my practice; aligning with the British Psychological Society Code of Ethics & Conduct (2018) that I have committed to and follow closely. 

Without realising it, much of what I have just described about how I practice as a Coaching Psychologist led me to fall victim to an online attack. I have shared my story below to alert people to the potential vulnerabilities of delivering online therapy or coaching.

The incident

I engaged in a session with a new client; a professional engagement in the context of an Executive Coaching assignment. As I do in every coaching session, I spent some time establishing rapport. I could see personal objects in my client’s background and I noticed myself mentally making a choice not to pay too much attention to what was there; to maintain the professional tone of the conversation and to respect the privacy of the client.  

This client was particularly friendly and talkative and used humour a lot. Establishing rapport was easy. We talked more and in offering me some context of their background, the client asked me ‘I don’t know if you are married or divorced, but I have recently gotten divorced…’ I deliberately withheld a response to this and was cautious of offering details of my personal circumstances. This was fine, the client carried on talking and I was in full coaching mode; listening, summarising, asking questions. As a highly talkative client I was mostly listening in this particular session. 

The client proceeded to talk quite negatively about their work situation and various people they worked with. As a positive psychology coach, I adopted a strengths-based approach for this discussion and we explored the client’s strengths (analysing people) and how these played out in their context. The client demonstrated this to me by starting to analyse me according to what they could see in my background. The client made a joke about there being a ‘naked partner’ walking around behind my screen and commented on my clothing and other personal details. I dismissed this as a harmless joke as I recalled the numerous videos I had observed on social media where mishaps had happened to people whilst on work calls. 

We continued the coaching conversation and whilst the client diverged from work matters fairly often, I put this down to them being a very ‘chatty’ client. I redirected the conversation when I could so that we could meet the aims of the discussion. With a few minutes remaining of the session, the client made a parting comment about being supportive of females in the workplace (related to our earlier discussion). ‘Of course you agree’, he said, because you have (…and proceeded to describe my female anatomy). 

I can’t actually recall what went through my mind at that stage of the conversation. I know I was conscious of not judging the client and maintaining rapport. I certainly wasn’t attending to my own responses or needs at the time. I dismissed it entirely and ended the call – I had a small window before I started my next session and therefore had little time to reflect on this or process what had just happened.  

It wasn’t until I woke up the next morning feeling quite uneasy that the penny dropped. Whilst I hadn’t process what happened on a conscious level, overnight my subconscious certainly had. The session didn’t feel inappropriate in an overall sense, but when I joined the dots between the small indiscretions that occurred during the coaching conversation and what I know about the client’s background and professional expertise, I realised that what happened in the coaching session was most likely a deliberate and intentional act of manipulation rather than a series of unintentional ‘slips’. The graphic reference to my female anatomy was certainly not an accident in those last few minutes of the coaching session. 

In hindsight, I could have identified the ‘red flags’ and called the client out on their behaviour. I felt violated, manipulated and uncomfortable. I avoided sitting at my desk and in that specific room for at least a couple of weeks: mentally, the client had invaded that space. I realised that words delivered over the internet have the capacity to tear down physical barriers and screens. I was annoyed with myself for not calling this out at the time. I reflected upon what happened and questioned what I could do differently to prevent this from happening again. 

An ABC

The first thing I did was reach out to a supportive peer supervision network who validated my experience and offered me social support by reassuring me, sharing their own personal experiences and strategies. I also discussed this in a personal supervision session. I have summarised below an ABC for protecting yourself when delivering coaching online:

A: Acknowledge the risks can be present

I had a false sense of security in running this session. I was at home, delivering a session online with a professional client. I had absolutely no idea, expectation or experience, that anything could impact upon me in that situation or context. I feel a sense of security in my home with a lock on my front door and while I’m aware of the risks of online activity, I never envisaged that anything could occur in this kind of engagement. I’m much more aware and prepared now which allows me to be alert without it being overwhelming, as we are with other possible risks in our environment. 

B: Balance the safety of your client with your own safety

Find a fine balance between upholding ‘unconditional positive regard’ for your client and remaining alert to your own judgments, feelings and opinions in order to protect yourself. If you completely block off your reactions, you will overlook those essential red flags that alert you to risk. When we talk about unconditional positive regard, we need to make the distinction that the ‘unconditional’ should refer to the client as a person, not their behaviour towards others, or you. I always discuss confidentiality of the session with my clients; that if they indicate an intent to harm themselves or others, I may need to break confidentiality in order to prevent that harm from happening. It’s important to consider that harm may be directed towards you as well as others. There’s a subtle balance to managing the behaviour, and not judging the person. Calling out the behaviour as it happens is something to practice and explore further. Next time I might ask; ‘I’m curious, what makes you think it’s appropriate for you to use this language with me, someone you’ve just met in a professional capacity?’ I would then ask them to consider the potential impact of their behaviour on me. This is something you can prepare for, which will help you to respond more appropriately in the moment.

C: Check in with yourself regularly throughout the session

I realised that my solid commitment to unconditional positive regard and my focus on maintaining the coaching relationship led to my inaction during the session. Potentially, I also entered into an unhelpful, alternative ego state as described in Transactional Analysis theory (Stewart & Joines, 2000) based on my past experiences of #metoo. By being more present, mindful and checking in with my own reactions throughout the coaching more regularly, I can ensure that I protect myself and react when appropriate. 

This requires developing and fine-tuning generative empathic listening skills (Hawkins & Smith, 2007); requiring me to observe much more than what is being explicitly communicated and acknowledging a ‘gut feeling’ about the situation. In doing this, contrary to the approach of ‘boxing off’ my own judgements, I must tune in and recognise my own reactions, thoughts and emotions. Indeed, without this it would be difficult to determine what belongs to me, and what belongs to the client. It is a skill to hold space for the client and allow myself to step into their threshold, and indeed one way to guarantee this is to close my own reactions off entirely. A more effective approach is to observe, differentiate and suspend what is going on for me at the same time as holding this space for my client. If I had mastered this level of listening I would have recognised what was going on much earlier. This is an advanced stage of listening that will take time for inexperienced coaches to develop (van Nieuwerburgh, 2017), yet it’s an important skill to focus on. In the absence of mastering this level of listening, a novice coach might consider applying unconditional positive regard with caution or limits. 

An escalation

I didn't want to invest personal resources (and on another level, didn't want the stigma) in complaining about this person. I felt I needed to do something constructive though, so instead I chose to reflect and write about the experience. By sharing it widely and offering psychological strategies, my hope is that other women don't fall prey to the same. 

I feel we need to be having more open conversations about such experiences; if anything has come from the tragic case of Sarah Everard, which happened so close to International Women's Day, it's that we need to address the safety of women in society more proactively. Dealing with seemingly small indiscretions is a good place to start. As much of the online reaction this week has pointed out, tragic outcomes can often escalate from these.

-       Tia Moin, Organisational & Coaching Psychologist

References

British Psychological Society (2018). Code of Conduct and Ethics. https://www.bps.org.uk/news-and-policy/bps-code-ethics-and-conduct

Hawkins, P., & Smith, N. (2007). Coaching, Mentoring and Organisational Consultancy.  Open University Press. 

Grencavage, L. M., & Norcross, J. C. (1990). Where Are the Commonalities Among the Therapeutic Common Factors? Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 21(5), 372–378. 

Lai, Y.-L., & McDowall, A. (2014). A systematic review (SR) of coaching psychology: Focusing on the attributes of effective coaching psychologists. International Coaching Psychology Review, 9(2), 118–134. 

Rogers, C. R., (1951). Client-centered therapy: Its current practice, implications and theory.  Constable.

Stewart, I., & Joines, V. (2000). TA Today: A new introduction to transactional analysis. Lifespace Publishing.

Van Nieuwerburgh, C. (2017). Introduction to coaching skills: A practical guide. (2nd Ed.). Sage Publications.

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