Episode 26: How Much Should We Share with Our Clients?

Are you setting boundaries with your clients? In this episode, we're going to go over some ground rules for self-disclosure in coaching sessions, when it is appropriate to share and then, of course, when it's not appropriate to share.

26: How Much Should We Share with Our Clients?

"How much should I share with my clients?"   That's a question I get asked a lot by newer coaches and today we're diving right in.   It's important to ask yourself this question before you get in session with your clients so you know exactly where your boundaries are with regard to self-disclosure and how to use this tool appropriately.

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Show Notes

“How much should I share with my clients?”

That's a question I get asked a lot by newer coaches and today we're diving right in.

It's important to ask yourself this question before you get in session with your clients so you know exactly where your boundaries are with regard to self-disclosure and how to use this tool appropriately.

To help you figure it out, we're going to go over some ground rules for self-disclosure in coaching sessions, when it is appropriate to share and then, of course, when it's not appropriate to share.

Topics covered

  • How I developed my ground rules for self-disclosure
  • Why you need to get an accurate read on the level of rapport you have with your clients
  • The important question you need to ask yourself before sharing your experience
  • Signs that you may need to check your intentions before sharing with your client
  • Why asking for permission is critical for maintaining a client-centered dynamic
  • How to highlight the process over the plot
  • What your stories might unintentionally signal to your clients
  • The problem with positioning yourself as a guru
  • Remembering to reconnect with your client's agenda
  • When is it appropriate to share your personal experiences with clients?
  • How to use self-disclosure to help your clients
  • Knowing when self-disclosure is not appropriate

Resources mentioned

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Well, hey there, my friend. Thank you for joining me for another episode of the Coach with Clarity podcast. My name is Lee Chaix McDonough and today's episode we are diving right in to a very juicy topic and a question that I get asked a lot by newer coaches and by coaches who are transitioning into the coaching profession from other helping oriented careers including therapy. And that question is, “How much should I share with my clients?”. 

This question of self-disclosure, and how much about ourselves, our stories, and our experiences that we share with our clients is a really important question to ask yourself, and to consider before you get in session with your clients. You want to know where your boundaries are with regard to self-disclosure, and you also want to be really clear about when and how to use this tool.

In today's episode, we are going to go over some ground rules for self-disclosure when you are in a coaching session with your client, we'll talk a little bit about when it is appropriate to share, and then of course when it's not appropriate to share and as always, we will conclude with the Clarity in Action moment to help you take everything that we're discussing today and apply it in your coaching practice. Now before we get started, I do want to suggest that this question of “How much should I share with my clients?” is equally as important to consider when you are working on your business. So when you are developing your marketing strategies, when you're writing blog posts and web copy, that's a very important thing to ask yourself as well. But for the purposes of today's episode, I am going to be focusing on this question from the perspective of working in your business. So when you are actively coaching and working with clients, but don't worry, I have jotted down self-disclosure in marketing as a possible future topic for a Coach with Clarity podcast episode, so more to come on that. But today, let's really dive into what self-disclosure can and should look like when we are working with our coaching clients. 

Let's start by going over what I think are some pretty critical ground rules for you to consider with regard to sharing your own experiences with your clients, and in fact, as I was preparing for today's episode, I came up with Eight Ground Rules that I know have served me and my practice, and I hope they will serve you as well. Now, I should say this is in no way an exhaustive list, and in fact, I hope that after listening to today's episode, you might come up with some additional ground rules as well. If you do, I would love to hear them. You can come find me over at the Coach with Clarity podcast Facebook group, just head to CoachwithClarity.com/facebookgroup to join, and then let me know what rules you've established with regard to self-disclosure in session. I would love to add to this list, and I would love to get an interactive conversation going around this topic. But for the purposes of today's podcast episode, I'm going to share with you the eight rules that I encourage all coaches to follow when they are considering sharing their own experiences in session with their clients.

Ground Rule #1 is to assess the coaching relationship and the level of rapport you've established. Before you consider sharing anything about your own personal experience. It's really important that you have an accurate read on the depth of the relationship that you've established with your client thus far, to determine whether they are ready to receive this kind of information from you. And as I was preparing for today's episode, I had this funny memory of when I was in line at Cracker Barrel of all places, waiting to pay my bill and a woman accidentally ran into me with her stroller. She had maybe a two year old in the stroller and she was super apologetic. And before I knew it, literally in the two minutes that I was standing there waiting in line to pay my bill. This woman had unloaded practically her entire life history. I knew more about her, her marriage, her daughter, her health than I knew about some of my closest friends. I couldn't help but laugh because honestly, this kind of thing happens to me a lot to the point where my friends and family make fun of me because clearly I'm wearing an invisible sign that says, “I'm a safe person, you can trust me, tell me everything”, because people do they tend to tell me their stories. And maybe that's one of the reasons why I went into coaching – it just seemed like a natural extension of what I was already doing. But here's the thing. I didn't know this woman, we had no established relationship, and I was left feeling very confused, and quite frankly, a little overwhelmed by all of the information she had just shared with me. 

Now I recognize in this situation, this is not a coaching session. She was not my coach, I was not her client or vice versa, but I think it's a humorous and for many of you probably familiar example of what it feels like when someone you don't know very well over shares. It puts you in a position of feeling overwhelmed, even uncomfortable, and now you're having to take this person's story on as your own. And I think it's an example of why it is so important to take time to build a relationship with a person before you start sharing all of your life experiences with them. 

This is especially important for us coaches, because when we are working with our clients, our role is to keep the client at the center of the experience, and I'm going to talk about that in another rule in a little bit. But if we hop in and we start sharing too much about ourselves from the beginning, without establishing rapport, it could compromise the quality of the coach-client relationship. So, Ground Rule #1 is to assess the level of rapport that you have with this client and make a judgment call about whether it is the appropriate stage in the coaching relationship for you to open up a bit and talk more about your personal experiences. 

And this leads right into Ground Rule #2, and that is, before you share, ask yourself the question, “Who benefits from me sharing this story?”. As coaches, we can use everything at our disposal, including our personal and professional histories to benefit the client, and there will be times when sharing your own experiences will serve the client, it may help them feel less alone, it may inspire them to consider other options and other opportunities. There are numerous reasons why it may be appropriate to share your story with a client because it will serve them. What's not appropriate is to share a story with a client because it serves you. So an example might be if you are feeling caught off guard or defensive or like you need to justify yourself, and so you're sharing a story in order to kind of regain your position, then we are no longer centering the client, but we are centering the coach. And so that would be an inappropriate time to share a story. Anytime I get a sense of feeling like I have to convince, or persuade, or justify, or somehow otherwise change my client's mind and use a story to do so, then I have to check myself. I have to pause, I have to recenter the client, and then later on after the client session, I can revisit my own thoughts and feelings around it. Maybe do my own work with my coach or with my mentor coach, but that does not belong in session with my client. So before you share an experience or a story with your client, ask yourself, “Who benefits from the share?”, “Am I making it about the client and will this story serve them?” Or am I making it about me and will sharing the story make me feel better. So, Ground Rule #2 is to ask who benefits before you share your experience. 

So let's say you've followed Ground Rules #1 and #2, you feel confident that you're at the point in the coaching relationship where it's appropriate to share, and you're confident that you're sharing from a place of service and centering the client. Well, then Ground Rule #3 is to ask permission before sharing. Now, this is particularly important earlier in a relationship when maybe you haven't done a lot of personal sharing up to this point, but I think even with established clients, it's always helpful to ask permission before you share a story. And you can do that by asking, “Would it be alright if I shared something with you?”. That's a great strategy to use especially earlier in a situation and with clients with whom you've got a longer or stronger relationship, it may be more of an implied consent. Just last week when I was working with a client I caught myself saying, “You know, in the interest of full transparency, I want to share a story with you”, and then I paused and said, “Would that be okay?” and I had a feeling it was going to be okay. But again, we're centering the client, we're allowing them to direct the agenda, and we're getting their buy-in so that they're open to what we have to share. 

So always seek permission before you share just to make sure that your client is in a place where they can receive it. And when you ask permission, be sure that when you are listening to their response, you're paying attention not only to the words they're using but also their nonverbal cues, follow the energy, and make sure that they really are at a point where they can receive what you're about to share. 

So assuming everyone is on board, we can then move into Ground Rule #4, which is make sure that you are centering the client in your share. What I mean by that is, as you are sharing your own personal experience, you want to make sure that what you're sharing remains relevant to the client's situation, and you want to give the client an opportunity to make meaning of that experience for themselves, so that they can draw their own insights, their own realizations about your experience and how it may parallel what they're going through as well. Or it may mean giving the client the opportunity to reflect that your experience doesn't really resonate with them, and maybe they're coming at it from a different perspective. What matters most here is that the client stays at the center of the interaction, so that when we are sharing our personal experiences, it is for the benefit of the client, and the client holds the power to either make meaning of that or to move past it. It's not personal, and it's not about us. It's about the client’s growth and discovery. 

As you are sharing your experience with the client, I want you to think about the next Ground Rule #5, which is to highlight the process over the plot. So, when you are sharing your experience, it's important to remember that the purpose is not to share every nitty-gritty detail with the client, but instead to provide a story arc that the client can follow so that they can see the beginning, middle, end, they can witness the transformation, and then they can determine how that applies to their situation. So when I say highlight process over plot, I want you to think about the story arc, and very broadly, illustrating the phases of your journey without providing too much detail or oversharing, or going on and on and on. Again, process over plot. 

As you're sharing this story, this is where Ground Rule #6 comes in, only share what is yours to share. So when you're sharing an experience, it needs to be from your perspective and your viewpoint, even if there are other people involved. The reason for this is subtle, but it's important, and it's all about trust. We always want to convey to our clients that what they share with us is private and that we will maintain their privacy to the fullest extent we're allowed to by law because what happens within a coaching session is sacred. And so in order to maintain that trust, we need to make sure through our behaviors that we are keeping the trust in other relationships as well. So if we're telling a story, and we're divulging someone else's information or someone else's perspective, we may unintentionally be signaling to the client, that we will do that with their stories as well. So to maintain the trust in the coach-client relationship, we need to make sure that when we are sharing our experiences, we are sharing only our experiences, our thoughts, our feelings, our perspective, and that we are not giving our clients any reason to think that we would ever violate their trust or share their stories with other people. 

This brings us to Ground Rule #7, which is that your job as the coach is to be an expert, but not a guru, and this ties back to Rule #2, when I asked you to consider who benefits from sharing. Yes, you are the coach and your client has come to you because they value the wisdom and expertise that you can share with them. And you are an expert in your field and it is perfectly acceptable to own your expert stance and when appropriate to share experiences that back that up, but you're doing so in order to inform, teach, educate, or otherwise support your client to make their path easier because that's what experts do. We can use our knowledge and experience to help those who are coming along behind us. That is very different than positioning ourselves as a guru – that creates a hierarchical relationship. It creates an imbalance of power, and it positions us as being above our client, almost as if we're on a pedestal and our client is beneath us. So when we are sharing our experiences, again, it's not about us. It's not about how great we look or how amazing we are. It's about presenting our experiences in such a way that the client can benefit from it. Maybe we can help them save time, save energy, save money, if they can draw insight from our journey. So again, be an expert. Not a guru. 

And this brings me to Ground Rule #8, which is that after you share your story, always circle back to the client’s agenda. Ideally, at the beginning of the session, you and your client discussed what the goals were for the session, what the client wanted to talk about, and so you want to make sure that you are circling back to the client's agenda so that it doesn't become about you and your story and your experience. But again, it is about promoting the client and helping them achieve the goals that they set for themselves. It's another way that we can center the client by reconnecting with their agenda and giving them the opportunity to decide where we go next. 

So in summary, these are the Eight Ground Rules I want you to consider before you share your own personal experience with the client:

  • Rule #1: Assess the relationship, and ensure that you've done sufficient rapport building before you share. 
  • Rule #2: Always ask who benefits from me sharing this before you do so. 
  • Rule #3: Seek permission before sharing your story. 
  • Rule #4: Always center the client when you are sharing something. 
  • Rule #5: Highlight process over plot. 
  • Rule #6: Only share what's yours to share. 
  • Rule #7: Be an expert, not a guru. 
  • Rule #8: Circle back to the client's agenda. 

If you follow these Eight Ground Rules, I feel confident that when you decide to disclose something about yourself, it will be for the client’s benefit, and ultimately it will serve them in their journey. Again, these are the eight rules that I came up with but if there's something you would add to the list, I would love to hear it. So head over to the Facebook group, CoachwithClarity.com/facebookgroup, and let me know what rules you would add to this list. Now that we've covered the ground rules, let's spend a few minutes talking about when it's appropriate to share something, and when it's not so appropriate to do so.

So first off, when is it appropriate to share a personal experience or story with a client? Well, number one is when the client asks you. So if they're asking your opinion, if they're asking about your previous experience with something, or even if they say something like, “I don't know, have you ever felt that way before?”. If they are directly or even indirectly asking you to share, then you do have implied permission to go ahead and share something that's relevant and could serve the client. 

Now in this case, the question is going to be how comfortable do you feel sharing in this moment? As coaches, I think it's important that we know where our boundaries are, in terms of what we feel comfortable sharing with clients, and what we wish to retain, for maybe our friends, our family, or even just ourselves. So you are never under any obligation to share with your client, even if they're asking. It will be important that you otherwise affirm where your client is coming from so that we're not leaving them hanging. But there are ways to do that without making a personal share. For example, if a client says, “I don't know, have you ever felt that way before?”, and it's not necessarily something you care to discuss, the perfectly acceptable answer would be, “It's totally understandable, you would feel that way, and I think anyone who experienced what you have would feel that way too”. By responding in that way, you're not making it about you, and you're not saying that you have felt that way, and yet, you've also affirmed where the client is coming from. You've normalized their experience and you've made them feel less alone. Now sometimes rather than having clients ask me from an emotional perspective, what my experience has been, they're asking me from a more strategic perspective. And that makes sense because most of the clients that I'm coaching are professionals who want to enter the coaching business themselves, and they want to know more about what I did and how it worked. So in this case, I tend to be pretty free and open with my knowledge, and I'm happy to share my experiences of what worked and what didn't with my clients. But again, at the end, I'm always going back and reiterating, this is what worked for me and my business based on my vision, mission, and values. So let's talk about your vision, mission, and values and what next steps might work best for you. Some of what I've shared with you might work for you, and some of it might not and that's okay, so let's talk about how we can personalize this for you. So again, we're always making sure that we're centering the client, we're giving them the opportunity to take what works and learn behind what doesn't, and that's how I like to respond when a client asks me directly to share my experiences. 

So it's certainly appropriate to have a level of self-disclosure when your client directly asks you. I think self-disclosure can also be a very valuable tool to use when we want to affirm and normalize a client's experience, and I alluded to this before with the client who might say something like, “I don't know, have you ever felt this way too?”. Even if the client doesn't ask, if you get the sense that they are feeling alone, and that they are experiencing shame or a sense of unworthiness, it could actually be a great gift and a valuable healing experience for you to share an experience where you've had a similar unwanted feeling or unwanted thought. Again, we don't need to get into the details here, but the purpose is to let the client know that they're not alone, and that you empathize, because as Brené Brown says, someone responds to our story with empathy and understanding, then shame can't survive. 

It's also appropriate to share your own personal experience when you sense that it could forward the action. So if a client is getting stuck, if they are not making progress, or if they're thinking in circles, sometimes sharing a well-timed story or example can help break the cycle and get the client moving. Again, I use this technique a lot when a client is brainstorming possible options for moving forward, and they're just kind of saying, “I don't know, I'm not sure I'm feeling stuck”. Well, then that might be a perfect opportunity for you to say, “Well, would it be okay with you if maybe I shared an example?”, and then you can go ahead and do so. The purpose is not for the client to do exactly what you did, but really, it's more like your priming the pump, so that you are unlocking their creativity so that they can start thinking about options that might work for them as well. 

So, when is it appropriate to share? Number one, when the client asks you directly. Number two, when affirming and normalizing the client’s experience could be a healing or positive experience for them; when it might forward the action and help the client get unstuck. And then finally, when you get an intuitive hit, oftentimes I will be in session with a client and I just get this very strong sense that it would benefit the client if I shared something with them. Sometimes it's a word, or phrase, or an image, but sometimes I will get a very distinct memory of something I've experienced, and I know in my gut that I am meant to share this experience with my client in order to serve them. So when I get an intuitive hit like that, I go through my ground rules, I make sure before I share this experience that it really is meant for the client, it's not about me, and that sharing it will serve the client and their agenda. And once I've confirmed that, then I follow my intuition, and I will share it with the client, of course, once I've gotten permission to do so from them. So those are the times where I think it's definitely appropriate to share when the client asks you directly and you feel comfortable doing, so to normalize their experience, to forward the action, and to honor an intuitive hit. 

Now, there are some times where it is not appropriate to share your own personal experiences with the client. And number one, I would say, do not share your story immediately after the client has just shared an experience with you. It happens all the time that a client will be sharing a story or telling you about something that happens and it causes a memory to emerge of a similar experience that you've had. That's totally normal, it happens to all of us in session. But the time to share that experience is not right on the heels of what your client has just shared to you. Sometimes that can come off as one-upping, or just dismissive of what the client has been through, so we do not want to share our story right on the heels of what our client has shared. Of course, we first want to start by demonstrating that we've heard the client and affirming where they're coming from. So number one, do not self disclose right on the heels of your client sharing their own story. 

Another time where I do not think it's appropriate to self-disclose is when a client is actively working through unwanted or unpleasant thoughts and emotions. So if they have uncovered something that is painful or difficult, or if they are exploring a mindset block, or obstacle, or something that's kept them stuck. This is not the time for self-disclosure. Even if the client asks, because it could be an avoidance strategy of trying to escape from that unwanted thought or emotion, it could be a distraction. And really, we are not serving our clients by letting them circumvent the necessary work of confronting those difficult emotions by sharing a story. So when a client is really on the precipice of breaking through a major mindset block, or when they're going through some unwanted thoughts or emotions, let's save the story for another time. Our role in that moment is to be fully present, and to support them in their work. 

Finally, it's not an appropriate time to share a story when it's clear that the client is ready to move on. Even if it's a great experience, even if we feel like, “Oh, if the client only knew this, then I think would be really good for them”, if a client has demonstrated that they are ready to move on to a different topic, or if the energy is such where they are brainstorming ideas, developing goals ready to talk action, then let's not derail that energy with a story about us. Again, we need to go back to this idea of who does this benefit, and if the clients ready to move on then sharing our own personal experience doesn't benefit them, at least not in the moment. So follow the energy, let your client take the lead, honor their agenda, and maybe save that experience for another time. 

Okay, friends, we have covered the ground rules of self-disclosure, and we've talked about when it is and when it's not appropriate to share a personal story or experience. What better time than to go right into this week's Clarity in Action moment.

This week's Clarity in Action moment is brought to you by the brand new Coach with Clarity Certification Program. If you're ready to deepen your experience in the world of coaching and to become a Certified Clarity Coach, then I invite you to apply for the first cohort of the Coach with Clarity Certification Program. We are kicking things off on September 8th. With a six month deep dive into the art of coaching. We'll be exploring coaching fundamentals, we'll be examining how to develop your own coaching approach, and we'll also be taking a deep dive into some advanced coaching topics. At the conclusion of the program, I will be applying for ICF Accreditation as an Initial Coach Training Provider, and if you listen to last week's episode about coaching certifications, you know all about the ICF credentialing process. Once this program is approved, then everyone who participated in the first cohort will be given credit for having completed an ICF Accredited Coach Training Program. So to learn more and apply for the program, head to CoachwithClarity.com/application. Once I receive your application, we’ll schedule a time to get on the phone and talk about whether this program is the right fit for you right now. As I'm recording this episode, there are only three spaces left in this first cohort. So if you would like to become a Certified Clarity Coach, I encourage you to head over to CoachwithClarity.com/application to apply today.

So for today's Clarity in Action moment, I have a couple questions that I would love for you to reflect on. First, I would like you to consider what you are comfortable sharing with your coaching clients. As we talked about earlier in the episode, it is important that as coaches we understand where our boundaries are, and what stories or experiences feel appropriate to share with our clients, and what stories are best kept for close friends, family, or even just ourselves. I'm going to encourage you to start to think about where those boundaries are, so that when you're in session with your clients, you're not caught off guard or otherwise blindsided. So the first reflection question is to think about what you are comfortable sharing, and maybe the flip side of that as well, and the things that you are not comfortable sharing, or that would be out of bounds for a coaching session. With those boundaries in place, you can then ask yourself the second question, which is, “What experiences have I had that could really powerfully serve my clients?”, and knowing your ideal client and knowing the niche that you serve will definitely help you answer this question. As I alluded to before, my audience and my niche is about becoming powerful coaches, and I know the experiences that I've had – the good, the bad, and the ugly – that I can share with my clients in order to help them as they build, grow, and scale their practices as well. When I am clear about what those experiences are, then again, when my clients asked me for feedback, or when we're talking about a given topic in session, I already know what I might feel comfortable sharing with them. So that really goes hand in hand with this idea of setting boundaries and knowing what I'm comfortable sharing. 

By being proactive and taking a few minutes to consider the stories and experiences that you already have that could serve your clients powerfully, that's going to serve you not just in session, but as you are talking to potential clients about what it would be like to work together and what sets you apart as a coach. So for today's Clarity in Action moment, I want you to think about what you're comfortable sharing and what your clients might ask you to share. That will help you feel prepared so that if and when you decide to engage in self-disclosure during session, you know where your boundaries are, and you know what stories would most powerfully serve your clients. 

My friend, we have covered so much today and I hope you have found this episode helpful. I'd love to hear how it served you or how it's inspired you. So come find me over in the Facebook group and leave me a message, or feel free to leave a review at Apple Podcasts or wherever you download and listen to your shows. Every review goes a long way towards introducing the podcast to new listeners. And so I thank you for helping spread the word about Coach with Clarity. I will be back in your feeds next week with another episode of the Coach with Clarity podcast and until then, my name is Lee Chaix McDonough encouraging you to get out there and show the world what it means to be a Coach with Clarity. 

Thanks for listening to the Coach with Clarity podcast. Be sure to visit CoachwithClarity.com for detailed show notes and bonus material just for podcast listeners. Did you enjoy today's podcast? If so, then I invite you to check out the Coach with Clarity Membership Program exclusively for intuitive coaches ready to master both the business and the craft of coaching. You'll discover monthly hot seat coaching calls, Q&A sessions, and guest expert trainings as well as the most supportive and innovative community of coaches out there. If you're ready to take your coaching to the next level, then you're ready for the Coach with Clarity Membership, learn more at CoachwithClarity.com. Don't forget to subscribe to the show wherever you listen to your podcasts, and if you know a coach who could use a little clarity in their work and life, then please share this episode with them. I will be back next week with another episode of the Coach with Clarity podcast. Until then, go show the world what it means to be a Coach with Clarity.

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