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Controversial Coaching 101: When is it Okay to Lie?

What they don't know, can't hurt. Right?

A photo of a woman  crossing her fingers behind her back
The tell-tale sign of a liar

What's the Honest answer?

Is it ever permissible for a coach to lie to their client? Your initial reaction might be a firm "no!" After all, lying breaches the fundamental principles of trust and honesty that coaching relationships are built upon. But... let's consider the nuances of lying. What about omitting details? For instance, when a client starts a session with a cheerful "Hey, hi, how are you?" and you’re having a difficult day, is it necessary or even helpful to share every detail? Certainly not. But then, does responding with "I’m good" count as a lie, considering it's a standard part of this social ritual?

The issue of whether a coach can lie isn’t black and white. Join us on CLCI Live as we delve into the complex topics of lies, transparency, and authenticity with our panel of experts: Jen Long (ACC), Jerome LeDuff (MCPC), Lisa Finck (MCC), Anthony Lopez (MCPC), and Brooke Adair Walters (ACC). Now let’s explore some boundaries and ethical implications!

When is it Okay to Lie?

First off: is it ever okay to lie?

Before jumping to an answer, we should consider what a lie is- or what lies are. There isn’t one type of lie. There’s a scale to them. Consider what lies can be. Half-truths, white lies, what size must a lie be to be considered a ‘lie’? What about phrasing? Or the way someone keeps their tone? If you dislike something your friend likes, but you give it a few compliments and downplay your own opinions, is that a form of dishonesty? Is omitting information a lie? Depending on your definition, a ‘lie’ could be any size, any weight, and any level of deception. 

Another question that could be asked about a lie is the motive behind it. Is it self-serving? Is it intended to cause harm for the person being lied to? Is it born out of altruism? 

Some could argue that even those lies that are fueled to protect or help people might be unacceptable still. No matter the good intentions, does lying undermine someone’s ability to make their own choices? Is it fair to hide the world from someone in an effort to protect them? Is this a sort of infantilizing or control that doesn’t value everyone as being equally capable in making choices in their life? The questions surrounding lying and if it is acceptable are broad and could always be argued over.

The Dilemma

Shredded documents with the word "confidential" visible

What situations might push a coach towards lying anyway? Perhaps the most common topic centers around sponsored coaching and confidentiality.

Consider this scenario that might prompt a coach to navigate murky ethical waters: Suppose you, as a coach, are contracted by a company (the sponsor) to help an employee, Alex, secure a promotion. During your sessions, Alex is enthusiastically formulating strategies to move to a higher role within their department. However, in a separate discussion, the company's leadership confides in you that they are considering Alex for a massive layoff due to budget cuts—not a promotion—as part of a larger restructuring that hasn’t been announced yet. Your role as a coach at this company, will not be affected.

Here's the ethical conundrum: your sponsor agreement specifies that discussions with leadership are confidential, yet your client is making plans based on the assumption of a stable future in the company. Is withholding this information merely maintaining confidentiality, or does it cross into deceitful territory by allowing Alex to continue investing in a future at the company that’s presumed to be non-existent?

Now let's take a look at the potential actions a coach might take and where it can go wrong:

Withholding Information (Lying by Omission)

Action: The coach decides to fully respect the confidentiality agreement with the company and does not disclose the potential layoff to Alex. The coach continues supporting Alex's ambitions for a promotion as if unaware of any impending changes.

Potential Issue: While this approach adheres to the confidentiality terms set by the company, it may ethically compromise the coach’s role by allowing Alex to invest time, energy, and hope in a professional future that is under threat. This can lead to a significant breach of trust if Alex later finds out about the layoff, particularly if they feel the coach allowed them to remain ignorant to their detriment.

Full Disclosure (Breaking Confidentiality)

Vague Warnings Without Specifics

Focus on Developing Resilience and Versatility

Each of these actions may seem to have its merits, but ultimately come with downsides that both impair the coaches integrity or the confidentiality of the sponsor/client.

The Solution or, Avoiding the Need to Lie

Rather than navigating this delicate situation alone, the International Coaching Federation (ICF) offers guidance that can help. The ICF emphasizes clear understanding and agreements among all parties involved. Here’s how you might approach it based on their standards:

Revisit the Coaching Agreement

Action: Review the existing agreement to determine if it provides specific guidance on handling sensitive information. The agreement may outline key details about what needs to be disclosed and what should remain confidential.

Purpose: Ensuring that the terms of engagement are clear and reflect the current situation, providing a foundation for all interactions.

Transparent Dialogue

Facilitate an Agreement Update

Ethical Decision-Making

Now, to be completely transparent with the reader, there is no "right" solution in the eyes of the ICF, only the best and worst choices.

The worst choices involve: assumptions, lack of transparency, deciding on behalf of the client, showing bias, and centering on what the coach wants as an outcome.

Whereas the best choices involve: Full transparency between ALL parties and client centeredness.

By following these guidelines, a coach can avoid the desire to lie and ensures that their actions respect the confidentiality terms, adhere to ethical coaching standards, and protect the client's interests. This balanced approach facilitates informed decision-making and fair treatment, enhancing the trust and efficacy of the coaching relationship.


Thank you,

Jen Long (ACC), Jerome LeDuff (MCPC), Lisa Finck (MCC), Anthony Lopez (MCPC), and Brooke Adair Walters (ACC)!

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