Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Unspeakables ~ The hidden traps between us

We are pleased to share an article entitled Unspeakables ~ The hidden traps between uswritten by Dóra Hegedűs.

Navigating the often-unspoken realms of bias, power dynamics and emotional entanglements is essential for coaching efficacy. Despite their silent presence, these subjects often impact the attitudes and frame of reference we bring to our roles as coaches, whether consciously or subconsciously. Recognizing these “unspeakables” not only fosters better outcomes, but also respects the sanctity of the coach-client relationship. In a world of increasing complexity and diversity, understanding these unspeakables is not just an ethical responsibility, but an essential competency. Drawing upon a 17-year tenure in coaching, as well as my experience as a Gestalt therapist and supervisor, this article delves into some of these topics critical to effective and safe client relationships.

The Coach’s Unspeakable Topics


Implicit biases are automatic, mental shortcuts that help us process information but can also perpetuate stereotypes. Implicit biases can affect hiring decisions, professional evaluations, and interpersonal dynamics,1 in both negative and positive ways.

Even seasoned coaches can inadvertently carry these biases into the coaching relationship, impacting how they interact with clients. Studies indicate that these biases can even dictate the coaching strategies we choose, affecting the efficacy of our practice.

Coaching Tip: Self-Awareness

Building self-awareness around your implicit biases can help in moderating their impact. Regular introspection, supervision, tools like the Harvard Implicit Association Test, self-observation and feedback can provide further in-depth understanding.


The relationship between a coach and client isn’t an equal one; the coach holds a certain degree of power.3 Acknowledging and exploring this dynamic can be uncomfortable but is crucial for establishing a safe space for the client. Imbalance of power can lead to decreased client satisfaction and, in extreme cases, even harm.

Coaching Tip: Transparent Communication

Transparency between the coach and the client helps to demystify the roles and expectations on both sides, thereby leveling the playing field to some extent. Active feedback loops and periodic check-ins can serve as mechanisms to balance these dynamics.


Our perceptions of physical appearance – including weight, age, handicaps and diversity factors like race and gender – can subconsciously influence the coaching relationship. Additionally, coaches themselves might feel uncomfortable or ill-equipped to discuss certain topics, further complicating the dynamic.

For example, talking about eating habits with an obese client might be uncomfortable for a coach who themselves struggles with body image. Weight bias can lead to poorer healthcare outcomes due to stereotyping and discrimination,4 and this bias can exist within the coach as well as the client. We can also have difficulties addressing the client’s “unprofessional” look or body odor, and would rather pretend not to notice.

Coaching Tip: Sensitivity, Inclusivity & Self-Awareness

We need to be sensitive to these factors and ensure an inclusive environment. We also need to recognize our own discomfort. Before venturing into potentially sensitive topics, consider whether it’s necessary and relevant to the coaching objectives.

Training in cultural competence and diversity can prepare coaches to navigate these complexities effectively. Supervision and therapy can be valuable tools in exploring the coach’s own triggers and fears.

The Client’s Unspeakable Topics


Mental health issues can be highly stigmatized, making them difficult topics to approach. Mental health stigma affects help-seeking behaviors and can actually keep people from getting the help they need. People are often too afraid of being judged or feeling ashamed to seek out care, which can make their issues worse over time. Furthermore, people from minority ethnic groups may avoid treatment systems that do not reflect their cultural perspective on mental illness and corresponding care.


Create an acknowledging, compassionate and non-judgemental environment where mental health is a welcome topic of conversation. A structured approach, possibly involving mental health professionals, can facilitate these discussions.

Be aware of your professional boundaries and consider what’s the best kind of support for your client. If you’re not a trained therapist, the ICF publication, “When and How to Refer a Client to Therapy” can provide guidelines.


Religion, politics and personal values often fall into the category of ‘do not discuss’ in many professional settings, but they can significantly impact coaching relationship, especially if they conflict with the coach’s values. Furthermore, coaches are even expected to discover these, in order to create value for the client.

COACHING TIP: Neutral Ground

Maintaining a neutral stance ensures the coaching focus remains on the client’s goals and objectives. Remember: It’s not about you. When core values clash to an extent that they compromise the coaching process, it’s best to refer your client to another professional who aligns better with their belief system.


Coaching is not a “Truth or Dare” game, yet secrets regarding relevant issues (on both sides of the table) will block the way forward. The act of holding back secrets can contribute to increased stress and hinder personal development.

Secrets can also have relational impacts beyond individual well-being. The act of concealing important information can create emotional distance and reduce intimacy in relationships. In the coaching context, such secrets can become barriers, preventing a full understanding and thereby limiting the effectiveness of the process, while also adding a lingering shame to the dynamic.

Coaching Tip: Full Confidentiality & Respect

Given the potential relational strains created by secrets, ensuring full confidentiality is crucial in the coaching relationship. Confidentiality isn’t just a cornerstone – it’s the very foundation upon which the trust is built between coach and client.

Your client needs to know that they are safe; that their deepest fears and grandest dreams won’t escape the room. This assurance enables them to share more freely, which not only aids their personal development but can also enhance the trust and effectiveness of the relationship.

Approach secrets with the utmost respect and sensitivity, as these often come with a heavy emotional weight.

The Intersection: What’s Unspeakable for Both


Financial concerns are often unspoken, yet can overshadow the coaching relationship. For coaches, financial stress might manifest as a need to keep a full client roster, which could, in turn, compromise their objectivity. For clients, it can manifest in various ways, such as reluctance to commit to long-term coaching or sporadic attendance.

Financial stress is not just a personal issue, but one that spills into relationships, leading to relational tension and reduced trust. When financial concerns lurk in the background of a coaching relationship, they can subtly erode the trust and focus.

Coaching Tip: Open Dialogue

An open dialogue about financial expectations and concerns can help clear the air and realign focus on the coaching objectives. For coaches, this might mean being flexible in payment terms for clients undergoing financial hardship. For clients, this means being upfront about what they can realistically afford in terms of coaching.

Transparency alleviates some of this stress, allowing both parties to better engage.


It’s not uncommon for strong emotional bonds to form in the coaching relationship, given its intimate nature. These emotional connections can range from feelings of attraction, care and affection to more complicated emotions like envy, contempt, or even love.

While these feelings are natural, they can pose relational risks and impact the effectiveness of the coaching engagement. The dynamics between coach and client can have significant ethical implications, including the risk of emotional entanglement – no wonder there are so many research papers and books on the Topic. Such relational risks can blur the lines between professional and personal boundaries, potentially derailing the coaching objectives, and even harm the client directly.

Coaching Tip: Emotional Boundaries

Setting emotional boundaries is essential to preserve the integrity of the coaching relationship. If signs of emotional entanglement arise, they should be acknowledged and addressed promptly. This could mean recalibrating the coaching relationship or even recommending the client to another coach, all while maintaining strict confidentiality. Regular supervision and peer review can serve as preventive mechanisms.


Facing the unspeakable issues head-on in a coaching relationship is not merely an ethical obligation; it’s a calling that goes to the heart of why we become coaches in the first place. It’s about fostering a sacred space where both the coach and the client can shed their veils and confront the unspoken.

It’s our duty, and our privilege, to ensure that unspeakables are not just recognized but actively addressed. This isn’t just about maintaining professional standards; it’s about elevating the very soul of coaching. Only by courageously navigating these often uncomfortable waters can we offer our clients a passage to a life they’ve dared to dream of.

Let’s continue the conversation by connecting with your colleagues on our Facebook page