Coaching Through Transition: Part VII: Ethics

central park -- Gina Lynette

Over the course of several Tuesdays — Transition Tuesdays — I’m sharing one area of my practice that thrills me more than just about anything — coaching individuals with disabilities and their families as they transition from one life stage to another. Please note that while I’ll be describing a coaching scenario that is very similar to several families that I’ve worked with, it is an amalgamation of those conversations and is not based on any one family.

In Part I, I introduced you to Jon, Kate, and Dan and wrote a little about my approach to coaching families through the transition planning necessary to move students with disabilities from high school into an interdependent, adult life.

In Part II, I shared more about my role in working with Jon, Kate and Dan. I also talked some about what it means to be “humanistic” in coaching.

In Part III, I outlined the process and the steps I’m using to walk Jon and his parents through his transition. These steps form the structure for just about any coaching relationship.

In Part IV, we looked at the person-centered assessments I use during the Data Gathering portion of coaching a family through transition.

In Part V, we took a closer look at the PATH tool and discussed how delicious pie-in-the-sky dreaming can lead to some pretty delightful real-world results.

In Part VI, I shared a bit about coaching a family after they have identified their goals, including holding folks accountable, pooling needed resources and adjusting the plan as we go along.

Today we’re discussing a little about the ethical and multicultural considerations of coaching families through transitions. Honestly, this could be a whole series in and of itself, but I’m going to try to keep it brief.


Ethical Considerations

In working with individuals with disabilities, there must, must, must be a special emphasis on ethics. This portion of our population has traditionally been treated as less than human – ignored, institutionalized, abused and yes, even killed, often with little outrage from the rest of society. I approach my relationships with these individuals from a place of intense respect for their right to a self-determined life.

Balancing their right to choose situations that make them happy with their need for safety, health, and community inclusion is a delicate process. Regardless of the convoluting factors in the process, I, like any ethical practitioner, must hold the client’s well being in high regard, must practice from an informed and ethical standard, and ought to be very clear about what I am and am not promising through the process.

It is exciting and fascinating to be on the cutting edge of a new profession – but it also puts me, as a coach, in a risky position. As such, it is critical that anyone who coaches – however they choose to define it and wherever they acquire their credentials – keeps abreast of the latest developments in the field.

To quote the textbook:

QuoteInformed practitioners can draw on relevant academic literature to design and implement evidence-based interventions with their own clients and to evaluate client progress while adhering to ethical practice. — Stober and Grant


To get right down to it, I take ethics pretty seriously. I’ve taken graduate courses in Ethics, subscribe to both the APA (American Psychological Association) and ICF (International Coaching Federation) ethical guidelines, and practice under the supervision of a licensed psychologist. I never want a family to feel like we are in over our heads, and will quickly refer them for therapeutic support if it seems like that is what they need.


Back to Basics

I’ve mentioned Rogerian theory before. I consider myself a humanistic coach as Rogers might have defined such. A very basic tenet of humanistic work is the essential necessity of maintaining unconditional positive regard.

In my work with Jon, maintaining unconditional positive regard is paramount to his successful transition into adulthood. If I believe the case files and other disability-based assumptions about him, I will have incredibly low expectations for him, tend to talk him out of situations that put him at risk, attempt to steer him away from opportunities that seem above his skill level, and defer to his parents when there is a conflict. This would be a horrible disservice to Jon.

Rather than defaulting to these behaviors when the situation becomes complex, I go back to this ideal:

QuoteBecause I care about you, I can permit you to be autonomous and independent of my evaluations and restrictions. You are a separate person with your own feelings and opinions regarding what is right or wrong. The fact that I care for you does not mean that I must guide you in making choices, but that I can allow you to be yourself and to decide what is best for you. – Jess and Gregory Feist


It isn’t always easy to maintain this neutrality when I’m working with someone with a diagnosis that may make it difficult for them to make an informed choice. The whole picture becomes even more convoluted when you take into account that individuals with disabilities are often infantilized in just about every aspect of their lives. They need support from people for some things so they end up losing autonomy in everything. The incongruence in their experience of self and other’s expectations of them also muddies the water. How do you form a healthy self concept when people discuss “what’s wrong” with you so openly and so rarely highlight what’s right?

When I strip it all back to Roger’s ideals, it absolutely simplifies my role as a coach. I care, but I don’t decide. That’s Jon’s role, and, when appropriate, his parents, Kate and Dan, and their support system can help him make those choices.


Multicultural Considerations

Whether you want to consider multicultural factors or not – and regardless of the coach’s or client’s personal cultural heritage – it’s still there.

QuoteYou must accept the paradox that it is critical to consider race to get to the point where race does not matter. – Stewart Cooper



The best practice is to find a way to bring the issue up and address it from the beginning. Once I’ve broached the topic and we come to an understanding that it matters when it matters, but that race and culture aren’t the only factors in how our coaching work will go, I ask permission to bring it up when it seems relevant and encourage my clients to do the same.


The Disability Culture

In coaching individuals with disabilities, there is another culture at play beyond their ethnic or religious backgrounds. The culture of disability is a pervasive pressure on these individuals. From the moment of diagnosis, they’ve been told who they are and what they are able and, more often, not able to do by professionals who may know little about them. They’re often moved into segregated settings in school and live on the margins of their communities.

The goal of my practice is to reverse some of this damage and even highlight where a perceived disability is actually an asset. By inviting members of the broader community – students at their school, their pastor, the mayor, the fire chief – to participate in their PATH, I semi-subversively create interest in this individual as a fellow human.


The Payoff

Through our work, Jon now has allies who are not mired in the jargon of disability; he is seen as a competent member of his community. The varsity coach invites him to manage the team. The pastor asks him to speak to the congregation. Other students seek him out as a friend, not as a project. The fire chief offers him a job at one of the stations.

In short, Jon has the opportunity, as Tom Pomerantz would say, “to boldly go where everyone else has gone before.”


For folks who like to know more, here are the references from this series:

Brouwer, P. J. (1964). The power to see ourselves. Harvard Business Review, 42(6), 156-165.

Cooper, S., Wilson-Stark, K., Peterson, D. B., O’Roark, A. M., & Pennington, G. (2008). Consulting competently in multicultural contexts. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 60(2), 186-202.

Fiest, J. & Fiest, G. J. (2009). Theories of personality (7th Ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

Helen Sanderson and Associates. (2007). Person centred thinking. Liberty, Missouri: HSA, USA.

Pearpoint, J., O’Brien, J., & Forest, M.  (1993). PATH: Planning possible positive futures. Inclusion Press:  Toronto.

Peterson, D. (1996). Executive coaching at work: The art of one-on-one change. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 48(2), 78-86.

Stern, L. (2004). Executive Coaching: A Working Definition. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 56(3), 154-162.

Stober, D. R. & Grant, A. M. (eds.) (2006). Evidence based coaching handbook: Putting the best practices to work for your clients. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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About Gina Lynette

I have been called a, "PollyAnna, sugar-coated idealist." I like to think of myself as more optimistic than that.


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