Let’s Talk About Ethics

Yes, this section is worth reading.

Most people, including NLP practitioners, feel like we are ethical people. But it’s one thing to be successful and have your heart in the right place, and it’s another to have the understanding of ethics that you need in order to take on challenging cases – or even not-so-challenging cases. Here’s why:

1) Too many well-meaning people are getting into trouble. Most of us have a few ethical blind spots – areas that we just haven’t thought about. Yet these blind spots can have serious consequences if we happen to run into a problem.

2) There are serious legal consequences that may arise from some innocent misunderstandings about ethics and related laws. 

3) Coaches need to know some things about law and ethics. There are laws and regulations that apply to coaches (or that can apply, depending on the circumstances) that you may not know about. Generally, coaching and NLP trainings give ethics little, if any, attention. However, coaches do sometimes come under the authority of mental health licensing boards when they get into trouble. You should know how to avoid this. 

4) Even though you try to screen out clients that are not appropriate for your practice, it is inevitable that you will occasionally find yourself working with someone who has some serious issues that you are not prepared to work with. You need to have policies and procedures for evaluating, screening, referring, and transferring these folks. A lot of coaches do this by the seat of their pants. Sometimes this causes problems for them.  

5) It is possible to cause significant problems for clients if we are unclear about a key ethical point or two. A bad result can cause the client to shy away from help that they need in the future, or worse. 

6) So much thought has been put into ethics and how to explain laws to therapists and others that they may apply to, that it would be crazy not to dip into this information on a regular basis, in order to be informed, stay up-to-date, and have the proper policies in place. 

A little history: 

Laws, regulations and ethical guidelines have been evolving for a long time, and they are continuing to undergo changes. Laws and ethics pertaining to therapy are dramatically different from those of forty years ago. 

Generally speaking, we’re talking about vast improvements, not a mindless intrusion of bureaucracy. 

Did you know that ethical standards for healers date back to the Hippocratic Oath, developed roughly 2,500 years ago, and even farther back to the Nigerian healer’s code. As you can imagine, much of the impetus for regulating professionals has come from problems with the professionals’ conduct. 

Enforcement actions range from letters of warning or other sanctions, to punishments, not to mention civil liability that can result in lawsuits. 

Speaking of licensing boards: 

Coaches are not regulated as psychotherapists by licensing boards. But if a board comes to feel that a coach is practicing psychotherapy, there may be a problem. 

Although boards, at least in the U.S., are not actively looking for coaches that might be crossing that line, there are ways that coaches can come to the attention of licensing boards. This happens when a dissatisfied client files a grievance with such a board. 

Clients are especially likely to file a grievance with the state licensing board when there is a conflict over money, disappointment with services, or the client feels they have been used in some way, such as through a sexual relationship. 

When a coach or therapist tries to pull out of a sexual relationship with an ex-client, the ex-client may become quite vindictive.  

One way clients can be disappointed is if you charge an unusually high fee and create unusually high expectations. 

Another way is if you create expectations that you are like a psychotherapist and then miss key moves that a therapist might make. 

The coaches that are the most vulnerable to making a mistake like this are the ones that began creating a defensive style during their childhood in which they tended to cultivate a fantasy of elevated competence in order to protect against feeling socially marginalized and inadequate. That comment sounds pretty harsh, but it is about a common occurrence. 

Take care not to give the impression that you are providing psychotherapy or treatment of mental disorders. 

Coaches can come under the purview of licensing boards if the board thinks that your promotional materials or actions put you in the position of providing a service that they license. If you look at the legal definition of psychotherapy in your state or other authority, you will see how this could happen. In some states, the definition of psychotherapy is vague. 

Mental health land mines: 

A key concern is that the coach will end up with a person who’s hidden mental health issues can cause problems for the coach, if not an outright bad outcome for the client. 

Coaches should become familiar with signs of mental and emotional issues that may lead to problems, specifically because these coaches (by the scope of their professional responsibility) are not performing mental health assessments, and clients may not disclose mental health issues, even if they are aware of them. 

Ask about previous mental health problems and treatment, and determine whether there are outstanding issues that may not have been adequately treated. 

All coaches should be prepared to refer to trusted mental health professionals. Besides, networking with mental health workers may yield clients for your coach’s services. Therapists should refer people seeking success coaching to someone like you, unless this is one of their specialties already. 

Comments for Licensees: 

Licensed clinicians have their blind spots, as research into the art and science of diagnosis tells us. Many therapists tend to have a pet diagnosis that they use more than the average therapist. 

Very common areas where therapists fail to appropriately treat or refer are sleep problems, domestic violence, substance abuse, cognitive disabilities, dissociation and subtle brain injuries. 

The takeaway message for therapists is: 

Get deep with assessment issues and stay current. While we’re at it, stay up on the legal landscape as well. 

Ethical guidelines we swear by

We have provided ethical guidelines for NLP practitioners on our website. If you review them, you will probably think of various situations where they can have some relevance and wisdom. Although coaching programs tend to provide little or no training in law and ethics, we feel that this deserves your attention. We hope you will absorb and consistently apply these guidelines.