An inevitable part of the coaching-client relationship is the moment at which the cancellation policy becomes more than just words on paper (or pixels on a screen) and has effects on the schedules, money and emotions of all involved.
These reactions can often be the assumption that the policy is selfish or unfair. It seems normal that some skepticism arises when you receive a contract that appears to benefit the person you are paying but only costs you. Reactions ahead of time are less frequent than the moment of when it comes up, but I wanted to write an article to better articulate my reasoning behind why my policy is for the benefit of the coaching-client relationship.
The emotional reactions towards the idea of having to pay for late cancellations can feel like you are being 'punished' for missing a session. But the reaction comes in many forms, and is often very informative of other struggles or dynamics you might have as a pattern in your life. The reaction could connect to some of your challenges, memories or beliefs in a way we are not consciously aware of. There may be some emotional transference from a previous event where you felt you were unjustly treated. This places the emotional memory from the previous time on the current time and reduces objectivity. These reactions have consequences that challenge the trust and connection. For example, holding onto a belief that no refunds for cancellations is self-serving will create a resentment that undermines mutual respect.
So, is it a selfish policy? If selfishness were the motivation a rigid cancellation policy is counter-productive. The coach would have to sacrifice principles that they believe in just to make themselves more comfortable from avoiding these conflicts. For example, think of that particular 'cool teacher' or 'extra nice' relative that most of us had. The one that spoiled children endlessly, let them get away with anything, and consequently was not taken at all seriously. We might've enjoyed the freedom at the time, but chances are you didn't learn any life lessons or grow into yourself more as a result of being around them.
Maintaining a rigid boundary inevitably raises confrontation in scheduling or emotions. If I gave in every time it would actually be more selfish, as it would allow me to maintain exclusively nice, friendly, 'buddy buddy' feelings while betraying the results that we're both seeking.
The logic may appear cold, but its intentions are warm. In particular as a productivity and motivation coach, it is part of my working framework that holding you accountable to your commitments (and thus your goals and most fulfilling life) comes from the necessary calibration of expectations, reality and desires.
You could think of the coaching-client relationship as equivalent to the level of a medical commitment.
Sigmund Freud likened treatment fees to music lessons:
“I follow the principle of payment for a fixed hour exclusively. A given hour is assigned to each client, and that hour is his and he is responsible for it even if he does not make use of it. This practice, which for the music or language instructor is considered normal in our society, when it involves a physician sometimes appears harsh or unworthy of his role...”
The APA code of ethics cautions that charging clients for short-window cancellations should be made:
“with the utmost consideration for the client and his or her circumstances.”
It is with this that I am flexible where unavoidable crises arise, but rather draconian in all other circumstances.
The cancellation policies of therapists are not only logistic or financial but connected more deeply to structures that allow therapeutic relationships to work. Without these structures sessions cannot provide a framework for you to risk change safely and be willing to confront challenging feelings and beliefs in a place that you feel held.
Only waiving the fee if the therapist can fill the hour creates another set of problems. It would require the client to project feelings upon the therapist's unobservable actions: that they don't care enough to fill it or wastes their whole day chasing emails and calls; has no other clients or a long waiting lists; dishonestly charges even when slots are refilled or is perfectly honest.
Another problem with an arbitrary and infinitely flexible policy is that it trades away part of the other aspects of the feedback structure, such as the length or frequency of the sessions. Consistency is part of the container that allows emotional vulnerability (and therapeutic regression) to occur. The advantage of consistency is that the client knows, based on his or her own behaviour, whether a fee will be charged. This is analogous to knowing that therapy starts and stops on time, that if one is X minutes late, there are Y minutes left for therapy that day. This models consistent behaviour that shows that rules are respected and followed, which are especially important when you are opening up your vulnerable parts to someone. You want to feel supported, and not have to worry about whether they'll give up on you or other commitments arbitrarily.
There is a certain cold logic to a cancellation policy with no excuses permitted (not even emergencies). This policy provides the most consistent “therapeutic frame,” in that subjective judgments of the therapist never enter the picture, but it also avoids any of the powerful conversations that can be had from investigating the client's relationship to this source of conflict. It's also less tender to tell a client that the night they spent in the ER costs them that much extra. In a role of support, I have a hard time justifying a lack of compassion.
Likewise, waiving the fee for a cancelled session should not depend on how busy, diligent, honest, or popular the therapist is. whether to waive the fee depending on the reason for the absence causes confrontation between the coach's values and the client's, creates a relationship dynamic of judging the client, and thus is forced into punishment when the excuse is “not good enough.”
A related article [[“Paying for missed sessions is good for you!”]] argues that being “conventionally nice” is actually counter-therapeutic.
So what precisely is my policy:
The client will provide a minimum of 36 hours notice, outside of which rescheduling and cancellation can occur, but within which the client is wholly responsible for paying for the session no matter what reason. If a client is facing a medical emergency that takes them to the hospital with no advance notice, I will not charge them for the session.
A cancelled appointment affects three people: you, your coach and another client that could've used your reserved time slot. When a session is cancelled without adequate notice, there's not enough time to offer this slot to another current client, a client on the wait list, or one who needs emergency support.
I have found that 36 hours is necessary beyond 24 to allow for reaching people through different communication methods, across time zones and asking multiple people subsequently.
Because we believe that the responsibility for your care is both on your side and ours, we agree that if you are double-booked, more than 15 minutes late or do not give you the equivalent 36 hours notice, then you will receive a free session.
Note that this policy still makes no distinction is made between frivolous advance cancellations after a contract has been signed (I booked a cotton candy making class in two weeks), or minor emergencies which both cost the client but come from very different motives. Clients continue to have agency over the long-term course of their life, but are fully accountable into the effects that they have upon others.
When clients cancel sessions greater than 36 hours but less than a week in advance, I can sometimes fill the slot and sometimes cannot, but that's my problem, not the client’s.
So the issue for the therapist is not just a question of whether or not the income can be recovered but what best serves the well-being of the client?
Okay, so I've mentioned that having strict cancellation policy for short-term cancellations is helpful to clients by providing structure. How is that true?
For one, it reduces the levels of uncertainty in the relationship. Uncertainty reduces confidence and questions any authority of the coach's knowledge. Authority is only given to my by a client when entering into the relationship, and you trust me with this authority because you recognize that it will be used to hold you accountable to your word and greater goals. You do this because you trust my experience and perspective, and without that trust my opinions lose value.
In the coaching relationship, the boundaries from the structure are even harder to maintain than a psychologist's role where you are always meeting in a specific place. The place can develop many connotations and become a literal safe container to open up within.
Additionally, there is a subconscious, emotional component. As we interact through sessions and other communications there is the conscious self that you are using to interact with me, and there is also the instinctive, emotional self which could be considered a child subset of our reactions. Also can be thought of as the [Social Survival Mammoth] which is part of our brain running a constant background process concerning social belonging and safety:
Are there signs that Aaron is interested and listening? Does he understand what I'm saying? Is he responding emotionally appropriately? Can I trust him? Is he safe to open up to? Is anyone safe? Will I get hurt? Can I trust that he means what he says? [[questions inspired by previous article linked]]
So this subconscious 'child-mind' looks to the adult to protect them from consequences that they are unable to comprehend. They need to know that the authority figure is safe to trust - that they have good reasons for their rules and will not budge on a boundary that is important. For example: The only ever time I got hit as a child was if it directly endangered my life. That signal was explicitly clear, very quickly and did not need to be questioned. Of course I'd never hit a client, but if they're engaging in self-desctructive behaviour, they will certainly hear it.
Keeping with the child analogy: If someone shows you nothing but love, but in turn will not budge on a particular thing - you recognize that it is a boundary that must be respected. If those boundaries become fluid, the level of permitted actions and their importance to the relationship is questioned, and the stability of the relationship can deteriorate.
The child looks to the adult to protect them from consequences they are unable to comprehend. They need to know that the authority figure is safe to trust—that they know how it really is and will not budge on a boundary that is important.
On one hand the desire for the inner child is to know that you are cared for, and you will be protected from any pain (in this case financial & scheduling conflict) but more deeply and importantly, to know that safety is ensured. To know that safety from any greater pain will be provided. Acknowledgement that safety is more important than the some discomfort. In childhood, these are things that will be dangerous or have permanent consequences, in coaching it is holding ourselves to our higher needs of self-actualization and transcending our internal challenges (of which we all have varying levels of screaming brats we have to deal with).
There can always be excuses made for a situation, but taking responsibility for your actions is a habit that cannot just apply to limited aspects of your life. If there becomes a consistent problem with cancellations, then it will force you to either deal with that in the way you approach life (better planning, setting up notifications & reminders, etc) or you will choose not to address it, end the coaching relationship and fail at what you set out to do in the first place. That's not a choice I can make for you, but it's an important choice for me to ensure that you must face. If you're not committed to addressing the limitations that you have felt brought you to a dire enough place that you wanted help to get out of it, then there is nothing that I could do to help you, even if I were willing to use force.
The very real possibility that I will lose clients is an unselfish act - my best customer service is not just to make you happy and get paid, but to hold you to the changes you desire to see in your life.
So the strict cancellation works with compassion, understanding, and a willingness to explore the challenges around boundaries. But at the end of the day, it is to firmly and unwaveringly establish a benchmark of confidence. So the aim of an unwavering cancellation rule addresses unspoken and often unknown needs to show that the coach-client relationship is a safe space within which you can expect consistency and support to your higher levels of needs.
Were the unspoken question of you social survival mammoth asked: “Can I trust you?” My policy is in place to offer a consistent yes.
Aaron Ball. Recovered Academic. Grieving Environmentalist. Evidence-Based Transformational Coach. Electronic musician. Transrationalist.