Military metaphors have become common during this pandemic: it’s a ‘fight’, a ‘battle’, a ‘war’ – one that involves the ‘civilians’ as much as the ‘troops’. As coaches, we are as much at risk from the virus as our clients and just as likely to be affected by anxiety, hope, dread and sorrow as anyone we work with. This gives coaching in the time of coronavirus some unique challenges. Here, we explore why being trauma-aware is especially relevant at this point, and what to look out for – in ourselves and in our clients.
Client A was hospitalised with the virus and had three weeks off work. He is a senior journalist working from home. He reports being easily upset and being constantly tired. In his coaching session, he lambasts himself for being ‘weak’.
Client B has a management role in a social services department. She is still working from home. She is resentful that her husband has taken no part in home schooling their children.
Client C is a young teacher who feels guilty that she has not volunteered to teach the children of key workers. She has a lifelong fear of ‘germs’, some episodes of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and, despite not needing to ‘shield’, has not left home for 12 weeks.
Client D is an intensive care team consultant whose issue in coaching is his anger about what he calls ‘chaos’ in triage systems and his helplessness in making his voice heard.
Trauma awareness can add depth and richness to your coaching and it may be especially useful in this crisis. At the core of being trauma-informed is having clarity about what trauma is and how it manifests itself. We find the work of Professor Franz Ruppert1 to be a helpful framework, as it is simple and yet captures the complexity of trauma.
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Implications for the pandemic
Many of us use distraction to get away from inner pain – it is a survival strategy. The distractions we might have used previously may no longer be available. For all four of the clients we described earlier, boundaries, necessary for feeling safe, have been disrupted. The journalist had not fully recovered physically or mentally and was shocked by having needed to be hospitalised: it had disturbed his idea of himself as fit and healthy. The social services manager was unable to protect her boundaries, and the existing weaknesses in her marriage were ruthlessly exposed; she was overwhelmed by too many Zoom meetings, too many domestic responsibilities, feeling she needed to be available all the time to everyone. The young teacher had developed her phobia and OCD as a response to an intensely traumatising childhood where both her parents had been alcoholics, leaving her to manage the care of a younger brother. The pandemic recreated the intensity of the trauma she had experienced as a child: the world really was unsafe; there really were ‘germs’ everywhere. For the intensive care consultant, his difficulty in challenging senior managers reawakened the sense of impotence he had experienced as a small boy sent to boarding school at far too young an age.
What should coaches expect from clients at this time?
Some coaches have raised concerns about what they should expect from clients as we move out of this situation and possibly into yet more uncertainty. Clients might be bringing unfamiliar issues, thoughts and feelings to the sessions. Our task is not to get caught up in the survival game of wanting to rescue them, nor to shut them down to avoid our own anxieties. These are our own survival strategies as coaches. People whose survival strategies include work addiction and perfectionism find rest difficult and often sleep poorly. They may also be addicted to exercise. Working from home with the family around can cause these tactics to overheat. Clients may suffer from exhaustion and be closer to burnout than they were before. The coaching focus here is: What will help you find rest? What parts of yourself can help you let go of these survival drivers? Whose help do you need? Some clients may need therapeutic help to get to the root causes of their survival drivers.
Clients who use control as their survival strategy could be overwhelmed by the uncertainty. Their normal mechanisms for control may not be working: children interrupt, exercise can’t be done in the safe environment of the gym, who knows what their team members are up to when they are also working from home? The fear of being out of control can create high levels of anxiety.
The frightened child
For some of us, this experience may awaken profoundly upsetting survival thoughts. The repeated use in the media of the word ‘isolation’ as in ‘self-isolation’ may trigger feelings of having been isolated as a child; for instance, having being hospitalised, passed through the fostering system or of being with parents who were unable to care for us. People who live alone may feel vulnerable, where the lockdown experience reawakens early trauma. A good question here might be, ‘How am I isolating myself now?’ If we feel uncared for in the present, we may be identifying with times in the past when we were uncared for. The question here might be, ‘How am I failing to care for myself now?’ A client struggling to keep his business alive during the most intense lockdown phase found that he was once more using alcohol as his crutch, sleeping badly, reverting to an earlier style of working when he had found delegation difficult. The coach’s question here was, ‘How might you make looking after yourself the priority here?’.
Letting go of guilt
Some people, coaches and clients alike, have enjoyed the lockdown experience. They have no financial worries, and they are relieved that they no longer have to perform for others or seek their approval. They have relished the long walks in pleasant weather, they fall into the low-risk category. Some have felt guilty about this enjoyment. The reality is that it isn’t either/or. We can feel privileged and compassion for those who are not so lucky. The ‘shoulds’ are the clue to these being the equivalent of ‘parental injunctions’. The pandemic has exposed divisions and differences in the society we have helped create. Guilt is only useful if it triggers something we need to learn about how our action has transgressed our value system. Feel it, note it, move on. We need to be sure that whatever actions we take come from our healthy self, and that it isn’t a reaction coming from the needs of our survival self for validation or rescuing. This was true for a previously hard-pressed chief executive who found that much of her charity’s work could be done remotely, and much of it without her. This prompted the question, ‘What would I rather have from now on, if I could have it?’ Some clients will have found new energies and capabilities through entrepreneurial or community-focused participation. They might be energised and excited about how to take that into the next phase of their lives. One coach offered training and technical help on remote working to his local volunteer organisation. This was so successful and rewarding that he decided to commit 30% of his working time to this organisation for the foreseeable future.
Looking after yourself
As coaches, we need to attend to our own wellbeing. This means knowing how to calm and regulate our breathing, to shut down negative thinking, to connect with our body and felt experience. Mindfulness, meditation, yoga, deep-breathing exercises, walking, running, painting or image-making, keeping a reflective journal and being with nature may all help. Don’t hesitate to consider coaching, extra supervision, counselling or therapy for yourself if you feel you may need more support as we move through and out of this crisis and possibly into new waves of it. If we can stay in our healthy selves most of the time, we can be with our clients in whatever challenges they bring to us.
We don’t need special ‘techniques’
Coaches often ask us whether you need a unique trauma-aware set of tools and techniques. The answer is ‘no’. You don’t need any special pandemic-specific tools and techniques either. Your normal coaching skills (see Rogers5) will be more than enough. Clients are not looking to us to reform or give them answers.
Some approaches we have found useful include:
|The client||Coaching response|
|Uses language clotted with should, must, everyone, no-one, eg: ‘No-one cares about the low-paid people in our organisation.’||'Is that true? Who says you "must"? What are the exceptions?’|
|Expresses helplessness, eg: ‘I can see how we should improve our triage systems, but no one will listen to me.’||Asks for evidence that the assertion is true. Encourages ideas about what action to take.|
|Expresses a dilemma, eg: ‘I don’t know whether I should report a colleague for carelessness over the use of PPE.’||‘Let’s look at the possible choices here. What are the upsides and downsides of each? Which might be the least bad option?’|
|Gets upset, reports being overwhelmed with anxiety.||Listening, accepting, asking, ‘What has worked when you’ve felt like this before?’ ‘Who else might help here?’|
|Catastrophises, eg: ‘If I get the virus, I will get it badly or infect my whole family.’||Listening, then challenging, asking, ‘How likely is that?’ ‘What’s the best that could happen?’ “What’s the worst…?’ ‘What’s the most likely…?’ ‘How would you cope if the worst did happen?’|
|Reports physical symptoms.||Checks what medical help the client has sought, coaches around getting more.|
What we know is that all our clients will have a unique response to this situation. This response will be a combination of their trauma history, survival and attachment patterns, and their reality in the here and now. Recovery will take time. For some, it will take longer than for others. However, this experience is in our system and we will carry aspects of it with us for a while. Recovery is not to be rushed; renewal needs reflection, creativity and an investment in our physical health and wellbeing. The impact will resonate, and issues may continue to arise many months or even years later. We can’t all just pretend this didn’t happen.
Connecting with others is a key component of the recovery process. Clients may need support to rebuild healthy social or professional networks. We too have to go through a recovery process and can help ourselves by connecting with peers and others to talk about what we are experiencing. We need to attend to ourselves so that we can be fully present for our partners, family and clients.
1 Ruppert F. Trauma, fear and love. Steyning: Green Balloon Publishing; 2014.
2 Ruppert F. Trauma, Angst und Liebe. Munich: Kosel-Verlag; 2012.
3 Vaughan Smith J. Coaching and trauma: from surviving to thriving. London: Open University Press: 2019.
4 Vaughan Smith J, Rogers J. What does trauma have to do with coaching? Coaching Today 2019; October/32: 6–10. 5 Rogers J. Coaching skills: the definitive guide to being a coach (4th edition). London: Open University Press; 2016.