A recent report from the US contained the astonishing information that about 70% of the therapists in the survey said they had cried during sessions with clients. Since what therapists have done yesterday is what coaches may feel they can do tomorrow, how do we respond?
‘Ah ha!’ cries the coach who enjoys her own tears and likes the idea of sharing emotion, ‘This gives me the chance to be real!’
If you are not ‘real’ with your clients then you should not be in coaching at all, and bringing your authentic presence to every engagement is essential, but how would it help to join in with a crying client’s tears? The argument might go that by crying you demonstrate how moved you are by the client’s story, you show fellow feeling, you create empathy. And yes, we have moved on from Dr Freud lurking behind his patient so that no hint of human reaction could get in the way of the process.
All of this could be true. But before giving way to blubbing, ask yourself what the downsides would be. First, by crying you are getting so involved that you have imagined yourself being in the same situation as your client and have become overwhelmed. Your limbic system sends a flood of cortisol to your prefrontal cortex, just as the client’s has to his or hers, shutting down your higher cerebral processes. What is the result? You can’t think clearly, you fumble for the right question, you and your client are floundering together, not a good place for any coach and client to be.
Just as importantly, many clients come to us because their emotions are in a mess. They have failed to get the job they longed for, they have been made redundant in a particularly brutal way, they have a boss who is a terrifying bully, their marriage is failing, they have just had a frightening diagnosis involving a serious health problem.
No client ever gives this openly as a reason for choosing one coach over another, but it is pretty clear to me that they are looking for maturity, wisdom and calm. They want proof through how we are with them, not through what we say, that it is possible to survive and manage emotional shock and disappointment. If we cry with them we convey that we, too, find it difficult.
I once did a supervision session with an inexperienced coach who had joined in her client’s tears and was aware that the session had gone, as she put it, ‘horribly wrong’ from that point on. In fact it became clear that what had happened was that, seeing the tears, the client had tried to coach the coach, reassuring her that she (the client) would be fine, not to worry. I advise against this kind of role-swapping. It’s not what coaching is for.
In coaching we are doing empathy, not sympathy. I might indeed cry with a friend, and have, for instance in the aftermath of a hideous bereavement. But I have never cried with a client. I remind myself that I am there to be useful and that the more upset I become the less likely I am to be useful. I have held a client’s hand, I have very sincerely expressed my sorrow for their difficulties, I have listened carefully. Equally, I’m well aware of the dangers of offering stupidly trivializing clichés about feeling their pain, time healing and so on. What does a client want when they cry with us? Mostly I believe it is to feel understood and accepted, not to be judged or told to cheer up – or to have someone join in. If you join in what does it say? One message might be, ‘Yes, it truly is hopeless and that’s why I’m crying along with you. I am as helpless as you’.
Quietly listening, offering warmth and acceptance, creating a still, calm space will, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, mean that the client soon stops crying and is able to get centred again. Then you can coach.