Coaching going nowhere? Could hidden trauma be the problem?

Here are some common coaching scenarios from my own practice as a supervisor in the last year, all client details disguised:

Client A Is considering leaving his job abruptly with no alternative on the horizon. At their first session Client A describes a pattern of repeated sudden exits, sometimes triggered by him, sometimes by the boss and for reasons that seem flimsy. Client A’s coach begins to feel responsible and burdened; it is surely her duty to stop him from the reckless path he seems ready to take?

Client B tells his coach straight out that he is estranged from his parents. They sent him to boarding school at eight years old and in his teenage years he realized he was gay. It felt impossible to come out at school so he preserved his secret, at, he says, ‘very high cost’. When he was nineteen, he told his parents, keen fundamentalist Christians, but this resulted in their rejection for his ‘sin’ and ‘refusal to repent’. ‘I already felt rejected, so I felt that it was not OK to be me.’ Client B is now ‘out’ but says nothing at work about his private life. Now he needs to make a change of career. Client B’s coach suddenly realizes that in their sessions she is doing all the work and also knows that the coaching is going nowhere.

Client C had a long, serious illness as a child and was in hospital, in effect separated from her parents, for several years. She has cultivated a passive, ‘sweet’ demeanour which means that she is unlikely to get the promotion that she needs. Client C’s coach realizes that childhood holds the key but is afraid of ‘doing harm’ if she raises it.

Client D is a chief executive who works obsessively and is never parted from his email. He works on holiday, he works at weekends. What is worse is that he presses his staff to do the same while constantly telling them that ‘work-life balance’ is important. He is exhausted, tetchy, miserable and his personal life is in disarray. He brusquely tells his coach not to waste their time with advice about time management because he already knows all the standard ‘rules’. D’s coach feels utterly stumped, finds herself resenting her client and tells me as her supervisor that she feels a complete failure as a coach.  It’s clear that D is on the verge of burn out but as his coach what should she do?

These four pairs of people, clients and coaches, are stuck in a mutually fruitless dance. They are going nowhere because the client is most probably sheltering inside a constructed self, ‘the survival self’, a set of behaviours that have made them feel safe but which are dysfunctional. The behaviours are not helpful because it is exhausting to keep them up and they are a long way from the ‘healthy self’ which is what is needed if coaching is to work.

Interestingly, each of these coaches is also working from their survival self so the chances of the coaching being successful are very small indeed.

You can’t coach the survival self and you can’t coach from your own survival self.

Somehow you have to get to the healthy self, but how?

You are not a diagnostician, you are not a therapist. Which coaching skills and approaches will work?

You need to start by knowing what it is that you are dealing with which is where Professor Franz Ruppert’s model comes in: survival self, traumatized self and healthy self. Don’t be afraid of the word trauma. In this context it can mean any important relationship or set of events that for whatever reason, took a damaging turn. It does not necessarily mean gross physical, sexual or emotional abuse, although for some clients it may. Trauma refers to the lasting impact of an experience or event on our network of internal systems – nervous (stress hormones), emotional, cognitive (brain development, memory, thought, perception) and bodily processes. That is, it has a lasting impact on how we experience, think and feel about ourselves, about those and the world around us and how we relate to others.

To find out more about what this means and for practical strategies re what to do, enrol for my one day course with leading trauma expert Julia Vaughan Smith on April 12, 2018.