Why every coach needs to be trauma-aware

When your coaching is informed by learning about trauma, you will be able to elevate its value many times over.

The very word ‘trauma’ can strike coaches with horror. Isn’t this exactly the kind of territory that we are repeatedly warned to leave to highly trained therapists?

Well, yes and no.

First, let’s be clear what we are talking about. Trauma is often used to describe a unique event such as being caught up in a major accident. It is used to describe the serious mental health problems that can follow involvement in military action where veterans can suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The word is also correctly used by clinicians to describe the wounds that follow injury or surgery.

The kind of trauma that must be the concern of coaches is very different. It describes the long term effect on mind, body and spirit of repeated exposure to feeling unsafe as a child. When you define it like this it becomes clear that most of us will have experienced at least some trauma when we were growing up because being a perfect parent is literally impossible. Traumatizing experience can cover an enormous spectrum:

Client A was born 8 weeks prematurely to a young single mother. Poverty of all sorts haunted his childhood and he was physically abused by one of his mother’s boyfriends. His talent was spotted by a dedicated teacher who gave him extra help with GCSEs. From there he won a place at a competitive entry 6th form college and then a scholarship to Oxford. This client has, in his own words, ‘collected’ qualifications but now in mid-career he is failing to win promotion. Feedback from his boss suggests that A. lacks ‘gravitas’ and social ease, especially with men he perceives to be his seniors.

Client B had parents who believed in ‘strong discipline’ and conformity to a fundamentalist form of religion. B grew up believing that she was flawed and ‘wicked’. Her needs for love, acceptance and emotional support were consistently denied. This client believes she is being bullied by a peer in the senior management team while having a reputation herself for bullying juniors. At home she confesses to being snappy and short tempered.

Client C grew up in a prosperous home with parents preoccupied by their professional careers. He was sent to a famous boarding school as an eleven year old. He is now a chest physician. C takes refuge in loud jokes and an apparent refusal to be ‘serious’ while confessing to his coach that he is lonely and unable to make lasting relationships.

Client D’s parents separated when she was eight years old. Her father had serious problems with alcohol. D saw it as her mission to stop him drinking and to compensate for his behaviour by taking care of her mother. As a senior manager, D finds it more than usually challenging to delegate, preferring to ‘show’ her staff how adept she is at doing their jobs for them, believing that she is ‘helping’ while actually undermining them. D is worried that she is drinking too much as a way of coping with unmanageable stress.

Each of these clients has a successful career. Yet they have been marked by their traumatic experiences as children. It is striking that none of these clients made any connection whatsoever between the issues they brought to coaching and the way that their legitimate needs as children for acceptance, love and approval had been denied.

How does being trauma aware help you as a coach? In a word it stops us as coaches putting effort into trying to coach the ‘survival self’ that so many of our clients (and we as coaches, too) have developed. When as children we could neither fight back nor run away, we developed a ‘freeze’ response, a survival mechanism that we believed helped us keep safe. It’s no good trying to coach the survival self because its role is to keep us exactly where we are. Attempts to coach clients like A, B. C and D into the social skills, assertiveness or delegation protocols, or anti-bullying tactics that they seem not to possess, are doomed to failure.

Instead, we need to learn to recognise the survival self through enquiring respectfully into the client’s childhood and then helping them separate the survival self from the healthy self that is always there. Successful coaching is about working with the healthy self.

None of this means that we are working to ‘heal’ the traumatized self that may have suffered so much. To do that we need to refer those clients who seem to need it, in practice a small minority, to a therapist who is a trauma trained specialist.

To hear more – and to learn about safe ways to work with trauma as a coach – book yourself on one of the masterclasses that Julia Vaughan Smith and I are running, by visiting www.coachingandtrauma.com

You may also want to buy Julia’s much praised book Coaching and Trauma either through Amazon or from this website.