The Quandary of Closeness And Compassion in Coaching

“Don’t get too close to your clients.” It may have been my junior year of being an undergraduate psychology major when a professor offhandedly gave this warning to me and a couple of other students. There is always this question about ‘therapeutic distance’. Clearly when a therapist allows their own feelings of attraction or repulsion, insensitivity or caring to interfere with the ability to deliver effective therapy, we have a problem. Therapists may wall themselves off from connecting too closely to protect themselves from the pain of their client’s suffering. At the same time, therapists are exhorted to empathize, to connect genuinely, authentically, to allow a therapeutic closeness to grow. They are often left in this ambivalent quandary of just how “close” to be to their client.

The coaching relationship is not intended to be a therapeutic one, even though it may contribute to a client’s own healing. Many experiences are therapeutic and the experience a person has with coaching may be just that. However, our intent is not to heal the old wounds of our client, but to be their assistant in their personal growth. The coach’s quandary is similar to that of the therapist, but also different. Without the ‘therapeutic distance’, it may, in fact, be even more confusing. If we are not delivering treatment with our client, then, are we more like a friend? We will hear stories of suffering. How do we protect ourselves from feeling their pain as our own?

Coaches may start to find themselves becoming more reluctant to truly engage with their clients. They may find themselves pulling back emotionally and fighting the urge to connect more closely. Hearing another story of difficulty, failure, conflict, or even trauma, abuse and neglect, we may react by diminishing the very coaching presence that is essential to helping our client to work through their challenges. The coach may find their ability to concentrate and really listen to our clients becoming reduced. It may show up physically with difficulty sleeping, a drop in our immune response, headaches, digestive issues, and much more. Our ability to be compassionate may be just worn thin.

An ICF published article by Niamh Gaffney (https://coachfederation.org/blog/are-you-tired-of-coaching) defines Compassion Fatigue as “a combination of physical, emotional and spiritual depletion associated with caring for people in significant emotional pain and physical distress.” The term depletion is perfect in this description. Our own well feels like it has gone dry, or soon will. It may feel like our very soul is being drained. The way out of compassion fatigue is the same as preventing it.

 

Operating From A Coach Approach

Failing to recognize the difference between coaching and counseling or therapy leads coaches to delve into an attempt at therapeutic problem solving. We may disguise it to our client and ourselves as “working on stress”, but if we approach stress management by attempting to solve all of the problems that generate stress in our client’s life, we are engaging in an infinite exercise in futility. Not only does it not work, it is exhausting for both client and coach. Your client may sense the futility before you do and leave coaching entirely.

Maintaining a coaching mindset is essential here. Can we help our stressed-out client to learn how to deal with stress, and to recover from stress instead of infinite problem solving? When coaches ask “What issues do you want to work on?” they are inviting the beginning of a therapeutic expedition. When we see ourselves as our client’s ally, not their doctor, healer, priest or therapist, we take a stance of closeness and caring but with less of a feeling of responsibility for their solutions and ‘cure’.

In wellness coaching, instead of operating on a problem du jour model, we work with our clients to help them take stock of their current health and wellness, create a vision of their best life possible and then co-create with them an effective wellness plan. Operating from a plan is totally different than continual problem solving. Certainly, we engage in strategic coaching with them to address barriers, but our job is not to provide solutions. Compassion fatigue, I believe, comes sometimes from the sense of powerlessness that we may feel when we can’t provide the magic solution for our clients that will make their lives better. When we realize that doing so is not our job, we can allow for more of a healthy compassionate detachment to take place.

 

Compassionate Detachment

Twenty-seven years or so of doing psychotherapy with a wide variety of clients had its joys and challenges. Upon hearing the detailed recount of a young woman or man who had been abused sexually by a parent, I couldn’t just go home saying “It’s only a movie.” Clients come needing to tell their stories to a therapist who is not afraid to go absolutely anywhere with them. A really good therapist learns to be a true warrior/warrioress of the heart who is completely fearless. Yet, the only way they can go into battle again, side by side with their client is by learning something about compassionate detachment.

We practice compassionate detachment for the benefit of our client and for our own benefit as well.

Compassionate detachment is respecting our client’s power enough to not rescue them while extending loving compassion to them in the present moment. Simultaneously compassionate detachment is also respecting ourselves enough to not take the client’s challenges on as our own and realizing that to do so serves good purpose for no one.

Compassionate detachment is an honoring of our client’s abilities, resourcefulness and creativity. We remain as an ally at their side helping them to find their own path, their own solutions. We may provide structure, an opportunity to process, a methodology of change and tools to help with planning and accountability, but we don’t rescue. As tempting as it is to offer our suggestions, to correct their errant ways, to steer them toward a program that we know works, we avoid throwing them a rope and allow them to grow as a swimmer. Sure, we are there to back them up if they go under or are heading toward a waterfall. We are ethically bound to do what we can to monitor their safe passage, but we allow them to take every step, to swim every stroke to the best of their ability.

To be compassionate with a client we have to clear our own consciousness and bring forth our nonjudgmental, open and accepting self. We have to honor their experience.

“Only in an open, nonjudgmental space can we acknowledge what we are feeling. Only in an open space where we’re not all caught up in our own version of reality can we see and hear and feel who others really are, which allows us to be with them and communicate with them properly.” Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

Compassionate detachment is also about giving ourselves permission to protect ourselves. Being in proximity to the pain of others is risky work. There are theories about the high rates of suicide among dentists based on this. Compassionate detachment is also about being detached from outcome. We want the very best for our clients and will give our best toward that goal, but we give up ownership of where and how our client chooses to travel in the process of pursuing a better life. Their outcome is their outcome, not ours.

Compassionate detachment is not about distancing ourselves from our client. It is not about numbing ourselves out mentally, emotionally or physically. It is not about treating our clients impersonally. That is mere detachment alone and more a symptom of burnout than of good work as a coach, therapist or any kind of human helper.

Intimacy is what allows compassion. When we fear closeness, we will hold back. We will be less empathic because we fear connecting with our own feelings. Compassionate detachment is being centered enough in ourselves, at peace enough in our own hearts, to be profoundly present with our clients in their pain and in their joy as well.

 

From Depletion To Replenishment

If compassion fatigue is about feeling depleted, then prevention and recovery is about replenishment. Fatigue comes from the expenditure of energy: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Coaches must ask themselves what they are consciously doing to restore their own energy supplies. Once again, we are talking about the coach’s own Wellness Foundation.

We often think of wellness in terms of exercise and participation in all kinds of wellness activities. To what degree are these activities an expenditure of energy, and to what degree do they provide an energy return and replenishment. While a workout resulting in a “good tired” feeling my fatigue us physically, it may invigorate us mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually. Once again it is a matter of balance. Are we engaging in mind/body activities that replenish our energy on multiple levels? Mindfulness practices, meditation, Tai Chi, Xi Gong, Yoga, all share the intent of this kind of replenishment.

Our Wellness Foundation is not just about working out and eating well. What we are looking for here is replenishment on the levels at which we are being depleted: more the emotional, mental and spiritual. Re-filling our well on these levels is more about getting our needs met in these areas. Compassion fatigue can generate feelings of isolation, powerlessness and feeling overwhelmed.

  • Are we connecting with meaningful friendships to combat that isolation? Are we expressing ourselves creatively and feeling competent in other areas of our lives?
  • Are we consciously engaging in device-free time, in connection with the natural world, simplifying our lives?
  • Do we feel like we are truly in charge of our own lives?
  • These questions address the three basic human needs that Dicci and Ryan talk about in Self-Determination Theory. (http://selfdeterminationtheory.org)

When we come back to our own center and feel like our needs are getting met, when we feel safe and secure, energized and in balance, we can extend the heart of compassion to our clients and not fear intimacy. We can be the ally they need.  

 

Michael Arloski, Ph.D., PCC, CWP, NBC-HWC – is a psychologist, coach, trainer, author and wellness enthusiast.  CEO and Founder of Real Balance Global Wellness Services, Inc. (https://www.realbalance.com), his company has trained thousands of health and wellness coaches around the world.

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Getting Yourself Out Of The Way: The Self-Vigilant Coach – Part One

Self-Mastery in coaching means Self-Vigilance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Getting Yourself Out Of The Way.”  What’s that really mean?  There are many ways in which the coach can interfere in the coaching process and “get in the way” of the client’s own coaching work.  Our own agendas, attitudes, beliefs, prejudices, projections and unfinished emotional business can all impede the coaching process.  In this two part series we’ll increase our awareness of how “our stuff” gets in the way of our client’s progress and look at how to eliminate our blind spots.

The Coach’s Agenda

In wellness coaching it is easy for coaches to subtly promote their own favorite package of dietary, exercise and stress management advice. When I’ve observed this in coaching students it is seldom about their own ego getting in the way, though I’ve seen this a few times, but rather about the zeal the coach feels for certain wellness approaches. They really believe that certain diets, fitness programs, or stress reduction approaches are really fantastic and they want to share this with heart-felt conviction! Coaches also fall into the trap of promoting their own favorite ways to be well because they stray from the coach approach and feel that if they just tell clients what to do it will save so much more time. This can show up in leading questions that manipulate the client to select a course of action that the coach was consciously or unconsciously promoting. Lastly, if coaches are crossing the ethical line into promoting their own money-making products as part of the coaching there is a serious problem.(Consult: https://ichwc.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Final-Code-of-Ethics-Feb-1-ICHWC-1.pdf)

Convincing & Persuading 

Coaches may get ‘hooked in’ to almost desperately wanting their client to improve their lifestyle because they truly care about the person and hate to see them engaging in so much self-defeating behavior and suffering. Straying from the coach approach they attempt to convince or persuade the client to be well. “If they would only…!”

A well-known Motivational Interviewing trainer often begins his talks by extolling each of the audience to “Give up your job!” He argues, as do I, that holding on to thinking that you can be successful while attempting to convince or persuade people to be well, is about as self-defeating as the client behaviors we are attempting to change! Yet many of us in the wellness and health promotion fields and medical professions find ourselves spending years doing just this. The exasperation that finally comes from this fruitless way of working with clients and patients is often what drives these human-helpers to look for a better way, and what often leads them to coaching. Tired of pushing or pulling people up the mountain of lifestyle improvement, one finally asks “How’s this working for me?” The challenge for the coach is to become aware of their tendency to continue this process of convincing and persuading.

My Way Is The Way

Beginning coaches also have to be vigilant about how their own path to wellness may interfere with their client work. We have trained many wellness coaches who were attracted to the fields of healthcare, human helping, and wellness because they were able to meet and overcome a serious health challenge by, at least in part, improving their own lifestyle. When I’ve trained counselors and psychotherapists I would sometimes come across students who had been through either divorce, alcoholism, or some such experience and deeply believed that what had helped them to get through those experiences was exactly what all their clients had to do as well. This was, of course, an often-disastrous course for their therapy clients attempt to take. In wellness coaching, we come across students, on rare occasion fortunately, who have a similar allegiance to some sort of holistic health path, or wellness formula that helped them and now they feel the need to proselytize.

“Well, what worked for you?” clients often ask. Here the coach has to proceed very carefully. We can use some appropriate self-disclosure, but rather than answer the question directly, the coach might ask, “So what are you hoping to gain by hearing about my experience?” Often that client’s question is coming out of a place of low self-efficacy. They have had little lasting success at lifestyle improvement, so they are looking to you, the expert to show them a better way. We have to determine if this is a time to provide some information/education, make an effective use of self-disclosure, or is it a time to empower the client to continue to seek their own answers. The vigilance comes in when we catch our own tendency to slip into the expert role.

Illuminating Blind Spots

Part of mastering wellness coaching is narrowing down our blind spots as much as possible. Some lack of awareness, even some self-deception may still remain, but out job is to increase our awareness both in retrospect and in the moment. We make great headway with this when we accept responsibility for our own feelings and reactions. The values and lifestyle of our client may be 180 degrees different than our own. We may be appalled at the self-defeating behavior we see the client exhibiting and rush to judgment. Our “Right-ing Reflex” (as the Motivational Interviewing Folks call it) kicks in. We may have a personality that pushes us to “straighten out” a client’s way of operating in this life. Part of our effective vigilance is noticing when we are pressing a client about how they “ought” to live. Can we allow the client to live their life without our “interference”? Coaching should never interfere with someone’s life, unless it is a situation of safety (see below).

When we blend in some wellness/health education, how neutral do we stay when it comes to any of the numerous controversial healthy living debates? “Saturated fat is fine. Enjoy!” “Saturated fat will kill you!” Can we act like a true professional and coach our client to find out their own answers from a variety of trusted, evidence-based sources?

Thoughts To Ponder On The Mastery Path

Experiment with entirely eliminating the phrases
“You need to…”
“Your ought to…”
“I want you to…”
from the way that you coach with people.

 

Distinguishing Between Our Own Agenda And Client Safety

Coaches are not responsible for the choices their clients make. However, if your client is riding his wellness bicycle towards a known cliff, we do have an ethical obligation to share what we know about the landscape ahead. Those who have heard me conduct coach trainings know that I’m fond of presenting this ethical quandary: Let’s say your client says – Hey coach! I’m going to start The Twenty-Seven Grapefruit A Day Diet! All I have to do is eat nothing but 27 grapefruit everyday for a month and the pounds will just drop away like magic! Will you support me in this coach? We love to say that in coaching “The client’s agenda is THE agenda.” This does not mean, however that we can’t operate on one important caveat – the safety of our client. Now, unlike the obvious cliff our grapefruit-dieting client is headed for, most of our clients present more ambiguous situations and questions. For example, there are a number of immensely popular diets out there, which promise extraordinary weight loss results, but have more recently been shown, to present medical risks and/or have an abysmal record of sustainable results. What is the coach to do when the client presents a plan to follow such a diet?

Our first step is to monitor ourselves and ask if our desire to have our client think twice before they launch forth with a potentially self-defeating, if not self-destructive course, is motivated by what we know of the facts, or our own prejudices. Are we aware of evidence that puts their course of action in serious doubt, or are we instead simply favoring some alternative that we are fans of?

The second step would be to inquire what the client knows about this course of action (diet, or whatever wellness/health promoting idea). How did they become aware of it – through what sources? What do they know of the integrity of this action course? Are they aware of contradictory evidence regarding this way of attempting to be well? The coach can strongly recommend that the client check this out with their treatment professionals or trusted educational professionals. The coach can help the client to carefully examine their options. If the client insists on carrying out a course of action the coach truly feels is detrimental to the wellbeing of the client they can directly share that with the client. If the client still persists on moving ahead with their plan, the coach can share with the client that they will not be able to support the client in doing so as part of their coaching together.

Tips For Eliminating Blind Spots

The biggest problem with our blind spots is that, by definition, we are not aware of them. Here are some tips for minimizing these hazards.

• Coach with a tri-fold awareness of what is going on with 1) yourself – emotions, bodily sensations, intuition; 2) your client ¬– keenly observe communication on verbal and nonverbal levels, pick up on emotions not just content; and 3) the coaching relationship itself and process this with your client if needed.
• Record your client sessions (with permission) and listen to them carefully with the ideas from this blog in mind.
• Seek out a mentor to help you grow as a professional skilled coach, and/or work with a supervisor at your workplace if you are in such an employment setting.
• Coach bravely (see my previous blog: “Seven Expressions Of Courageous Coaching” – https://wp.me/pUi2y-ie ) by exploring with your client their satisfaction with the coaching they are receiving. Explore together how it can be improved. Be willing to look at what doesn’t “feel right”.
• Perhaps most importantly, do your own work. That is, continually grow by being willing to work through your own “unfinished business” of an emotional nature.

Part Two

Dr. Michael Arloski

In Part Two of this blog series, we will look at the concept of Projection, in all of its forms, and how it can significantly sabotage our best coaching efforts.

The Great Utility of Coaching In The Emotional Realm

According to Plato: Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.

Coaches often cautiously retreat from the affective level with their clients for fear of crossing the line into therapy. Other coaches with a professional mental health background are comfortable going in this direction, but don’t often know how to shift from a therapeutic approach to a coach approach. Unfortunately, we also find coaches who have no professional mental health qualifications who are all too eager to dive deeply into the world of emotions. In two of my previous blog posts I address the critical distinctions between coaching and counseling/psychotherapy, coaching scope of practice, and how to facilitate referrals when needed. (Process Coaching: Yes, Coaches “Do Emotions” http://wp.me/pUi2y-dL) (Coaching a Client Through To A Mental Health Referral Using The Stages of Change http://wp.me/pUi2y-lp)

There is naturally much valuable work written about emotions, from Emotional Intelligence, to Neuroscience, Positive Psychology, and more. In this post let’s focus on how a coach, especially a health and wellness coach, can enhance the coaching process by working effectively with affect.

What the authors of Co-Active Coaching (2012) (Whitworth, et.al) call “process coaching” has been co-opted by a wide variety of writers and practitioners, each with their own disparate definitions. The definition that Whitworth, et.al, provide is worth repeating here: “Process coaching focuses on the internal experience, on what is happening in the moment. The goal of process coaching is to enhance the ability of clients to be aware of the moment and to name it… Sometimes the most important change happens at the internal level and may even be necessary before external change can take place.” Their message here for coaches is that unless we address the affective component, we often struggle to see real progress. When coach and client dance around feelings, the exploration can stay superficial and goal setting, strategies for change, etc., often lack a sufficient motivational driver. An internal barrier to change may still remain. So, how do we work with emotions and stay within our scope of practice as a coach?

A client may speak of any manner of unresolved conflicts, a history of trauma, even abuse that they have experienced. It may be about family of origin issues, or any sort of unfinished emotional business. This does not immediately indicate the need for a referral. The reality is that many, if not most, people carry around their unfinished business such as this and function quite well. The challenge for the coach is not to take the bait of problem solving and coach seeking to resolve these old issues.

Resolution Vs. Relevance

The key here is to seek how the emotions of the client are relevant to the progress they are attempting to achieve in coaching. Perhaps a coach and client create action steps in their wellness plan composed of various self-care activities, yet the client repeatedly holds himself or herself back from engaging in these. As this is discussed in coaching, an internal barrier is identified that traces back to their family of origin. Perhaps a critical parent harshly enforced that all work must be done before one does anything for one’s self. Doing process coaching around this, the savvy coach seeks not the resolution of all of the feelings and unfinished business with that parent (be they dead or alive). Instead, they coach to help their client gain insight regarding how these past learning’s are holding them back today. If the client is able to gain such insight and translate it into action (moving ahead with self-care) then the process coaching is achieving its goal. If the client continues to only process feelings and does not gain insight or does not succeed in shifting their behavior, then, we have probably identified an issue that is significant enough to warrant the encouragement of referral to a counselor or therapist.

Putting It Into Words

Client: You know, I love this idea of taking time for myself to do just what I enjoy, but every time I do I just feel really guilty.
1) Coach: Tell me more about how this guilt shows up.
Client: Well, like last week when I said I would connect with one of my good friends on the weekend and go do something fun. The whole time we were hanging out together I kept thinking about all of the things on my to-do list at home, and how I probably should be doing things for my family instead.
2) Coach: That must have really taken some of the pleasure out of being with your friend and trying to have fun. You sound really disappointed.
Client: Yeah. I am. We were just trying to relax and enjoy the day and I was only about half into it.
3)Coach: Has that happened before, when you’ve been unable to fully enjoy the moment like that?
Client: Definitely! It seems to happen all the time. I keep thinking of what I didn’t get done around the house, and about what is still hanging incomplete at work. It’s almost like I can hear my parents, years ago, always pushing me hard to get all of my work done before I could do anything I wanted to do. They were really strict and on top of that they would forbid me to do most of the things I wanted to do anyway.
4) Coach: It must be extremely frustrating having thoughts like that get in the way today.
Client: Frustrating indeed. When I think about them, and the hard time they gave my siblings and me I really can get upset.
5) Coach: Your tough upbringing was very real. It sounds painful to remember those experiences. Tell me more about how it gets in the way of you giving yourself permission to practice more self-care.
Client: I guess it keeps me from either planning something good for myself, like how I cancelled getting a massage again last week. Or, when I’m finally out there doing something I want to do to relax and unwind, I distract myself thinking of what I ‘should’ be doing.
6) Coach: Are you hearing how you are allowing all of that history to get in your way today, in the present?
Client: Yeah. That’s exactly what I’m doing.
7) Coach: How can I support you in making your own decisions about what’s good for you?

Looking At The Coaching

In this example our coach begins (1) by requesting clarification in a very neutral way. This allows the client to go further without having to go in the direction a question would have taken them. The coach then (2) responds empathically and reflects feeling. This gives the client permission to go further into the affective level. Attempting to help the client identify a pattern (3) the coach inquires about past experience with the same thing. The coach again (4) expresses empathy and reflects feeling. The coach is conveying to the client that they can handle talking about feelings. This enhances the coaching alliance and builds trust. The coach is also not jumping into problem solving and thereby dampening down the affect. Next (5) the coach validates the client’s reality and empathizes. The coach then requests clarification but does so in a directive way that nudges the client back to relevance to their Wellness Plan. The coach follows the client’s examples (6) by not asking for details, but instead by sharing an observation in a gentle confrontation with the client. Finally (7) the coach empowers the client to own their decision making power and enquires how they can provide support. More coaching would then follow.

Reflection of Feeling

Witnessing coaching being practiced in our Real Balance trainings (https://www.realbalance.com) and listening to hundreds of recordings of our students coaching, I can conclude that there is no doubt what coaching skill shows up the least: Reflection of Feeling. Coaching students, often blindly focus on problem solving and seem to continually make two huge blunders: 1) they forget to express empathic understanding, and 2) they seldom reflect feeling. By not doing these two things they miss tremendous opportunities to enhance the coaching process. When we do express empathy and reflect feeling we open the coaching conversation to the emotional realm. This provides a number of important advantages:

Acknowledging the Affective:

1) Builds trust and builds the coaching alliance. The client knows that they have a true and courageous ally who is not afraid to deal with what the client is feeling. The client doesn’t have to hide, they can be true to themselves. When the feelings of the client are honored and met with unconditional positive regard, instead of judgment, the coaching alliance deepens.
2) Validates what is figural for the client. In the Gestalt sense of awareness, the emotional component, when strong, is often figural (in front, most aware, occupying more of one’s consciousness). If this is avoided, coach and client struggle to focus on the “background”. This is acknowledging what is “real” for the client.
3) Taps into energy! Emotion is often described as energy in motion = E-motion. When the client makes more contact with their emotion, more energy is accessed and can be utilized in the coaching process.
4) Connects with motivation! We move on what we are passionate about. We also can address the fear that often results in lack of movement. Clients are not going to progress towards action when they are frozen with fear. Affect provides the fuel that allows values and priorities to be expressed.
5) Builds self-efficacy. One of Bandura’s four ways to build self-efficacy is termed Physiological States. Emotions, moods, physical reactions and stress levels influence our levels of confidence and our own personal evaluations of our abilities. Anxiety can foster self-doubt thereby lowering self-efficacy. As we help our clients to safely contact feelings and explore their life-relevance, the client learns that they have more control over emotions, and how to interpret and evaluate their emotional states. All of this can have a positive effect on their self-efficacy. As we know, self-efficacy, the degree to which one believes that they can affect change in their life, is pivotal to success in lifestyle improvement.

Reviewing these advantages we can see that when coach and client stick to just goal setting, reporting and accountability, and steer away from the emotional element, the result is a process that diminishes the coaching alliance, focuses on what is less important, lacks energy and motivation and fails to maximally build self-efficacy.

Find out more about coaching with emotions in these recources:

Kimsey-House, H., Kimsey-House, K., Sandahl, P., Whitworth, L. (2011) Co-Active Coaching: Changing Business, Transforming Lives. 3rd Ed. Nicholas Brealey America.

Williams, P. & Menendez, D. (2015) Becoming a Professional Life Coach: Lessons from the Institute for Life Coach Training, 2nd Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. pp. 202-213.