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.

FAVE ! First Acknowledge, Validate and Empathize.

What really reaches us is empathy.
What really reaches us is empathy.

Effective coach training teaches about   the power of relationship, of person-to-person connection, not just because it’s warm and “nice”, but because all the evidence from coaching and psychotherapy says it works! We each need to feel truly heard by others that we are attempting to be in relationship with. When we share our lives, our experiences and our feelings we truly want to have acceptance, acknowledgement, and validation.

If I share that I have been in pain since an injury and it is breaking my heart that I can’t get out and enjoy the physically active things I love to do, I don’t want someone to consult with me about a solution (“Let’s explore what you can do to exercise now.”). I want someone to say “Wow! That must be so terribly difficult for you to be unable to exercise.” I want them to “get it” that I’m not only in pain, but I’m frustrated, angry, stuck, depressed, and feeling loss. I want to HEAR that they “get it”.

Once I feel like my experience is understood at that heart level, that my feelings have been affirmed, and it’s been conveyed that it’s okay for me to feel the way I feel, THEN I’ll be happy to launch into some great strategic thinking about seeking solutions.

Empathy RogersWhen coaches convey what I love to call The Facilitative Conditions of Coaching (see my previous post: http://wp.me/pUi2y-6i) clients feel the validation, acceptance, acknowledgement that we’re talking about. Coaches have to find the words to convey empathy, acknowledgement, unconditional positive regard, warmth and genuiness. But, they have to remember to do that FIRST, before they jump to solution seeking.

Having trained over 4,000 wellness coaches worldwide, I’m continually amazed by two things: 1) we train some of the warmest, kindest, most caring people on the planet, and 2) when learning the new skill of coaching these same wonderful people so often totally forget to express warmth, kindness and caring. They struggle on the hot seat of
demonstrating/practicing coaching, and in their anxiety of new learning, instead plow right into seeking to “fix” the problem presented. No statements of empathy. No expression of understanding what the client is feeling. Instead one question after another seeking to find a solution (So what types of exercise have you already tried since your injury?). And by the way, we have observed no difference here by gender, probably 85% of the coaches we have trained have been female.

Remember to be a coach, not a consultant. Consultation is all about finding solutions. Consultants name their businesses things like “Totally Amazing Solutions, Inc.”. Coaches help people discover/create their OWN solutions, they don’t just provide them for their clients…that’s consulting. The mindset shift from treatment provider, consultant (medical or otherwise), or educator to that of coach takes repetitive practice. It’s so easy to slip back into the “What wrong and how can we fix it?” thinking, instead of staying in the coach’s “What’s possible?” thinking.

Acronyms can help us remember processes. Let’s try this one: FAVE.

FAVE: First acknowledge, validate and empathize.

As our client’s story unfolds tune into it with the mind of compassion, the mind of understanding and the mind of connection. Some of what works is relaxing into the coaching process and realizing that just by being true to our naturally warm and empathic way of being we are providing that “safe container”. We “hold sacred ground” for our clients to do the exploration they need to do. When solution finding is embarked upon without adequate exploration, the path taken is often unproductive at best and counterproductive at worst.

So, FAVE! First of all ACKNOWLEDGE your client’s experience. Paraphrase, restate and reiterate what they have said. Remember to reflect their feelings. Help them feel that it has been recognized that they have been experiencing the emotions they have been living. Acknowledge the courage it takes to share. Acknowledge the self-caring it takes to seek help and assistance. Acknowledge the depth of your client’s challenges, their strengths, etc. So you haven’t been able to run or bike ride for three months now. How tough it must be to go from being so athletic to hardly exercising at all! Tell me more about what that has been like for you.

As you do this you VALIDATE their experience and their emotions.  Your unconditional positive regard (and therefore lack of judgment) makes it possible for the client to feel that it is okay for them to feel the way they feel. You are affirming that what they have told you has been their reality. You help the client feel that their story is validated, and as you coach further, with that accepting and yet at times challenging coaching presence, you help them learn that they are NOT their story. As you acknowledge, affirm and validate you help them feel well heard. You help them explore their experience and EXPRESS their feelings about it so they can let go of it, put it in the rear-view mirror, and realize they are not trapped by their story.

Our most powerful vehicles to convey this acceptance and affirmation, this sense of support is the EXPRESSION of empathic understanding. That kind look in the eyes, your thoughts of compassion are very sweet, but they are not enough. We have to put it into words (think telephonic coaching!) and COVEY our empathy. So when you have free time you just have to sit there and wish you were able to move like you used to. How challenging! You must miss being active very much. It sounds like you’ve tried to deal with as best you can, but it’s got to be a real loss for you.

It takes courage on the part of the coach to practice FAVE. You’ve got to be okay with emotion, not afraid of it. Empathy is not trying to cheer the person up, quickly reassuring them that everything will be all right, in essence rescuing them. This conveys a message like “Don’t feel they way you’re feeling. Feel the way I’m more comfortable with you feeling. Cheer up!” FAVE is getting down in the mud, or up riding high in the sky WITH our clients…meeting them where they are at, not where we want them to be. I want MY reality acknowledged, not YOUR fantasy!

Creating "Sacred Space"
Creating “Sacred Space”

The thing to remember is that when we allow our clients to feel the way they feel they usually do so and move through it more fluidly. When they are not able to, even after our repeated attempts at providing our best facilitative conditions, it’s probably time to consider referral to a mental health professional (see my previous post http://wp.me/pUi2y-bA.).

Perhaps some of our “rush to solution” is connected to our fear of dealing more directly with feelings. I’m not going to second guess a coach’s intentions and motivations here. I would just love to see coaches serving their clients in the most effective way possible, and that begins with FAVE.

What are some of your thoughts on the idea of making acknowledgement of our client’s experience a priority?  Please leave your comments.

Top Ten Wellness Strategies for The Self-Employed

It’s lonely at the top, especially when you are the whole mountain!

Profitable corporations have embraced wellness programs as a way to effectively hold down healthcare costs, boost productivity, creativity and reduce absenteeism and turnover rates. If you are one of the more than sixteen million self-employed people out there, what’s your wellness program look like? When you are self-employed and you become really ill, it’s like Hewlett Packard locking the gate and turning off the lights…you’re out of business! Making conscious investment in your company’s biggest asset, you and your health, is critical.

About one out of every nine people in the American workforce is self-employed and 90% actually chose to become so. Corporate-culture refugees are often happier on their own, but this new territory comes with it’s own particular stresses and challenges. Nobody tells you to stop working for the day. There is no schedule other than the one you make yourself. Couples who have their own business together must become communication experts with each other. There is tremendous freedom and potentially tremendous pressure.

There is certainly an upside though…many of them in fact. When you see that the temperature at noon will be in the nineties, you can get your walk or run in at 9:00 am and work through your noon hour. You may commute just across the hallway. There is no pay-scale, and no glass ceiling.

The big challenge is work-life balance. How does the self-employed person achieve a wellness lifestyle and one that is both personally and financially rewarding? How do we really apply the old adage “work smarter, not harder”?

Let’s look at the Top Ten Wellness Strategies for The Self-Employed.

1. Identity. Realize that you are not your work. Your business is something you own, not vise-versa. The key is to “have a life” and to, in fact, nurture a well-rounded, full and meaningful life. Meaning and purpose in both work and life ensure motivation to be well and to be successful. When your work is in alignment with your values and beliefs conflict and stress are minimized and energy emerges to get the job done.
2. Boundaries and flexibility. The old joke that being self-employed is only half-time work…you can work whatever 12 hrs./day you want to work, is much too real. It’s a double-edged sword you want to take conscious command of and have it cut for you instead of against you. Track your work hours by writing them down if need be. Set alarms. Give yourself days off. When things pop into your head, jot them down for discussion later and then return to being back in the present moment. Make agreements with partners to create some hours each day and some times each week when business is not discussed.
3. Confidence. Overcome the fears that drive you to over-work by building your confidence and belief in your ability to be successful. You do not have to be available 24/7 to be productive. Know that your skills, abilities, and investments in your work can allow you to take time off and still thrive.

“I have so much to accomplish today that I just meditate for two hours instead of one.” M.K. Gandhi

4. Self-care/Self-permission.Give yourself permission to take fantastic care of yourself. Confront outdated and fearful personal beliefs about putting yourself last on your list. It may feel strange, but practice what feels like “extreme self-care” and it will probably be about right!
5. Investment. Invest in your own wellness. Get all of your medical check-ups on time. Invest in your own physical health with regular exercise and high quality fuel (food). Invest in your own mental health by expressing your creativity and having fun with others.

6. Energy. Re-charge your energy with frequent breaks. Stretch, move, breathe every hour. Studies show that your creativity and productivity will soar (http://www.ernestrossi.com/interviews/ultradia.htm) (http://www.polarunlimited.com/2010/09/the-way-were-working-isnt-working-summary/)

7. Organization. Your to-do list won’t magically go away while you’re doing all of this wellness stuff! Your work has to be efficient, not just excessive effort. Educate yourself about what organizational systems will work for you like GTD (Getting Things Done) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Getting_Things_Done) or ZTD (Zen To Done) (http://zenhabits.net/zen-to-done-ztd-the-ultimate-simple-productivity-system/) . Experiment with HOW you work, not just working harder to find out what really catalyzes your productivity. Delegate. Repeat, delegate! Hire an IT person (even just one time) to help your technology work for you instead of bogging you down. Use the famous Urgency/Importance Matrix (easily found online) to prioritize and streamline tasks while eliminating what really doesn’t matter.

8. Self-compassion. Be kind, patient and self-forgiving. “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” May sound cliché, but it’s true. Keep lifting your head from where your nose is on the grindstone and see the bigger picture of your progress and that of your business. (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/28/go-easy-on-yourself-a-new-wave-of-research-urges/)
9. Connection. Self-employment can be very isolating and this can boost self-doubt, depression and pessimism. Get out and connect with other professionals at organization meetings. Do some work at coffee shops and go ahead and talk with people!
10. Get a Coach. It’s lonely at the top, especially when you are the whole mountain! Invest in an ally who specializes in helping entrepreneurs and folks like you. A business/life coach may give you the support and accountability you need to create a plan for success and effectively pursue it. A wellness coach may help you find the life/work balance you are looking for, help prevent burnout, and help you find a totally sustainable way of living and working that maximizes your health and well being, allowing you to actualize more of your wonderful potential.

What’s your experience either being a self-employed person seeking wellness, or a coach who has helped people in this way?  Please leave a comment here on the blog.  Thanks!

Wellness of the Heart – Part Two: Unconditional Friendship With One’s Self

How can we hold our own hearts in an embrace that completely lacks judgment and criticism? How can we hold ourselves tenderly with compassion when we stumble, fail, and fall short of perfection? Can we change our default setting from what-is-wrong with us, to what-is-right?

There seems to be a cultural admonition to be self-critical, like we would have no desire to grow and improve if we were not harshly and continuously judging ourselves. Perhaps it is an absurd fear that our natural state is somehow that of a lazy and evil person who must be monitored closely by a prison guard. Perhaps some of it comes from this view of humankind as intrinsically “bad”, and in need of vigilant bullwhipping to keep us “in line”. Regardless of the origins, which we can only speculate about, this way of treating ourselves has only brought us suffering.

Contrast this relationship with self with the idea of treating ourselves like a friend that we unconditionally love. Does our “friend” ever screw up? Does our friend ever irritate us? Sure! Do we still love and accept them? Yes.

Pema Chodron (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7s-rRMUl04I) lectures, as many Buddhist scholars do, on the concept of Maitri (pronounced “My-Tree”), which is all about self-compassion. It is about having an unconditional friendship with one’s self. It is about being kind to our selves.

Self-acceptance, self-worth, self-esteem are the terms that we psychologists like to throw around to look at this sacred relationship we have with our own hearts. We wellness professionals know that when people are not being kind with themselves that lifestyle change is much harder. Why bother if we don’t care much about ourselves? How easy it is to cease our efforts to be healthy and well when our inner-critic (http://tamingyourgremlin.com/) finds fault with how we are doing it, or the adequacy of our results.

Wellness coaching emphasizes “coaching for connectedness”, and we usually think of social connections. Perhaps wellness begins with our connectedness to self, spirit and our own hearts.

Be well, and be kind to yourself.

Photo by Michael Arloski