“I think it’s because of my trauma history,” I said. “Maybe I fill any spaciousness in my life with minutia because unknowns were so threatening to my family when I was growing up. Everything was so regimented and controlled!”
My coach froze. She pulled back emotionally, ever so slightly. As a coach myself, and a trauma survivor with anxious attachment, I’m especially skilled at detecting any hint of rejection. My coach’s response was subtle, but I noticed. She soldiered on, but I sensed she was holding me at arms’ length after that. Her questions became less curious and more guarded. Our trust and intimacy had faded.
Fortunately, my coach in this scenario was a new coach-in-training to whom I was offering coach mentoring, and we were able to debrief the session. When I asked how the session went for her, she immediately confessed to experiencing self-doubt once I disclosed my trauma history. “I didn’t know what to do!”, she said. “This is coaching, not therapy! I didn’t know how to stop the session or refer you out to a therapist.” She was disappointed in herself – not for the faded trust or overly guarded questions, but for what she perceived as an ethical violation by continuing to coach.
My mentee’s concerns were well-intended. She had been taught (as most of us were) that coaches don’t delve into a client’s past, and that mental health issues belong in a therapist’s office, not ours. This is a common belief even among experienced coaches who are also well-intended. However, I believe this orientation is artificial, often arbitrary, and increasingly a barrier to client growth.
There’s good reason for this common belief in the coaching field. In an effort to create professional boundaries and avoid over-regulation of our profession, accrediting bodies like the International Coach Federation (ICF) rightly strive to clearly define and separate coaching and therapy. In fact, the ICF published a white paper on the issue in 2018, declaring “Coaching focuses on visioning, success, the present and moving toward the future. Therapy emphasizes psychopathology, emotions and the past to understand the present, and it works more with developing skills for managing emotions or past issues than does coaching.”
As any skilled coach knows, beliefs can well-intended but also limiting, or downright inaccurate. Like my mentee’s limiting belief about my trauma history being a barrier to our coaching, such a separation of coaching and therapy is also a limiting belief.
This belief gets in the way of the transformation and profound growth that coaching offers. The ICF’s delineation between coaching and therapy highlights a deep yet inaccurate cultural bias that the present can be examined – and the future planned – without attending to the past. This is impossible. Not only is the past neither past nor dead (to paraphrase the oft-quoted Faulkner), people don’t really anticipate the future, we expect the past (to paraphrase Lindsey C. Gibson).
This reality is born out not only by ancient wisdom we forgot, but by the latest science on trauma and the human nervous system. The reality that past, present and future co-exist is (especially) heightened in those of us who navigate the world in Black, brown, indigenous, queer, female/femme, gender non-conforming, immigrant, working class, disabled etc., bodies. The past we’ve inherited in our DNA and our culture lives and breathes through our every behavior and decision, as well as through the social environments in which we operate.
This is even (and especially!) the reality faced by our executive clients. Despite appearances, one cannot attain an elevated leadership position without experiencing trauma along the way. What gets in leaders’ way is rarely cognitive – it’s emotional. They wouldn’t have achieved their position if they were unable to make a decision, create a habit, have an important conversation, or set priorities. The agenda items leaders bring to coaching aren’t the real agenda. The true question is – what is getting in the way of this resourceful, accomplished human doing, thinking, feeling or being what they want?
The answer? Emotions. Specifically, emotions affected or informed by trauma (past or ongoing), and resulting conflicts among the coachee’s multiple internal “parts”.
The best coaches I know work with the whole person (because how can you not?), and that includes working with emotions. The most powerful coaching sessions I’ve been privileged to experience – as client as well as coach – always involve working with emotions, liberating one more piece of a client’s self-awareness and natural ability to better regulate their emotions. Emotional self-regulation is the key to better decisions, habits, conversations, priorities, etc. – not more willpower, grit, determination, discipline or forcing.
It’s time we acknowledge that coaching can, does, and should involve working with emotions and the past. We must acknowledge that trauma-informed coaching is better coaching for everyone – especially in a world where trauma is common, old, and deep. It’s time to re-examine our artificial separation of coaching and therapy that is neither realistic nor serving clients.
I’ve long said that the best coaches are therapist-like, and the best therapists are coach-like. I get some folks’ resistance (eyerolls or indignance?) to this statement. I’ve also said, more recently, that a trauma-informed coach can facilitate a client’s healing more effectively than a non-trauma-informed therapist can. I hear the yowling in response to this statement, which I also get. But both of those are trauma responses driven by fear and a scarcity mentality – not truth or what best supports clients and creates a world that works better for more of us.
To be fair, the fear is warranted in that the average coach undergoes much less training and vetting than the average therapist. This is both a weakness of our professional that undermines our credibility, and also a strength that allows us more freedom. But the risk is that the less skilled and poorly trained among us can do much more harm, and be held less accountable. This is a real and important risk.
However, I’m convinced that a skilled coach that is well-trained, highly ethical, committed to ongoing development and supervision, and engaged in a regular practice to heal their own wounding is a powerful healer and catalyst for transformation.
Perhaps the real difference between coaching and therapy, which the ICF wording also points to, is a matter of degree and focus. While many of my clients experience healing and shifts in their trauma responses from working with me, they don’t come to me seeking that healing. The healing and transformation occur as a byproduct of the leadership, relational, communication, or “diversity” coaching they sign up for. Also, while I am a trauma-informed practitioner as a Certified Facilitator of The Resilience Toolkit, and I do somatic stress management with clients, I don’t market myself as a “trauma coach”. That would be inappropriate and unethical.
Similarly, while deep work with a therapist can improve a therapy client’s ability to lead, communicate, and relate in the workplace, it would be inappropriate for a therapist to market themselves as a leadership therapist or organizational effectiveness therapist – unless they also held credentials in coaching, leadership development or organization development. In this vein, the ICF’s assertion that therapists work more “with developing skills for managing emotions or past issues” than coaches is perhaps the key distinction.
As trauma becomes more widespread and better understood, I offer the following guardrails for coaches to stay in our lane while also widening it. Some of us are widening it by becoming facilitators of transformation and healing as trauma-informed coaches. While my thinking continues to evolve, I believe even trauma-informed coaches should decline or explore ending a partnership (in a trauma-informed manner) when:
- Client expresses direct or indirect intent to harm self or other
- Client is in an unmanaged phase of their addiction
- Client is experiencing decompensation, or an acute or chronic collapse of their “window of tolerance”
- Client exhibits symptoms that are milder than those in #3, but still disruptive to coaching (i.e., a pattern of no follow through or an inability to benefit from coaching)
- Client is not also seeing a therapist if their issues or symptoms are interfering with optimal daily functioning
- Coach’s training, gifts, skills, or comfort level are not a match, or insufficient
Many of these guardrails are good guidelines for coaching any client. And many clients can receive both therapy and coaching and benefit tremendously from the combination. I have worked with a few clients who were also receiving therapy, including an addict in recovery. I myself have three clinical diagnoses and not only do I receive coaching, I function quite well as a coach (or so I hear!)
It’s time to accept the truth of our clients’ lives, including the lives of executives. It’s time to acknowledge and normalize the reality of trauma and its effect on our nervous systems, workplaces, families and communities. It’s time to do something meaningful about this illness by creating a more permeable, yet deeply ethical barrier between coaching and therapy. Our individual and collective healing needs all of us. Right now.
** P.S. Want to learn how to be a trauma-informed coach? Please join one of my upcoming workshops!
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