“I get that trauma-informed coaching is better coaching in general, especially for people of color,” he said. “But I don’t get how trauma-informed coaching is different. Just sounds like good solid coaching to me!”
He had a point. And as a coach and person of color himself, he would know.
My colleague understood that trauma-informed coaching is better coaching – for everyone, but especially members of marginalized groups. He got that “trauma” isn’t just one horrible event in the past. While for some people it can be “too much, too fast”, or “too much, too soon”, it can also be “too much for too long” or “not enough for too long”.* The body, not the brain, is where trauma lives. And the body doesn’t distinguish between acute (singular, intense) trauma and ongoing chronic stress – like too much, or not enough, for too long.
By this definition, it’s not a question of whether someone carries trauma, but how much. These days, trauma is being carried not only by healthcare workers, teachers, parents, and hourly laborers, but also professionals, corporate employees, and top executives. Trauma is also experienced by everyone navigating the world in black, brown, female, gender non-conforming, immigrant, and neurodivergent bodies.
This is why trauma-informed coaching is better coaching. And in 2021, exactly no one is living through global pandemic, economic uncertainty, institutional instability, political tension and climate chaos without trauma. Trauma-informed coaches are especially equipped to hold space for clients, and to be the compassionate allies and focused thought partners that clients need right now.
Trauma-informed coaching is an emerging field, and I’m on my own journey of growth and discovery. My current expertise includes 12 years as a coach, two years as a trained practitioner in trauma informed somatic stress management, and over 30 years in multiple roles related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism. In the past several months, I’ve begun teaching and speaking about trauma-informed coaching, and connecting with others working in this space.
So my colleague’s reflection got me thinking: how exactly is trauma-informed coaching different, beyond just being good, solid coaching? While it’s a work in progress, my answer so far is that trauma-informed coaches have the following nine essential qualities:
- Committed to an active healing journey around their own trauma.
- Proficient in a toolkit (or toybox!) of effective self-regulation practices.
- A well-regulated nervous system is the most important gift one human can give another. This is priority #1 for being an effective coach, or engaging in any human development activity.
- Understanding of client behaviors in the context of the science and history of the human stress/trauma response.
- This includes the socioecological context of how individuals are situated within multiple institutions, groups, and systems. These can be sources of both stress and support. Most stress and trauma does not come from the individual – therefore the individual should not bear all the blame or responsibility for their stress and trauma.
- Normalizing of client behaviors through the lens of the adaptive nature of biological trauma responses.
- Human stress responses (all seven-plus of them!) are biological and predictable, and should be normalized as such. Because they are biological and not cerebral, they occur without our permission, and sometimes outside our conscious awareness.
- Responsive in adjusting their coaching approach to minimize trauma in clients. First, do no harm.
- Skilled at offering clients opportunities for holistic growth, healing, and insight beyond the transactional agenda.
- It’s a controversial statement, yet also true, that a trauma-informed coach can be better equipped to facilitate healing or transformation than non-trauma-informed therapists.
- Connected to other practitioners to whom to refer clients, or with whom to partner, when additional support beyond their abilities or qualifications is necessary or ideal for a client.
- Consistent in tenaciously respecting personal and professional boundaries – their own as well as the client’s.
- Engaged in ongoing learning, training, and supervision around coaching, trauma, and trauma-informed coaching.
Trauma-informed coaches don’t necessarily coach clients on their trauma. But clients’ trauma always shows up in coaching sessions – even if the coachee is the CEO of a major company who’s working on their leadership skills. A trauma-informed coach may never invite a client to talk about stress or their trauma history – in fact, to do so isn’t always trauma-informed, and might cause harm. But a trauma-informed coach is aware of what they must know, notice and do to best support their client on whatever stage of whatever journey they find themselves on.
And that creates a world that works better – for more of us.
P.S. Want to learn how to be a trauma-informed coach? Please join one of my upcoming workshops!
(P.P.S. Want to read upcoming articles about trauma-informed coaching? Subscribe on the blog main page — the sign up form is on the right!)
** Gratitude to my colleagues at The Embody Lab for creating the last two phrases.