I was eager to be in the meeting. I was searching for a place to refer my students who sought deeper trauma-informed coach training – training I didn’t have the capacity to provide.
The conversation flowed and I felt aligned with my new colleague until I asked whether their program incorporated a socio-ecological framework. They looked puzzled. I was surprised, given their credentials and the sophisticated way we’d been talking about trauma. I clarified: “How do you discuss systemic stressors like racism and inequities in your training? Or matters of identity and how those affect stress load or resourcing in the nervous system?”
“Oh, we don’t talk about politics in our program,” they said.
My heart sank. It was clear: this was not the place to refer my students.
At the start of another exploratory meeting, I sensed some weird vibes. One of the two directors seemed pretty activated from his previous meeting, showing agitation in his speech and body language that didn’t match the tone or content of our conversation. I noticed his lack of presence with me, my questions, and his colleague in the same room, who sat almost silent the entire time. At one point, she got up and left, then returned, wordless. It was confusing and disconnecting. I couldn’t help but wonder about their imbalanced gender dynamic.
I walked away disappointed, again. This was also not a program I could recommend to my students.
The good news about trauma is that the word has become normalized in our culture almost to the point of overuse. As a trauma survivor and person living with mental illness for over 40 years, I celebrate how it’s much safer now to name and talk about these struggles in public and private. It’s a great relief to be able to bring secrets into the light that are seen and heard.
But the bad news is that along with the normalization came a boom in commercialization. This incentivized people to add the “trauma-informed” label to their organization, approach, or professional identity without sufficient rigor. The result is a boom in inaccurate, incomplete, and contradictory information offered to potential “consumers”.
Professional coaching is not immune to these trends. I’m thrilled to see more coaches interested in learning about concepts traditionally viewed as For Therapists Only. And I’ve cringed more than once during webinars and meetings to hear what supposedly well-qualified coach colleagues say – and don’t say – about trauma and trauma-informed approaches.
Apart from being a committed student of my own trauma healing and a Professional Certified Coach (PCC), I’m a Certified Facilitator of The Resilience Toolkit (a trauma-informed somatic resilience modality). For over a year, I’ve been speaking and writing about trauma-informed coaching and training other coaches to be more trauma-informed.
In my quest to connect with other practitioners, I’ve found that most training programs on trauma-informed coaching are robust when it comes to the neuroscience of stress and trauma. Most effectively cover the multiple theories and models around how the human body experiences and processes stress and trauma. However, many lack additional elements that are critical to equipping coaches to be truly trauma-informed.
If you seek deep, high-quality training on trauma-informed coaching, be sure the program includes the following four must-haves:
- Alignment with the principles of professional coaching. Coaching is a profession that is often misunderstood and misrepresented, even by some coaches. Coaching is not advising. It’s not mentoring or consulting. Coaching isn’t telling or directing. Professional coaching is the facilitation of a client’s self-discovery through provocative questions, insightful observations, and invitation to action. While advising, mentoring, and consulting are all valuable methods of human development (which I also offer), they are not professional coaching. Much “health coaching” and “trauma recovery coaching” is not professional coaching. My intention is not to denigrate those professions or practitioners, but to clarify the ways trauma work in coaching is often muddied. I actually identify as working in “the borderlands” of coaching and believe coaching can be therapeutic, but any training program on trauma-informed coaching should align with the principles, ethics, and competencies of the coaching profession.
- Somatic skills. Chronic stress and trauma are perceived, processed, and stored in the body, largely outside the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). But despite this knowledge, most trauma recovery coaching and trauma-informed coaching training programs don’t equip trainees to recognize signs of chronic stress or trauma in their clients’ bodies, much less their own. Nor do they prepare trainees to effectively downregulate ineffective activation or dissociation in their clients – or themselves. Walking away from a “trauma-informed” training program with no practical somatic skills is a big miss, and coaches without those skills can (and do) cause harm to clients. The ability to recognize stress and trauma and effectively facilitate nervous system settling through the body is critical to being adequately trauma-informed.
- Deep integrity. Similarly, when teachers or directors of a trauma recovery or trauma-informed coach training program demonstrate chronic or extreme nervous system dysregulation, this is a red flag. Of course, no one is perfect and everyone has “off” moments, days, and weeks. However, a lack of awareness of one’s nervous system and its impact on others, or lack of an ability to own those responses and adjust in the moment is a sign that teacher has more work to do before becoming a trustworthy, highly-competent leader in a trauma-informed space. Being on a journey of personal healing and skill development should be a trauma-informed practitioner’s first priority.
- A socio-ecological framework. Racism, sexism, poverty, homophobia, xenophobia, colonialism, and neurodivergence aren’t merely “political” concepts. They are an integral part of most coaching clients’ lived experience, and that of their lineage. The impact of intergenerational trauma and oppression (both historical and current) on clients’ bodies and brains is well-documented in the science. Also, attending to “cultural, historical, and gender issues” is one of the six principles of a trauma-informed approach outlined by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration). Human beings are a highly social, relational species. Chronic stress and trauma are neither innate personality traits, nor effects that happen in a vacuum. Acknowledging, exploring, and leveraging the ways family, community, workplace, institutions, physical environment, and history both cause harm and provide support are a critical part of doing any trauma-informed work. Ignoring or dismissing this dimension not only does clients a tremendous disservice, it’s an unexamined trauma response itself.
Trauma is normal, widespread, and deep. There is not a family, community, organization, boardroom, geography, or nation that is trauma-free. By raising the bar and becoming more mindful about our personal work, and more rigorous about what’s needed to facilitate clients’ transformation, professional coaches can make a difference in easing individual pain and collective suffering. Ensuring our training programs and teachers have these four must-haves is an important step in making that difference.