It’s encouraging to see more people talking about trauma informed coaching and developing certificated programmes. For a long time we seemed to be the only ones talking about it. I have developed my thinking about it over the last 4 years, informed by the many coaches I have talked with, listened to and been questioned by.
Here is my short version of where my thinking is at the moment.
Being trauma informed covers this widening range of practice, as we can decide on basis of our interest and training where we want to place ourselves. We need to understand the lasting impact of developmental and shock trauma so that we can better be with and support our clients, including exploring whether working with a therapist may be helpful. The key factor for safe practice is that the depth of our understanding and extent of our skills has to match the needs of our clients. Where it doesn’t, we have the conversation with clients about what the best way forward for them might be.
What are essential components of trauma informed coaching? I offer my thoughts as a stimulus for you to develop your own list or to add to mine.
The maxim within coaching that ‘clients are resourceful’ holds no matter how traumatised they may present; our focus should stay with that so that we are not caught up in a deficit way of thinking and only focusing only on a trauma identity. We can help clients access and trust their healthy resources, bring unconscious patterns, or habits, of thinking and responding into conscious awareness where different choices can be explored. We can also offer clients tools to help their understanding and self-reflection. We can witness clients’ stories of pain and distress. If working more specifically with trauma, and are trained to do so, we can facilitate small steps in trauma integration. Trauma is the result of relationships and can only be healed in relationship, and we can offer a relationship within which clients can do their best reflection and gain self-awareness, they can ‘meet themselves’ in our presence if the conditions and contract allow.
We all need to be experts in creating and holding a safe space for clients; we need to understand why safety is so important and develop a sensitivity to when a client (or we) do not feel safe. We can do this by working on our capacity to be present, grounded, self-regulated and resourced (by that I mean not tired or stressed out, and having access to good friends, supervision and colleagues to hold us in our work). We need to understand how safety is created and broken.
We need to honour and work towards integration of our own trauma, with the help of an appropriate practitioner. This is essential in helping us become experts in creating a safe space as we are better able to manage our self-regulation, recognise when we are triggered by something and get the help we need to process that. To become more self-aware of our own patterns and habits, we need to develop compassionate inquiry; if we aren’t able to explore our responses to clients with compassion we will not step out of the old patterns. Trauma informed coaching is as much about the coach as it is the client, for me, even more so.
None of us are diagnosticians and shouldn’t get seduced into thinking we are. We may form hypotheses, but we need to hold them lightly. Human experience is so varied we can’t make assumptions about how an experience in the past or present will affect an individual.
We need a range of ways to facilitate the client’s self-regulation, supporting clients who are agitated, this includes breathing exercises, grounding exercise, mindfulness practice. Understand the concept and practice of co-regulation. If you are working in a more specialist way, you will need some additional interventions to support clients who are agitated and who find self-regulation difficult.
As with all coaching, the agenda is the client’s. We have no permission to push them into places of enquiry they don’t wish to enter. Respecting their autonomy and right to set the boundaries they need to set is essential. Trauma creates a range of defensive behaviour and thoughts that often appear to an outsider to be self-damaging, but we can only let go of such patterns if we feel safe in our environment and have access to our healthy resources that can choose change. Clients can only go as far as they can go in the present moment. Our role is to respect that and encourage clients, if appropriate, to respect that in themselves too. We all need to treat our defences with respect and gratitude, as Richard Swartz says, ‘all parts are welcome’.
If we are saying to clients we work in a trauma informed way, we need to be able to describe what that means in practice and have that conversation as part of the contracting. We can always recontract but making a shift in coaching approach during a session can be unsettling to clients.
I talked at the beginning about respecting the boundaries of your competence where trauma and emotional distress is concerned. Crossing them often disrupts the safety experience of client. When in doubt talk to a supervisor. Develop skillful and compassionate ways to talk about what you are able to work on with a client and what you aren’t without giving the impression you are abandoning the client or scared of what they bring. It is a gentle dialogue to help the client think through what is best for them.
Lastly but importantly, we all need good supervision to deepen our practice and offer the best to our clients.
Let me know what you think, what I have left out and you think should be in; also where you disagree with me.
Julia Vaughan Smith
APECS Accredited Master Executive Coach and Coach Supervisor
M.A. Integrative and Humanistic Psychotherapy
Photo by Steve Johnson
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