Jenny Rogers

Could you be working with an ‘avoidant’ client?

The coach is puzzled. She has been working with this client for six months. His staff describe him as ‘cool’ and his bosses say that while they rate the high level of his technical skills, his inability to delegate is creating decision-bottlenecks for his team. They have hinted that he needs what they call ‘a more human touch’ as a better fit with the values of the company. The client works very long hours which he justifies by pointing out that this is an American owned firm and time differences make it essential for him to be available 12 hours a day, when, as he puts it, ‘California is waiting to pounce’.

In supervision the coach and I discuss what might be going on. How would she describe her own relationship with the client? No surprise here to learn that she feels she knows him no better now than in their first session. He is unfailingly polite but there have been several sessions cancelled at the last moment and others that have ended unexpectedly early. She feels he is keeping her at a distance. We review what she knows about his childhood. She says he was the oldest of four children in an army family. His mother suffered recurrent bouts of depression and his father was demanding and critical. As an adult his contact with his parents is limited to once a year short visits.

Seeing our clients through the lens of ‘Attachment Theory’ can be so useful in situations like this. These ideas developed out of mid 20th century research conducted by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. It goes like this: we develop attachment styles as a response to the way we are parented. There are four styles: Secure, Anxious, Avoidant and Disorganized (you may encounter variations on these names). This client most likely has an Avoidant style. His needs for acceptance and love had been denied by a mother who was too preoccupied and unwell to attend to him and by a father who had been dismissive, cold and critical. He defends himself by holding himself in a safe place as the idea of closeness feels so frightening beecause of the level of hurt he experienced when he wanted contact with his parents. He learnt not to protest too much so has suppressed his own rage and needs, hence the sense of lack of connection. He didn’t learn about intimacy and closeness as a child.

Behaviour with his coach mirrors his behaviour with everyone else in his life. Any suggestion of needing more intimacy triggers the need to withdraw, hence his pattern of cancelling or ending sessions early and of politely rebuffing his coach’s efforts to get closer.

What to do? This coach has to recognise her own anxiety first and to fight her need to prove that she is adding value. It is tempting to start offering endless theories about leadership, suggestions of useful books to read, and the client might even welcome it as safely objective. But this is not the answer. Nor is it the answer with clients who display Avoidant behaviour to press them too hard for more disclosure.  Instead, we have discussed how she might first suggest a detached look with the client at what his typical patterns of interaction are – and at their consequences. How much benefit might he see in changing them? If he does see some benefit, then it might be worth continuing. If he does not, then it might be better to settle for some extremely small and transactional gains.

If he is prepared to change then she might suggest small steps with him to look at what happens when he does take the risks of being closer to people and whether he could benefit from widening the numbers of people where he took such risks. Maybe there is a part of him that would like to find different ways of responding to people. Which relationshps does he feel already safe in? He might have some already. She might even suggest, very cautiously, that the coaching relationship itself was an example of one such relationship and a safer place than most to do some experimenting.

The intriguing element in this is what attachment style the coach herself has, but that is another story. This is work in progress, so watch this space.

We will be running a half day online workshop on Attachment Styles in Coaching on Thursday January 14 at 1400. To book go to www.coachingandtrauma.com