Even in my earliest days as a coach, I had the sense to ask clients about their experience of growing up. But often I found myself not knowing what on earth to make of what they told me. I had the impression that they spoke to me readily enough and frequently it shocked and surprised me, these tales of being the child of reluctant or angry parents, or of mothers with very serious mental illnesses, suicidal fathers, parents with alcohol and drug problems, of parents who had left or died or a childhood spent struggling with serious illness.
I did learn how to listen to these stories but I still found myself thinking nervously about that line between therapy and coaching while noticing that many of these clients had already had therapy. Yet it seemed clear that these early experiences were still shaping their lives.
More recently, thanks to working with Julia Vaughan Smith, one of the foremost British experts on the trauma ideas of Professor Franz Ruppert, I have found that my confidence has grown and I think I am a better coach as a result. I am better informed and more confident in the approaches I take. I know now that you can’t coach the Survival Self, the one we so often see in coaching where clients present with common problems such as overworking, inability to delegate, frustration with their direct reports and so on. None of the classic coaching approaches, based on rationality and apparent common sense, will work. Understanding trauma gives immediate alternatives which stand a much better chance of success.
Here are some examples
Glen’s parents had both died by the time he was twelve. He was fostered with enormous reluctance by a succession of wealthy aunts and uncles who quickly shipped him off to a famous boys’ boarding school. He constructed a Survival Self which was brittle, clownish and self-sufficient. He hid his fear of yet more abandonment by working hard and rose with apparently minimal effort to a senior role in an investment bank. One more promotion exposed his absolute refusal to delegate and his tendency to waste other people’s time with jokes and stories. He was sleeping badly, exhausted by the energy needed to do his own job along with so many of the tasks that should have been given to others. Glen’s behaviour was putting his health and his career in jeopardy. Explaining the theory to Glen I asked him what his Healthy Self, the resourceful, intelligent and thoughtful part of him, would say to his Survival Self. Glen had no difficulty in answering: ‘He’d say, look old chap, you’re safe now, you can trust other people, you don’t need to do it all yourself.’ That was the foundation of the coaching.
Ann came to coaching looking for solutions to what she described as ‘chronic stress’. As a child Ann had helped her father hide his bottles of vodka, colluded in his lies to her mother and believed the stories about his heroic exploits in the Army. Her parents divorced when she was thirteen and Ann insisted on living with her father where she stuck with him through multiple attempts to give up alcohol, cooking and cleaning for him, then, still only nineteen, nursed him through his final illness. Ann married and later divorced an older man who had unacknowledged alcohol problems. She chose a career in social work where she described herself as ‘worn out by the impossibility of ever doing good work’. In our coaching, we looked constantly and fruitfully at what a healthier attitude would mean where compulsive attempts to ‘rescue’ could be replaced by compassionate realism.
Mik had learnt from his mother that he was a failure and a disappointment. Approval was given grudgingly and depended on academic achievement, something that her own childhood as an impoverished immigrant had denied her. But Mik was never top of the class, he had mediocre A Level results, he didn’t go to Oxford, he didn’t fulfil her cherished wish that he should become a doctor. He believed he was worthless and unlovable, destroying two marriages with his biting criticisms. Now at 45 he wants to sell his business, have a child with his new wife and start a different career – but as what? Therapy has helped him understand his own and his mother’s behaviour and to learn that her views of him don’t need to define him now. Mik and I are working on what a healthier self looks and feels like along with the many strengths that his experience as a successful businessman have given him and what this might mean for a new career.
I am working with at least one client every week with this kind of history. These stories are so common. Learning about trauma has helped me understand why coaching can feel superficial and transactional because it never gets to the underlying problems – and to develop much more effective approaches, without the need to feel that I am getting into therapeutic territory.
Julia and I will be running another one day Masterclass for coaches on Thursday July 26, 2018 in central London.