Some Thoughts About HOW to Coach Around Trauma

Trauma and Coaching Series Part Three (Click here for Part One and here for Part Two of this series)

Relational trauma tends to create feelings of cognitive dissonance, shame and doubt. Many types of trauma can bypass cognitive functions and lodge in the body, creating implicit memories that are not connected to narrative memory. Even short-term trauma can disrupt memory areas of the brain, creating a sort of protective amnesia where details aren’t remembered or tracked. It’s common for a client to have false self-blaming beliefs and stories about the trauma that they have reinforced by excessive rumination. (It’s interesting to note that when people ruminate and blame themselves it can actually create somewhat of a feeling of control—this happened because I did X, so I won’t ever do X again.) In this post, we’ll look at both what to do and what not to do in coaching.

In general, clients healing from trauma tend to need:

  1. To safely experience their full and complete current emotional state, including body sensations, emotions, thought patterns, etc.

    If the client is stable in their observer mind (see Part Two of this series on WHO to coach), they may find that a trusting coaching relationship is a safe place to explore their current emotional state. Even just talking things through with someone who is fully present and holding space with curiosity can be extremely helpful in the healing/integration process. And because trauma tends to live in the body, using embodiment techniques can help, in the words of embodiment expert Amanda Blake, to “surface the invisibles.” It’s very common for a traumatized client to not know what they don’t know. Their body has been partnering in helping them operate in the world as “fine,” while often still holding their tension, anxiety, anger and fear.

  2. To learn ways to self-regulate their central nervous system as difficult emotions and sensations arise.

    Helping the client exploring sensations within their “window of tolerance” (see Part Two of this series for more on this important concept) is often a good first step in learning to self-regulate. Other techniques such as simple breath work, stress management techniques, and again, embodiment, can also help client become less “at effect” of their emotions and sensations.

  3. To find and reinforce a story that creates an empowering narrative, without doing a “spiritual bypass.”

    Depending on the stage of healing and intensity of trauma, many coaching tools are designed to help clients surface and address limiting or false beliefs and reframe stuck perspectives. The strategy of reframing (sometimes called reappraisal) is one of the most powerful stress reducers we have available, and for clients healing from relational trauma can be a key part of the journey.

  4. And sometimes to explore ways to get their central nervous system more regulated without having to tell the story.

    Sometimes helping clients explore ways to manage stress and discomfort without going into the story is the best strategy for the stage the client is in. A coach can also work with client to explore and move froward in areas of life unrelated to the trauma, gaining confidence and self-esteem in the process.

What NOT to Do

There is a lot we can do in coaching, but perhaps just as importantly, we need to look at what NOT to do:

  1. Push the client outside their window of tolerance during the coaching.
  2. Treat the abuse as a “compatibility” issue, a “bad break-up” or minimize the pathological behavior of the abuser.
  3. Interrupt key features of the healing process by trying to get the survivor to “heal” quickly.
  4. Make the victim responsible for the actions of the abuser.
  5. Mistake the abuser as well-intentioned and communicate this to the survivor.
  6. Refer without being sure referral partner is relational-trauma trained.



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Coaching and Trauma: Three Ways to Look at Who to Coach

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Trauma and Coaching Series Part Two (Click here for Part One of this series)

One way to look at coaching and trauma is to filter based on the topic. Some coaches prefer this approach, deeming certain topics or issues off-limits and the cause for immediate referral. I prefer a view that has more to do with the capacity of the client, the experience of the coach, and the structure of the relationship. My main three screens have become:

A) How much can my client be in what we might call their “observer mind?” Are they able to be curious about their topic or situation or do they become lost in the emotion and overly distressed? This links to something Dr. Dan Siegel calls the “window of tolerance” (from his 1999 book, The Developing Mind). If the client is overly distressed (hyperarousal) or overly shut down (hypoarousal) coming in to coaching, or becomes so during coaching, addressing trauma issues directly may be too much for them (or at this time). It’s difficult to say definitively, but you can take a look at this checklist of things to watch for. If either hyperarousal or hypoarousal is extreme and persistent, coaching may well not be the right thing for the client. You may want to explore with client other modalities and refer them out or work in conjunction (see below) with a therapist or other practitioner.

B) To what degree do I have specialized training in the area? For example, while I have extensive continuing education relating to working with relational trauma, I don’t have any particular experience working with addiction. But that does not necessarily mean addiction is hands-off for every coach. In fact, I met a lovely experienced coach at an ICF conference a few years ago who specialized in coaching people coping with alcoholism. I generally wouldn’t feel equipped to go there (especially at earlier stages of the client’s journey), but that doesn’t mean he isn’t.

C) Am I on my own or part of a team? There are clients where I might not feel comfortable coaching if I am the only resource they have, but might feel just fine about it as part of a team. A certain percentage of my relational trauma coaching clients also have therapists, or have them for the earlier portion of our coaching. We often are working on different topics than what the client is addressing in therapy (although sometimes there is a bit of an overlap). In the case where I am part of a team, I like to have a way to connect with the therapist in case of emergency and an agreement to extend confidentiality if critical for client’s safety.

And so, as we think about who to coach and who not to coach, I think we can be more subtle than screening by topic, which is to me very much an oversimplification of the issue. Humans are complex and varied in their ability to face things and change, and coaching is often an extremely helpful modality.

*The International Coach Federation acknowledges that referral to a coach with specialized training can be an alternative to referring to the a therapist in certain circumstances. See https://coachingfederation.org/research/academic-research and scroll to “Referring a Client to Therapy.”

Check out our neuroscience-based trauma coaching certification program: https://www.beaboveleadership.com/neuroscience-coaching-and-relational-trauma/

Ten Reasons Why Coaching May Be Useful in Relational Trauma

Trauma and Coaching Series Part One

What is Trauma?

In general, trauma occurs when a person is overwhelmed by events or circumstances and responds with intense fear, horror, and helplessness. Extreme stress overwhelms the person’s capacity to cope. There is a direct correlation between trauma and physical health conditions such as diabetes, COPD, heart disease, cancer, and high blood pressure.[1]

Relational trauma is an aftereffect of abuse, neglect, and suffering. Those whose are betrayed by people they loved, trusted, or relied on may encounter enormous mental and behavioral health challenges, as they attempt to forge interpersonal connections and cope with life’s many challenges.[2]

Why Focus on Relational Trauma?

At BEabove Leadership, we have chosen to focus on training coaches to work specifically with relational trauma rather than trauma in general for a couple of compelling reasons. One, it is the most pervasive, insidious and under-recognized form of trauma, impacting a stunning number of our coaching clients, and two, it has a set of perpetrator and target behaviors and impacts that are somewhat different than other forms of trauma (such as that experienced in war, famine, or natural disasters).

But before we figure out how to coach people who are experiencing or have experienced relational trauma, it’s important to first be clear on both WHY coaching may be useful in this space. In subsequent posts we’ll look at WHO is appropriate to be coached (and who is not) and HOW and WHEN to use coaching strategies and tools.

Ten Reasons Why Coaching May be Useful in Relational Trauma

  1. It’s all around us. In the United States, 61 percent of men and 51 percent of women report exposure to at least one lifetime traumatic event.[3] Most of these involve some form of relational trauma. Therefore, even the most self-actualized, aware, and even successful client may encounter trauma or have some degree of unresolved relational trauma in their lives.
  2. There are not nearly enough therapists working in this area, and surprisingly, most therapists have not actually received the necessary training to work with relational trauma and abuse unless they pursue advanced education (which all too few have).
  3. Research tracking the effectiveness of nontraditional treatments points to many things coaches do well, as well as areas where coaches have been pioneers (for example, equine-assisted coaching, nature coaching, various forms of energy processing).
  4. Coaching tends to lend itself to integrated modalities, and many coaches are lifelong learners committed to expanding their skillsets. Most coaches feel perfectly comfortable integrating multiple modalities into their work because there is less pressure in the industry to identify as a specific type of coach. Coaches are often less interested in labels and more interested in what works.
  5. The underlying mindset of coaching is that people are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. For appropriate clients, it can be life-changing of be seen and held this way.
  6. Often clients some to coaching with a presenting concern that does not seem like a psychological issue. In other words, they come to coaching for help with something like dating or career change. Then the trauma is unearthed in the coaching and it becomes apparent that the  client can’t move on powerfully unless it is addressed. Depending on the client and whether or not the coach is trauma trained, it may well be appropriate to continue the exploration in the trusting coaching relationship that has already been established.
  7. Coaching is well-suited to help appropriate clients mine the learning from their experiences and take it forward as a reflection of their growth, something that we might think of as Post Traumatic Growth Syndrome
  8. Coaches focus on making things applicable in life. There is a dance between what we call forwarding the action and deepening the learning. Both are critical for effective coaching and can help someone in their process of moving forward.
  9. Coaches can work across state and country boundaries, whereas therapists generally need to be licensed in a specific state or country.
  10. Even the International Coach Federation, in their white paper on when to refer clients to therapy[4] acknowledges that for many issues either a therapist or a coach with specialized training can be effective.

Check out our neuroscience-based trauma coaching certification program: https://www.beaboveleadership.com/neuroscience-coaching-and-relational-trauma/

[1] The National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare

[2] BrightQuest Treatment Centers

[3] SAMHSA-HRSA Center for Integrated Studies

[4] See https://coachingfederation.org/research/academic-research and scroll to “Referring a Client to Therapy.” Note that this paper does not make specific reference to relational trauma (a huge oversight on their part in our opinion).