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 and scroll to “Referring a Client to Therapy.”

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