What Corona Virus Has Done to Coaching, and What To Do About It

“Time has been transformed, and we have changed;
it has advanced and set us in motion;
it has unveiled its face, inspiring us with bewilderment and exhilaration.”

– Khalil Gibran

“The Vision: Reflections on the Way of the Soul”. Book by Kahlil Gibran, translated by Juan R. I. Cole. Chapter “Children of Gods, Scions of Apes”, 1994.

It is months into the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and I have noticed a new theme arising in the coach supervision work I do. The theme is the changing dynamic of coaches’ work with coaching clients. Coaching clients are less focussed on goal attainment. They are struggling to name a specific topic for the session. Coaching conversations have diverted from their original outcomes. In organisational settings, managers may find their team members struggling in similar ways and bring this to coaching. Coaches (and managers in organisations) are finding it difficult to name and maintain a direction with clients and teams. For simplification, I will stay with the dynamic between coaches and clients, but this is translatable into the context of professional relationships in organisations too.

These trends have manifested in supervision sessions similarly, as confusion about the coaching experience, the topics or lack of them, what to do about this in practice and what to do about it in the supervision. My sense is that this is a negative parallel process resulting from how people are experiencing the impact of SARS-CoV-2 and resulting lockdowns.

Our individual and collective systems have been severely disrupted and consequently automatic (subconscious) defence systems have been activated. Both people and systems will engage their mechanisms to cope with stress or if the danger is severe enough, to survive. Sometimes just the perception of a threat as having an existential nature is enough to trigger a survival response. I distinguish between the two by defining coping as managing to stay largely functional during stress, and survival as not being effectively functional in routine tasks. The metrics for “functional” will depend on the context, but intuitively one might refer to time and/or output.

In coaching sessions, clients may be in the midst of experiencing some stage of their own defence or survival response. As these modes of thinking, feeling and behaviour do not necessarily present themselves in everyday life, or in the average coaching session, practitioners may be surprised to find their clients engaging in unfamiliar ways with the coaching and relationship with the practitioner. Whereas prior to the lockdown clients could have readily focused on goals or their approach to goals, they may currently have limited or no ability to do so. Experiencing this response subjectively, clients may be unaware they are in defence or survival mode. Their implicit need has changed, but they are explicitly unaware of it. This disruption to the client’s life and then the coaching relationship, can result in confusion for the coach, which in turn presents in supervision.

By noticing these phenomena through supervision, the coach may bring this into the coaching client’s awareness. In my experience this has highlighted the need for self-care, for both coaches and coaching clients. This relates to the supportive element modelled in the supervision triangle model and Triangle Coaching model.

In Behaviorally Based Coaching: A Cross-Cultural Case Study, Noer, D.M. (2005), the author describes the development of the Triangle Coaching Model which used The Center for Creative Leadership’s leadership development as a reference. The leadership development process took the form of coaching and comprised three elements; assessment (measurement, feedback and benchmarking), support (non-judgmental facilitation and empathy) and challenge (action panning and goal setting). Noer’s coaching model was a development of each element into behavioural components, with the support element comprising attending, inquiring, reflecting, and affirming. These four behaviours were derived from five critical skills in Dennis Kinlaw’s Superior Coaching Model.

Supervisors, coaches and managers can apply the relevant models or their philosophies, within their own contexts. For supervisors, a humanistic approach through the use of empathy, attention and listening will serve to ground the coach enough that they can recognise their own emotions and somatic experiences, working through their confusion to make sense of what is happening in the coaching, with the clients and themselves. For coaches, relief comes from understanding that the transactional aspects of coaching and the client’s life present less of a need, giving space for attending, inquiring, reflecting, and affirming, which are also humanistic in nature. Coaching clients then too feel whole enough make sense of their own experiences and needs. Leaders and managers who apply non-judgmental facilitation and empathy will build rapport with stressed employees, and opening up a space for conversations on their most relevant needs.

Below I diagram a conceptual relationship between the Supervision Triangle Model and Noer’s Triangle Coaching Model. I pair the support, development and management elements of the Supervision Triangle with the support, challenging and assessing elements of Noer’s model, respectively. The colours in each model indicate the relationships between the elements, the choice of colour representative of the philosphy behind each element.

Considerations: Secondary trauma and compassion fatigue. Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) is the stress resulting from hearing people’s traumatic experiences. Compassion fatigue is the build-up of stress resulting from helping other people who are in distress. Intuitively we can sense that a supportive mode is the relevant response to these experiences. Practicing a grounding and cathartic exercise (like mindfulness exercises, attention to the breath, a body scan, or similar) at the start of a supervision or coaching session can be immensely helpful, not only in the client’s life but in their ability to make use of the modality of the session.

It is important for practitioners, whether coaches, leaders or supervisors, to remain mindful of their competence to deal with the intensity and frequency of the stress-inducing experiences, the client’s resilience and use of appropriate resources available. Regular self-reflection, check-ins with the client and own supervisor will aid in monitoring whether the practitioner’s competence is effective and safe enough for the client and those in their own environments.

Conclusion

Due to the impacts on various aspects of life SARS-CoV-2 has had, there is a negative parallel process from coaching client to coach to supervisor. Supervisors can invite a positive parallel process starting with empathic listening and responsiveness, a humanistic approach and personal support, which coaches may bring into the coaching space, and clients into their personal and business contexts.

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