By Martin Vogel
Our session last night on trauma and its relevance to coaching brought to life the intended spirit of the Real Sessions: a reflective conversation among participants, skillfully seeded by fascinating introductory thoughts from our guest speaker.
Julia Vaughan Smith is a coach and therapist who has been exploring the concept of trauma for several years. She briefly talked through her understanding of trauma as a process that in early life causes the self to fragment – burying away the traumatising experience and solidifying a surviving self that enacts survival strategies that keep the trauma locked away from consciousness. Somewhere in the mix there is also a healthy self and it is from the foundation of our healthy self that we want to be functioning in order to be in good relationships with others, ourselves and the world around us. Often, though, our survival strategies (which we might also know as defence mechanisms) get in the way.
We’re familiar with survival strategies both in our lives and in the experiences that our clients bring to coaching: working too hard; problems with work-life balance; manipulative relationships; eagerness to please and so on. If you think about it, these survival strategies can often be effective in promoting success in working environments. Julia told us that one of the reasons she became interested in trauma with respect to coaching was because of the risk that coaching might sometimes become simply an exercise in sharpening clients’ survival strategies. Perhaps we might do better to help clients see past them.
She differentiated between working with trauma in a therapeutic frame and in a coaching frame. In the former, she thought clients would be more oriented to getting closer to the traumatised self but the coaching contract seldom licenses us to stir up this kind of exploration with our clients. An orientation to trauma in coaching might work with the client to promote awareness of survival strategies in order to enable the client to access their healthy self more easily.
Julia observed that relational dynamics between two people are undermined if either one is functioning from the survival self. That person will be too defended for connection to occur. This clearly has implications for coaching, which can’t really take place if either coach or client is activating survival strategies. This prompted conversation in small groups about the survival strategies we bring to coaching. One that resonated for me was rescuing. As coaches, at some level we are called to help. But at one point does helping tip into rescuing? Julia commented that if you find yourself wanting to rescue, you are in survival self and not in a good place to coach.
There’s an onus on us then to hear in ourselves what triggers our survival strategies and thus puts us at risk of making poor interventions. This calls on our reflective capabilities and underlines the value of supervision in creating a space for this kind of exploration.
We had some discussion about whether it is possible to coach the traumatised self that a client’s survival strategies seek to defend. Julia thought not and her differentiation, described above, of coaching from therapy would suggest this work is best reserved for the therapeutic frame. An alternative view was offered that it’s possible to explore gently with a client the root of their survival strategies. One such approach is Robert Kegan’s concept of competing commitments, outlined in his book Immunity to Change. Using this approach, a coach would explore with a client the contradictory aspirations they might hold – one of which might be deeply rooted and informed by a big assumption informed by early experience.
Julia’s paper last year to the APECS Symposium posed the question: What has trauma got to do with coaching or coaching to do with trauma? The Session provided the convincing answer: quite a lot. If we do no more than cultivate an awareness of how our own survival strategies show up when coaching, we’ll be doing our clients a service.
We’ve given references to further reading in earlier posts. But for those of you who want to follow up the references mentioned last night, here they are again:
If you haven’t yet made it to The Real Sessions and are wondering where to jump in, don’t think about it, just sign up to the next one. The conversation between members is what makes them work. As a number of people said to me last night, “This is what I joined APECS for!”
Image courtesy Hartwig HKD.