Coaching for clients in crisis situations

In 2004, I was vacationing with my family on the Maldives when the devastating Sumatra earthquake and the ensuing tsunami hit the idyllic flat little island that we were on. We all survived with some cuts and bruises, but the experience was very frightening. We responded in the way that my Solution Focused training had taught me, and I will be forever grateful for that training. Maybe my reflections here can helpful for others who are accompanying people in the many crisis situations that we are facing today.

Assuming that we are resourceful and whole

I dealt with the immediate danger as best as we could and then moved on. I did not assume that we were necessarily “traumatized” and that this “trauma” would never go away. I treated it as a scary and horrible situation and I felt great compassion for all those who were much worse off then us.

Focusing on our strengths, coping skills and resources

I literally told my children how well they did and asked about how they knew to do all the small things that helped them survive until they could no longer hear it.

Finding ways of growing in the face of a crisis

After we had arrived home, I also reflected on what I did well, where I showed that I care about others. Such situations (when they are over) do provide us with an opportunity for growth. And, don’t get me wrong, I am VERY far away from statements like “everything happens for a reason” or “there is always a silver lining” or even worse “God does not give us burdens that we cannot carry”. These are victim blaming, terrible and uncompassionate *see me shiver in disgust*. People are sometimes unlucky, they fall onto bad times without any wrongdoing, they are victimized not because they “need a lesson”, but because someone or some thing caused them harm. The fact that we can find growth in horrible situations does in no way imply that these things happened BECAUSE of our need to grow.

Treating my responses as normal and with self-compassion

Of course I was frightened of the ocean for a while! I needed time to understand that in 99,999999% of the times when I will be sitting at the beach, there will not be a tsunami. These things are rare. I have always loved the ocean, so in the time after the tsunami, I re-acquainted myself with the experience of enjoying the ocean, by going to the beach, noticing my feelings and being self-compassionate (although I did not know the word then).

This, of course, is my story and what I learned from it. If you in the role of a coach accompanying someone in a crisis situation, there might be other important considerations. I have listed a few here — by all means not all and there is a whole bunch of literature out there, that you can consult, but maybe this very short summary is useful for now. I can recommend “Yeager, K. and Roberts, A. (2015). Crisis Intervention Handbook. Oxford University Press: Oxford” and especially the article by Gilbert Greene, Mo-Yee, Leerhonda Trask and Judy Rheinscheld “How to work with clients’ strengths in crisis intervention: a solution-focused approach”.

Manage your natural desire to help or save

Unless someone’s life is threatened, as a coach, your job is to help people access their own resources, their own way forward. You want to help clients to discover their own resilience. If you truly believe that people are resourceful and whole this will be a lot easier and more supportive to your clients then any attempt to fix anything for them.

Acknowledge the hardship but don’t dig

Let your clients decide how much of the hardship they would like to share. You can coach someone without knowing what the problem is. You just need to know where the client wants to go, not where they came from.

Help clients tell their stories in ways that make them stronger

When clients do tell about the hardship, invite them to think about what they did to survive, manage, cope. It is amazing how much resilience, strengths and ingenuity you will discover together with your client.

Help clients re-discover their agency

In natural disasters, wars or when people become victims of a crime, they usually experience a loss of agency. Something was done to them by something or someone. Maybe they have forgotten how the small actions of resistance or survival made a difference and it can be helpful for them to talk about it to re-discover their agency.

Talk about a life beyond the crisis

The Solution Focused therapist Ivonne Dolan coined the phrase: “Living well is the best revenge”. This fits very well for me — it might not for everyone. So an idea could also be to inquire what kind of relationship the client would like to have with the crisis in the future: how would they like to see it, what would they like to be experiencing.

Make sure to know your own limits

You have a duty of care to yourself and to your clients. If you feel like you cannot handle the conversations with people who have experienced hardships, don’t rough it out — it is completely ok and very ethical to step back. If you are overwhelmed, you won’t be helpful.

On the other hand, some clients develop mental health issues when they have experienced great hardships, and that is also completely normal and understandable. Coaches need to be mindful of the borderline between coaching and therapy. If you feel your client could be helped better by someone with medical or psychological expertise, refer the client.

If you would like to explore such issues further, either book Kirsten for a talk on “Coaching in crisis situations” by replying to this email 🙂 or come to one of our free meetups and exchange sessions to talk to other coaches about cases, experience a demo coaching, or learn about our courses.