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(We're Published by ICF) Trauma-Responsive Coaching: The Advanced Skills Needed to Navigate What’s Next

Updated: Jun 3

Coaches increasingly find themselves holding space for the emotional toll that unrelenting toxic stress has taken on their clients. Across industries and around the world, professionals are reporting extreme burnout, fear, exhaustion, rage, disengagement, and apathy — both in themselves and those they lead. All of this is compounded by attrition and recruitment challenges, resulting in ever-increasing workloads and setting up cyclic patterns of organizational harm.

The chronicity of toxic stress exposure has depleted the emotional reserves and capacity of even the most well-resourced leaders, sensitizing and priming them for reactivity that can lead to heightened activation of the body’s threat-response system: fight-flight-freeze-submit.

The cumulative impact of toxic stress and harm can manifest as:

  • Demoralization and career dissatisfaction.

  • Burnout, exhaustion, compassion fatigue.

  • Communication breakdowns.

  • Disconnection and disengagement.

  • Uncivil or aggressive behavior.

  • Apathy, avoidance, attrition.

While our primary coach training might suggest these clients require therapy, the reality is that seasoned coaches skilled in trauma-responsive engagement may be uniquely positioned to provide real-time disruption and mitigate the impact of toxic stress on clients.

Coaching is not therapy, and great coaching can be extremely therapeutic. By learning to hold space for the offloading and processing of pain, then using foundational coaching skills to move these clients into a space of curiosity, choice, and decision, coaches can help interrupt the embodiment of harm. Growth and forward movement can occur even amid unrelenting toxic stress and trauma.

This, of course, requires experienced coaches who recognize the common skillsets of coaching and therapy, including deep listening, non-judgment, and holding space for strong emotions. It also requires that coaches actively learn and practice the skills of trauma-responsive engagement and become skilled at noticing when more is needed and making referrals in a manner that does not leave clients feeling abandoned or further harmed. Coaches trained and skilled in trauma-responsive engagement can be a source of support for clients as they rediscover their footing, make sense of what happened, establish their new normal, and make decisions about how and when they wish to proceed in their careers.

Trauma-Responsive expertise is particularly valuable for coaches who work with physicians, nurses, public health professionals, and others who have been front line to trauma and are experiencing the distress of moral injury. While healthcare workers have historically been reluctant to seek therapy due to real or perceived licensure and reputational risk, they have shown themselves to be open to coaching. Coaching, in fact, appeals to this population specifically because it is forward-looking and solutions/goal-oriented, both of which align with the preferred approach of most healthcare workers.

Is Coaching Prepared for What’s Next?

As coaches, one of the first and most critical skills we learn is to ask curious questions to assist in both perspective-taking and facilitating the client’s awareness of opportunities that may exist amid challenges. Facilitating this shift is key to opening clients to new possibilities and putting them into a growth mindset.

This type of perspective-taking is necessary within the coaching industry, too. The pervasive pain, toxic stress, and trauma that have been almost universally experienced around the world provide a unique growth opportunity for coaches and the industry. Inevitably, strong emotions will show up in our clients — across all professions — for many years to come. Coaching can become uniquely positioned to facilitate intra and post-traumatic growth.

The best coaches continually seek to expand their skills to provide what they notice clients need. The coachee’s experience of being truly and compassionately heard is a powerful trauma mitigator, as are the skills of recognition, naming, and moving into choice and decision. Acquiring Trauma-Responsive coaching skills and becoming adept at stepping into and providing a safe and welcoming space where pain can be expressed and honored and companioned represents a unique opportunity for experienced coaches.

While the pain of the last three years is immeasurable, there exists an opportunity for healing and growth – for both clients and coaches. Interruption and mitigation of toxic stress and the healing of individual and organizational trauma begins with the deliberate cultivation of connection, trust, and psychological safety as immediate actionable disruptors of cycles of harm.

Trauma-responsive coaching represents a powerful opportunity for experienced coaches open to continuous learning and growth. These advanced coaching skills increase the capacity of our profession, and ensure clients continue to feel seen, understood, and supported as they move through and beyond the immense challenges of these times.

The content in this article was explored in depth at ICF Converge 2023. Even if you did not attend, you do not have to miss out. You can access the corresponding session recording, “Trauma-Responsive Coaching: A Coaching Paradigm Aligned with the Times,” as well as 60 other recordings from the event with the ICF Converge 2023 On-Demand Package.

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