In times of perceived crisis, the lines between coaching and therapy can sometimes feel more blurred than usual. This is because the kind of issues that people bring to coaching may touch on more personal dimensions and at a deeper level than they would normally. The Coronavirus and the intense drama that surrounds it is a case in point. People may find themselves not only, say, dealing with the impacts of lockdown on their business and work, but also anxieties they hold for the health, safety and well-being of their family, friends and colleagues. So here are some insights from four psychological fields to help coaches enable people to navigate such times and experiences.
First, Gestalt. Notice if and when a person is fixated on one specific dimension of what is taking place, as if that is the only dimension. A vivid, current example is the mass media’s fixation on the number of people contracting or dying from the Corona virus – to the exclusion of attention to a far, far greater number of people who haven’t contracted the virus and who haven’t died from it. It can create the impression that everyone is contracting the virus and that everyone is dying from it. If, therefore, you notice a person becoming overly-preoccupied by one dimension of an issue, acknowledge the underlying feeling (e.g. anxiety) and enable him or her to notice what they are not-noticing.
Second, Existential. The Corona crisis has evoked deep fears, particularly in wealthier countries where people and communities are no longer used to facing these levels of perceived vulnerability and threat. Dramatic soundbites in social media, claiming this is the worst crisis the world has ever faced, add to the sense of fear and alarm – that death and destruction of people, communities, organisations and social systems are imminent. Whilst such apocalyptic visions ignore previous and arguably far-worse crises (e.g. Bubonic plague; Spanish flu; Two World Wars), the coach can use this opportunity to enable people to explore their deeply-held beliefs, values and stance in the world.
Third, Psychodynamics. People, groups, organisations and communities experience the present through the emotional, psychological and cultural filters of the past. People will very likely have experienced crises of one sort of another before that from their standpoint and experience ended badly or, conversely, worked out well in the end. Such experiences will influence what the person perceives, how they feel about it and how they will respond to a crisis now. If you notice a person reacting very strongly, particularly if it appears disproportionate or out of character, acknowledge the feeling and explore how it may be reverberating with experiences from that person or group’s past.
Fourth, Social Constructs. People create personal and cultural narratives that give focus and shape to their experiences and, thereby, enable people and groups to make sense of them. So, for instance, politicians, health professionals and the media are, currently, presenting very specific versions of events in relation to the Corona crisis. They are construing facts, stories and images selectively to convey a particular narrative that will lead to a certain response; whether that be e.g. to engender public confidence, influence public behaviour...or sell more newspapers. Listen carefully to the stories people are creating and using and, where helpful, enable them to construct a healthier narrative.
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'Vulnerability + Hazard = Disaster.’ (Steve Penny)
It’s one thing to conceptualise it. It’s quite another thing to feel it, to experience it, to know it for real. Marcus Oxley, international disaster response expert, comments with insight that at moments when crisis hits, all vulnerabilities that pre-existed, yet lay out of view, come into sharp relief. It’s like a lightning flash in the darkness of night that, suddenly and just for a moment, reveals starkly what’s already there: e.g. political systems, public services, infrastructure, corruption, technology, security etc.
Yet crisis can also reveal and evoke extraordinary awareness, resourcefulness and resilience. Shona Adams, a clinical psychology expert, observed astutely that people often don’t know what’s possible, or what they and others are truly capable of, until they are in a crisis. There’s only so much we can imagine, anticipate and prepare for in advance. People sometimes discover surprising strength, support and spirit and fresh possibilities emerge, as if by magic, that lay hidden or untapped before.
So, here are some tips for leaders, coaches, OD and HR that feel especially pertinent in the midst of the Coronacrisis: 1. What vulnerabilities have emerged that were already there, yet your client now sees more visibly and has energy to address? 2. What has stayed strong or not broken in the face of crisis? (e.g. ‘If your client rates his or her resilience as 2 out of 5, what has stopped it becoming a 1?’). 3. What new opportunities can you and the client see and create: to be, become or do something new?
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