Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Trauma-Informed Coaching: Necessary, Better, and *Not* About Trauma by Susana Rinderle

We are pleased to share an article entitled  “Trauma-Informed Coaching: Necessary, Better, and *Not* About Trauma” written by Susana Rinderle

“That’s a self-limiting belief,” my coach insisted. “I think you’re more capable than you realize. I believe you can push through and still take action!” 

I froze. A part of me launched into high alert: “Nope, that is NOT true and we are NOT going there!” Another part dove into a shame spiral: “You’re being a coward! What’s wrong with you! She’s an experienced coach, of course she’s right!” Yet another part dissolved into grief: “She doesn’t see you. She doesn’t understand. No one does – you’re all alone.”

Eight years later, I don’t remember my coach’s exact words. I don’t even remember what we were working on. I do remember how I felt in that moment. I do remember that’s when I lost my trust in her.

I also remember I didn’t book another session after that.

At the time, neither my coach nor I were aware that I’m a trauma survivor. If I had known what trauma does to the nervous system, I might have been able to advocate for myself. If my coach had been trauma-informed, she might have known not to push me or dismiss my “self-limiting belief”. Our relationship might have remained intact. 

For half a century, I’ve been on a journey of suffering and healing that eventually involved three mental health diagnoses, multiple psychotherapists and therapeutic models, medication, various “alternative” and spiritual methods, and dozens of books and courses. I’ve been a coach for about 12 years, and for two years I’ve been a Certified Facilitator of The Resilience Toolkit – a trauma-informed somatic modality that transformed my life. 

Along my journey, which also includes 30 years in multiple roles related to diversity, inclusion, anti-racism, and social justice, I’ve learned a lot about trauma. And while I’m grateful that the word “trauma” is losing its stigma, I notice that most people don’t fully understand what trauma is, and how it affects every aspect of our lives. I believe it’s critical that coaches in particular become better informed about trauma, so we can best serve all our clients navigating the complex, overwhelming ecosystem of modern life.


Trauma: Acute and Chronic, Widespread and Common

“Trauma” isn’t just one horrible event in the past. Trauma is simply “too much, too fast”, or “too much, too soon”. It can also be “too much for too long” or “not enough for too long.” The body, not the brain, is where trauma lives. And the body doesn’t distinguish between acute (singular, intense) trauma and ongoing chronic stress. Spending years in a toxic workplace with inhumane expectations (too much) or growing up in a family with little-to-no-love (too little) can be just as devastating to our nervous systems as an assault or combat deployment.

By this definition, it’s not a question of whether someone carries trauma, but how much. These days, trauma is being carried not only by healthcare workers, teachers, hourly laborers, and migrants, but also parents, professionals, corporate employees, and top executives. Trauma is being experienced by everyone navigating the world in black, brown, female, gender non-conforming, and neurodivergent bodies. 

Trauma is relational, institutional, environmental, intergenerational, and historical – not just personal. And in 2022, exactly no one is living through global pandemics, economic uncertainty, institutional instability, political violence, and climate chaos without trauma. Trauma-informed coaches are especially equipped to hold space and be the compassionate, skilled allies that clients need right now.


Trauma-Informed Coaching: Not “Trauma Coaching”

Many coaches understand what trauma is, but aren’t aware that trauma-informed coaching isn’t the same as “trauma coaching.”

“Trauma coaching”, sometimes known as “trauma recovery coaching”, is coaching designed and provided specifically to facilitate growth or healing in survivors of acute trauma. Trauma and/or chronic stress are the focus of the coaching engagement and individual sessions. 

I think of “trauma-informed coaching” as the following:

  • High-quality professional coaching where the coach brings:
    • Knowledge about trauma and chronic stress and how they might present during sessions and in clients’ lives. 
    • More profound, integral focus on safety, trust, equity, and choice – both during coaching sessions and across the coaching relationship.
    • Commitment and skill around self-regulation and co-regulation. 
  • Coaching provided in alignment with the CDC/SAMHSA “Six Principles of a Trauma-Informed Approach”, especially the sixth principle around cultural, historical, and gender issues. A coach is not trauma-informed if they lack depth or fluency in macro-systemic dynamics. These dynamics include oppression, historical, and intergenerational trauma, and the ways multiple sources of both strength and stress outside individuals’ control impact those individuals.
  • Trauma and chronic stress may – or may not – be the focus of the coaching engagement, or any one session.
  • Growth and healing around trauma or chronic stress may occur as a byproduct or sidebar of the coaching engagement.

Not all trauma-informed coaching is “trauma coaching”. It’s also true that not all trauma coaching is sufficiently trauma-informed. In those cases, the coach lacks sufficient self-regulation or co-regulation skills, they view systemic oppression as “political” or irrelevant, or they unconsciously undermine client safety, trust or choice.

Trauma-informed coaches don’t necessarily coach clients on their trauma, or even talk about trauma. But clients’ trauma always shows up in coaching sessions – even if the coachee is the CEO of a major company who’s working on their leadership skills. This is why trauma-informed coaching is better coaching for all clients. 


Trauma-Informed Coaching: Better Coaching for All Clients

In the U.S. there was much resistance when the government mandated public buildings to be more accessible to people in wheelchairs. It was tremendously expensive for building owners to install the required bathroom upgrades, elevators, and ramps. And yet, 30 years later, who among us has not benefitted from one of those ramps when we were hauling luggage, pushing a stroller, riding a bicycle, or nursing a leg injury?

Trauma-informed coaching functions in much the same way. An approach designed for a minority can benefit everyone – and unlike people in wheelchairs, the traumatized are the majority. “Everyone” includes middle managers in tech striving to create high-performing teams, and young professionals looking for a better job. “Everyone” includes entrepreneurs seeking clarity about their business goals, and global executives attempting to lead change in their industry. “Everyone” also includes those with marginalized identities. A trauma-informed lens is a must-have to engage in any diversity, equity and inclusion work, whether one-on-one coaching, team development or broader organizational change. 

When a coach is not trauma-informed, it’s easy for them to miss, dismiss, or misinterpret clients’ cues. We can see their behaviors as passive, self-sabotaging, or escalating, when they’re actually normal, predictable, and adaptive. When a coach is not trauma-informed, they can unwittingly cause or exacerbate harm. 


Six Steps to Becoming a Trauma-Informed Coach

Becoming a trauma-informed coach requires a significant commitment of time and energy. However, the following six steps are a good start: 

  1. Commit to an active healing journey around your own trauma.
  2. Gain proficiency in a toolkit (or toybox!) of effective self-regulation practices. A well-regulated nervous system is priority #1 for engaging in any human development activity.
  3. Attain knowledge about the science and history of the human stress/trauma response. Understand all stress responses as adaptive, predictable, and useful. 
  4. Become fluent in the socioecological context of how individuals are located within multiple institutions, systems, and histories, which are sources of both stress and support. 
  5. Develop acute awareness about the subtle ways you support or damage safety, trust, equity, and choice with clients. Exercise agility in adjusting your approach based on real-time feedback. 
  6. Build connections with other practitioners for referral, mentorship, support, and insight. 

Trauma-informed coaching is better coaching because it creates the safety necessary for change and transformation. If my coach, on that day eight years ago, had been trauma-informed, she would have known to respect my “resistance” and not push me too far, too fast. Our relationship might have endured, and our trust might have enabled me to grow in my life, and her in her practice. 

If my coach had been trauma-informed, who knows what breakthroughs might have been possible – for both of us. 

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