Coaching a client who felt broken from coaching

Working with vulnerability
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Several years ago, I had the opportunity to observe James Lawley work at a coaching retreat. The session felt tricky for me because in a previous session with another experienced coach the day before, the coachee had found himself in a vulnerable state after being coached.

At the start of his session with James, the coachee reported that after the previous session he had felt overwhelmed by an old pattern he had experienced many times before. The session resulted in him feeling “broken” and “lost” after he “walked into a hole he couldn’t get out of”. This left him feeling unresourceful and distrustful of the previous coach. And yet despite all that, the coachee had returned for another coaching session.

As I was listening, I wondered, what would I do if I were the coach? How would I ensure the coachee did not end up in the same place as in the previous coaching session?

Luckily, James demonstrated how to coach a coachee in such a vulnerable state. Each question James asked invited the coachee to decide for himself what he wanted to have happen, given what had happened to him and his current state. It was, for me, an expert display of staying clean, maintaining safety and letting a coachee decide the direction he wanted the session to go in, every step of the way.

I took notes of the session and interviewed James afterwards about his choice of questions. The client’s responses have been anonymised.

What happened in the session

The beginning

After the coachee (C) updated James (JL) about his experience in the previous session and confirmed he still wanted to be coached, James asked the following questions:

JL: And what would you like to have happen during our time together?

C: I want to understand better, to have a metaphor, to keep myself from breaking into pieces. I want to understand why the previous coaching session resulted in that happening. I would like to be aware of the signs before I start breaking apart.

JL: And where are you right now?

C: I’m thankful to be here.

JL: And you want to have a metaphor to keep from breaking apart. And right now, are you still broken into pieces?

C: No.

James’ thinking at this point:

It’s important for me to know where the client is at in the beginning of the session. If he is in the hole and broken that is a very different place to start from than if he has gotten himself out of the hole. If, as in this case, it is the latter, I know he has the capacity/resources to do that – which adds a degree of safety to what might happen in this session. At this stage, I’m looking for a desired outcome and familiarising myself with the coachee’s current state.

The middle

The coachee describes what happens when he breaks apart: he is walking along and falls into a hole he hadn’t noticed. He has experienced this in other situations before, not just in the previous coaching session.

JL: We can do this generally or we can take the previous coaching session as an example. What is your preference?

C: The previous session.

JL: So when you were in that coaching session, when did you first notice there was a hole?

C: Only after the session. During the session, I wanted to continue exploring. And I had a responsibility to stop, so I could have stayed still. But we continued exploring and I fell into the hole, and after that broke into pieces.

JL: And what would you have liked to have happen?

C: Maybe I don’t trust the previous coach enough to do a good job of keeping me safe.

JL: How much are you trusting me right now?

C: Pretty much.

JL: Is that enough? Are you trusting me enough?

C: Yes.

JL: What lets you know how much you trust someone?

C: I have a feeling about the person, about who they are, what they are displaying that lets me trust them.

James’ thinking at this point:

Noticing a hole after the session is too late to prevent falling into it. The client says he needs a “before sign” that there is or could be a hole – and I expect this would give him some time or space to do something else. The ‘choice point’ has to be before he starts to fall into the hole. And preferably some distance from the edge of the hole. To do this he needs to recognise where he is in a potential falling-in-the-hole situation. Usually, this noticing needs to happen in awareness. Later, with repetition, it can become automatic.

I ask about his trust of me because, given what happened in the previous session, if that is in doubt it will need to be addressed before we continue with anything else.

Thinking about it now, I’m using his trust of me as a proxy to determine if he is aware of any signs that will keep him safe. I doubt I was conscious of this at the time. Given he has some internal and external signals for trusting someone to keep him safe, he might also have some signals for the appearance of a hole that he is currently unaware of. If not, he will need to develop them.

The session continues.

JL: Is there anything else about the previous session you would have liked to have changed?

C: I cried a lot. And instead of waiting to collect myself to stay whole … [starts to cry].

JL: [Pause] What just happened?

C: I’m trying hard not to break apart.

James’ thinking at this point:

In the limited time available, I’m trying to find where it would be most useful for the client to attend to. I notice “waiting to collect myself to stay whole” would have made a difference in the previous session, and presumably that’s what he needs to learn how to do when he starts to “break apart”. But currently this only happens after he falls into the hole.

His crying suggests that the same thing may be happening as in the previous session (“I cried a lot”). I want to catch it ‘live’ since the process will be fresh, and likely tacit knowledge will be more available to him. I expect that as he becomes more aware of what is happening at this point in the sequence, other possibilities will open up to his system.

He also says, “I’m trying hard not to break apart”. This implies that if he tries hard enough he has some agency in whether or not he breaks apart. To do this though, he needs to be aware of it at the time. I noticed that he had that awareness in this session. In the previous session, he didn’t. My thinking is: if he can raise his awareness in this session, it’s more likely to be raised in future situations. The coaching session then becomes a microcosm of what happens in his life.

As an aside, I believe this is one of the most important functions of self-awareness, it creates a feedback loop so the system can adapt and learn from itself.

The session continues.

JL: What happens that lets you know you’re not breaking apart?

C: It feels like I’m on a road and I’m being pushed by other people who are behind me. And I push myself because they are pushing me, and I get angry. And when I push myself, I walk and fall into the hole. It’s an ambush.

JL: Will you let me know in this session if you’re being pushed or you’re pushing yourself?

C: [Nods]

JL: Are you okay if we work on that ‘ambush’ metaphor?

C: Yes.

James’ thinking at this point:

He is managing to prevent himself “breaking apart”, and putting attention on how he does this may strengthen this capacity since he didn’t or wasn’t able to do this in the previous session.

I definitely don’t want to play the role of the “pushing people” (especially since I have had feedback in the past that I can push people to go faster than they want to go). And I might not realise that unintentionally I am doing it. So I ask him to let me know. This gives the client a shared responsibility to manage the session to his liking.

Plus, I am, by implication, asking the client to monitor the degree of pushing. This will likely mean (a) he will be more aware of it happening in real time, and (b) speak up (i.e. tell me) and therefore have some influence over the source of the pushing, be it others or himself.

I switched from his “breaking apart” metaphor to his “ambush” metaphor because the ambush happens before he breaks apart. The unusual intervention of seeking the client’s permission to ask about the ambush is to ensure he knows he is in control. It also sends the meta-message that I am not pushing him to do anything he does not want to do.

It is also possible that I am role-modelling how he can check-in with himself about what is and isn’t okay (e.g. by asking himself ‘Am I okay with this?’).

The session continues and James develops “ambush” with the coachee:

JL: Whereabouts are you just before you are ambushed?

C: I am really close to the hole. It’s in front of me.

JL: So what happens between you in front of the hole and you walking into it?

James’ thinking:

I’m surprised I didn’t hold his attention at this “really close” place so he could get used to knowing when he was there, and then he could have explored the choices available to him at that point.

However, with a similar intention, I must have decided that it was more important for the client to be aware that even though he was “really close” there is an implied between space, and maybe this awareness could provide him with other choices.

I’m thinking of his metaphor landscape very physically. What currently happens and what could happen physically at the threshold between where he is now and falling into the hole.

I recognise my ‘What happens between …’ question is a risk because it might encourage him to move forward and fall into the hole. The way I word the question and how I deliver it aims to reduce that possibility so that he answers the question from where he is.

James continues to facilitate the client to self-model the process of how he walks into an ambush. Then he asks:

JL: How many times have you walked into that hole?

C: Trillions of times.

JL: And what else is around that hole?

C: I don’t know, and it’s making me angry.

JL: There is no need to have an answer to my questions. ‘I don’t know’ is an answer.

James’ thinking at this point:

I usually use the “how many times” question to find out if something has only happened once or twice, or, as in this case, “trillions” of times. The latter indicates a long-term pattern and suggests the system is not learning from the repeated experiences. Given that humans are innate learners something must be inhibiting the system learning how to do something else.

However, since the client said in his preamble that he has had this experience many times before, I already knew the answer. My aim in this case was to bring the memory of those “many times” into his awareness while he is attending to the hole. Memory, when accessed at the right time, can provide a system with feedback.

As often happens in problem situations like these, a client’s attention narrows. The “around that hole” question invites him to widen his attention. Since this client had been here “trillions” of times, maybe he had noticed other things around the hole that will provide an alternative to walking into it. (Note: it would have been cleaner to ask “And is there anything else – around the hole?”)

In this case, the question didn’t seem to go anywhere, but it was worth a try (you never know until you get a response).

Given his “it’s making me angry” response, I wasn’t sure whether my question was being perceived as “pushing” and so I wanted (a) to back off, (b) to reassure him that “I don’t know”’ is a perfectly good answer (since, from my perspective, it maps the extent of his current knowledge), and (c) to encourage him to keep describing what was happening for him, even if it is “I don’t know”.

I decided not to address his meta-state of “angry” even though it was part of what had happened in the previous session. I reasoned that there was more value in staying with the falling-in-the-hole metaphor – because, if he doesn’t fall into a hole, maybe he has no need to get angry.

James continues.

JL: And where were you before the hole was in front of you?

C: The people behind me are bantering and laughing with me as we walk together on the road. [Pauses] Now, that’s interesting. I’m seeing the hole in front of me now as we continue. I’d like to stay still and collect myself.

[Long Pause]

James’ thinking at this point:

The meta-comment “that’s interesting, I’m seeing the hole in front of me now” indicates a shift in the metaphor landscape – he is now seeing it some distance ahead.

It seems the client is actually doing what he earlier said he wants to be able to do, (to stay still and collect himself) and so I leave him to have all the time he needs to do that. Hence the long pause.

The session continues:

JL: Rather than walk into the hole, you’d like to stay still and collect yourself.

C: [Starts to cry] I want people to leave me be but don’t leave me alone.

JL: What’s happening for you now?

C: I want to acknowledge that sometimes I just need time to myself when other people want things from me. That is something that is missing in my life. [Pause] It would be a good idea to let people know that’s what I need – that they leave me be, but don’t leave me alone.

JL: Is this an example of stay still and collect yourself?

C: Yes.

James’ thinking at this point:

The “Is this an example?” question is just checking whether “let people know what I need” is an example of him enacting his desired stay-still-and-collect-himself metaphor. At the same time, if it is, I’m making sure the client is aware that he has just done what he says he wants to do. Again, making the session a microcosm of real life.

The end

JL: So how are you now? You asked for what you needed, you are taking time to stay still, and you are not alone.

C: I feel relief!

JL: And what’s in front then?

C: No hole. No ambush.

JL: And what do you think that hole is signalling?

C: It’s a sign that I need to consider asking for what I need.

James’ thinking at this point:

Here I’m confirming that the client is aware he did what he said he needed to do and I’m enquiring as to the effect the session has had.

The “signalling” question was a clumsy way of referring back to the “signs” the client said he wanted at the very beginning of the session. Luckily it seems the client got my meaning.

The client reports that the ‘problem’ symbol of the “hole” has become a “sign” for him to “consider asking for what I need”. The “consider” is important because it suggests he has a choice to ask for what he needs only in those situations where it is appropriate to do so.


The above session lasted only 20 minutes or so. And in that amount of time, what was remarkable was how each question James asked was congruent with what the coachee wanted and took into account what they didn’t want to have happen again. No question was superfluous.

The result for me was that a coachee who started the session in distress was able to learn about their own system and what it needed in a short amount of time. And this clearly left him in a better state than before the session.

James commented that, for him, the session was an example of working at two levels simultaneously: being highly responsive to what was happening for the client in the room and addressing the longer term need to have more choice in contexts which prompt the falling-into-a hole pattern.

My hope is that by sharing the questions James asked and his thinking during the session, this article will be a useful guide to other coaches who might encounter similar situations.

Jacqueline Ann Surin is an associate of Clean Learning and Training Attention in the UK. She is a certified Level 1 Clean Facilitator, and the first certified Level 2 Systemic Modeller in Asia. Jacqueline also is a International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach (ICF PCC) who works internationally as a facilitator, coach and trainer.

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