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Trauma and the Coaching Relationship: What’s In the Way Is the Way | Heal The Divide Podinar

October 27, 2020

What is our role as coaches in working with trauma and how can we recognize the signs of trauma in clients?

In this session, Alison Whitmire, President of Learning In Action is joined by special guest Dr. Sean Oakes, for a conversation exploring what trauma looks like and how we can skillfully navigate it in the coaching relationship.

Dr. Sean Oakes is a Buddhist teacher and a performance studies scholar. He works at the intersection of contemplative practice, healing, and social action. Sean has trained to work with trauma and has studied Somatic Experiencing and Organic Intelligence.

What’s In the Way IS the Way: What Does This Mean?

Many of us believe our path to a goal should be a direct set of steps, following a smooth line from point a to point b. And in this thinking, when we experience an obstacle that seems to be ‘getting in the way’, we believe something has gone wrong. The reality is our path is comprised of everything that happens along the way, including any obstacles that arise. And what’s more, the difficulties that come up along the path are what needs tending to rather than seeing them as interruptions.

This holds true when dealing with trauma as well. When our lives are uncomfortable it’s not a mistake. The human experience includes both horrible things and wonderful things. So, when something bad happens to us, rather than thinking of it as an error we can recognize it as a truth of life. When trauma shows up, it is the work, it is calling us to turn our attention to it.


The human experience includes both horrible and wonderful things. When something bad happens to us, rather than thinking of it as an error we can recognize it as a truth of life. When trauma shows up, it is the work, it is calling us to turn our… Click To Tweet

How to Recognize the Signs of Trauma

Trauma refers to a symptom that shows up in the present moment that is connected to an event in the past. When a client experiences trauma, their nervous system is responding to something from their past that’s not happening in the present moment. There is emotion, an energy, or perhaps a story present that’s leftover from the past, and along with it is a behavior or a reaction that is disproportionate to, and out of alignment with, the present moment experience. The level of intensity of the client’s reaction indicates the level of trauma present.

When a client is activated and experiencing trauma there is a physical response that’s often observable. It’s helpful to pay attention to the client’s face and voice for signs of activation. They may show changes in breathing with the breath getting shorter or longer, which can be seen in the rise and the fall of the chest. In some cases, we may see the pulse in the side of the neck. There also may be noticeable changes in the client’s coloration. Subtle movements or little twitches may also be present during a trauma reaction.

The Role of the Coach in Working with Trauma

It’s commonly asked: “What is the line between coaching and therapy and should we be working with our client’s trauma as a coach?” The reality is that this line isn’t always obvious. Most coaches are not trained to work with trauma, yet will find themselves navigating around it in the coaching relationship. If we look at the roles of a spiritual teacher, counselor (or therapist), and coach, we can see that they overlap in several ways.

Humans are not neatly compartmentalized creatures who keep their spiritual life in one space, and their psychological life in another. Coaches work with clients in the present moment, and everything in our present moment relates to our past in some way. The two are always intertwined because the present is a culmination of the past. When we start working with a client in the present we inevitably touch all aspects of their lives which will include traumatic experiences.

Navigating Trauma in the Coaching Relationship

Since it can be challenging to draw a clear line of what falls in the purview of coaching versus the realm of therapy, we can rely instead on our scope of practice. An essential question to ask: Do we have the skills to attend to what’s coming up with our client?

Coaches can work with a client who experiences trauma, the focus just moves to the areas of their lives that fall outside of the trauma. There is a dance of where we direct attention as coaches — moving closer or further away from a sensation or emotion to understand it more or as a means of deactivating it. If the client is overwhelmed or having a strong reaction, it’s likely they won’t be able to attend to anything other than their intense experience in the moment, and directing attention to the distress tends to amplify that feeling even more.

When the reaction is less strong, we can work to pull their attention away from it. In these cases, it can be helpful then to direct attention away from the distress in a skillful way. This is not meant to repress or deny their experience, it is intended to move their attention away which can work to balance their system in the moment.

Part of the assessment is ‘what’s in the way is the way’. The symptom coming up is the path to whatever we’re working on. What we’re looking for is a sign that the client can stay with their experience without overwhelm. It becomes a beautiful dance.


Protecting Against Compassion Fatigue in the Time of the Pandemic and Beyond

It’s important to understand that every life on the planet is marked by distress. When we experience empathy or compassion fatigue it is itself a symptom of attachment and something for the coach to work with on a personal level. As coaches and individuals, it is not our role to hold or carry the distress that we witness in client relationships. If we attempted to we would crumble. Instead, we can learn to relate to what our clients share with an openness and a willingness to hold the space, without attaching to the emotion of the moment.



Trauma and difficulty are as much a part of our human journey as joy and ease. Because our present moment experience is always impacted by our past, it is inevitable that trauma will show up for our clients in our coaching relationships. As coaches, we can best serve our clients by understanding and recognizing the signs of trauma, while also having an awareness of our scope of practice. In this way, we can focus on the areas of clients’ lives that fall outside of trauma, where we can most skillfully direct our work and attention as coaches.


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