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Creating a safe space

This is an excerpt from Lifestyle Wellness Coaching 3rd Edition PDF by James Gavin & Madeleine Mcbrearty.

Has someone ever approached you with a perplexing human drama or an all-consuming problem? Most of us have been present for friends, family, or even relative strangers who simply needed to talk about their experiences and wanted nothing more than for us to listen. In reflecting on such experiences, you might remember how you wanted to say something, to come up with just the right words to make the person feel better, yet you realized that nothing you could say would achieve this result and, in fact, there was little that anyone could say to resolve the dilemma or emotions expressed. So you simply listened - with all your heart and soul. At the end of this encounter, the person probably thanked you profusely for being there, and you might have felt bewildered, thinking to yourself, "But I really didn’t do anything."


To understand the structure of helping and, thereby, the function of a coach, one needs to grasp the significance of containment, or the creation of a holding environment (Winnicott, 1958). Experts, such as Kohut (1984) and Hendrix (2008), offer insight into the healing capacity of safe spaces we create for others to express their realities. In a world of action and doing, it is important to recognize the power of simply being - without compulsion to do something. Just as day makes sense in relation to night, doing gains significance in its connection to being. When someone comes to us for help, our immediate thought is often about doing: "What can I do that will make this person feel better?"


Though coaching is intended to facilitate forward movement, it must begin with compassionate and empathic understanding of the client’s story. To promote storytelling, a coach wants to be as inviting and supportive as possible. To reveal all the critical elements of their story, clients need a safe environment where their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can be contained respectfully and without judgment. Creating such an environment is not always easy. When people feel unsafe, the story that gets told may be replete with distortions, deletions, and misinformation (Dilts & DeLozier, 2000).


To contain another person’s story requires full presence and openness to that person’s felt meanings. It also requires empathy to experience what it might be like to have lived this story. This task implies not only a readiness to listen but also an ability to convey back to the person evidence that he has been heard within the safe boundaries of the relationship.


This discussion of holding environments highlights two important issues. The first is the matter of how one can create the conditions whereby clients believe it is safe to disclose information. The material previously discussed on trust and intimacy was intended to help with this. Our next section on coaching presence will hopefully add to your understanding of how to create safety for your clients. The second issue pertains to the dynamic of identification, which we discussed earlier in this chapter. Although wellness coaches are not likely to engage in relationships as deep as those of psychotherapists, the intensity will nonetheless be sufficient to stir their emotions and activate their own musings about life.


Consider these examples. A young stay-at-home dad who once was quite physically active but now is managing a household with young children complains to you about a lack of support from his partner as he explores ideas for resuming exercise. A busy executive talks to you about feeling so stretched by work that she neglects her friends, family, and even her own needs. In both instances, you may identify with the client’s story and feel uneasy about your own patterns. The closer the client’s story is to your reality, the greater the probability that you may experience personal emotions. When this happens, it is best to try to regain perspective. Talking to someone who is supervising your work or to other coaches could be beneficial. Particularly in the early years of your coaching career, it would be wise to form learning and support teams with other coaches doing similar work.