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trauma: broken red heart sewn together with yarn

Understanding the role of trauma in the client’s journey

In the midst of global and climate crises, research can guide coaches to show care for clients through trauma-informed coaching principles and awareness. 


Seven out of ten people worldwide are struggling emotionally


Coaches can support people who have experienced struggles and trauma


Coaching can help people become experts in their experiences

Wisdom Weavers

Research reveals the importance of expressing care

According to Gallup research, seven out of ten people worldwide report that they are struggling or suffering. Traumatic experiences often leave lasting effects, and while the coaching profession is not to be confused with therapy, research informs how coaches can support individuals who have experienced traumatic events.

Wisdom Weaver Dr. Jonathan Passmore asserts that “when people look back on this conversation in the archive—when they think about the work that we as researchers were doing during the 2020s—they might be asking what were coaches doing when the planet was burning? And maybe the answer then is that we have been focused on, . . . simply helping their clients to make the fire glow hotter. We’re focusing on amplifying organizational [capabilities] or individual performance.”

Wisdom Weaver Dr. Scott Taylor shared that his “colleague. . . Edward Powley at the Naval Postgraduate School has been studying when an IED and improvised explosive device goes off: What is the reaction of the people that are affected there immediately on the scene? Whom do they turn to to lead them? Who do they turn to in that instant?”

Despite their military training, Scott explains, “what he [Edward Powley] has found is they don’t turn to the file leader, the one designated, if you will, the ‘coach to be.’ They actually turn to the person whom they think cares for them the most. . . When things get settled down, and we kind of react, then they turn to the file leader for a future direction [and] organization. But in the moment of pure chaos and complexity and trauma, they don’t turn to that person unless that individual’s one that they believe cares about them deeply by way of observation or encouragement.” 

This research reminds coaches that expressing care is a valuable aspect of leadership. 

Trauma-informed coaching and the hidden scars of legacy trauma

Dr. Richard Boyatzis

Richard Boyatzis illuminates the difficulty of developing trauma-awareness in coaching, “we all [feel marginalized], but you don’t necessarily know what it is, because it may not be visible, and then some of these issues that might cause variations on PTSD for any person are going to vary and they may vary from experiences like living through a horrendous tsunami, earthquake, or hurricane to fighting a war.” 

Richard explains:

“[Coaches] have no idea from looking at someone, what are the aspects that they have felt traumatized in the past and what they feel marginalized about.”

Dr. Richard Boyatzis

Trauma-informed care is a principle that can be adopted in any helping profession, including coaching. There are many different types of trauma, and clients may not immediately present as being impacted by adverse events in their past. To be trauma-informed means that coaches are aware that many people have trauma, and so they create environments that are safe for all types of clients. The guiding principles of trauma-informed care align with the coaching principles of partnering with clients to make empowered decisions. Explaining the coaching process through open and transparent communication and active listening makes clients the experts of their own experiences. 

Other principles include establishing physical and psychological safety as well as providing opportunities for peer support. The goal of trauma-informed coaching is not to provide therapy to clients but to create a safe environment that empowers clients as they make changes in their life and work. Depending on the individual client, traumatic experiences may also be an active barrier to meeting personal goals.

Wisdom Weaver Margaret Moore describes how coaches can consider the impact of legacy traumas in minority populations. She says, “if you’re working in Black populations, you really do need to understand the legacy trauma from hundreds of years ago to the traumas of today, the leadership issues in these [populations] differ.” 

Legacy traumas and difficult personal experiences are not visible aspects of a person’s identity, and coaches must remain mindful of their limited knowledge of the person in front of them. Coaching can have a positive impact on self-awareness and well-being, but it is not a substitute for therapy. What coaches can do is listen, empathize, and refer their clients to more specialized care when necessary.

Coaches can support people who have experienced trauma by:

  • Creating safe spaces for clients by withholding judgment 
  • Encouraging clients to become experts in their own experiences
  • Helping clients experiencing legacy trauma to embrace self-awareness and well-being

Coaching and the United Nations Global Goals

Trauma, including racism, neglect, or physical violence, may not always be visible in clients but can negatively impact their relationships, careers, and overall well-being. Coaches who are trauma-informed can help create spaces for their clients to feel heard and empowered in their decision-making. Coaching is not a replacement for therapy. When appropriate, coaches should refer clients to other helping professionals, such as a psychotherapist. This conversation relates to United Nations Global Goal 3, which aims to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages. Addressing the nuances of the person and the harsh events in the world, coaching is an outlet through which clients can find help to improve their lives.

About this Convening

Forty-one Wisdom Weavers from across the globe gathered to share their thoughts and observations on Shaping the Future of Coaching across three separate Future of Coaching Convenings in September 2021. Learn more about the participants and topics covered in this Convening.

For the complete report and research recommendations, see Boyatzis, R.E., Hullinger, A., Ehasz, S.F., Harvey, J., Tassarotti, S., Gallotti, A., & Penafort, F. (2022). The grand challenge for research on the future of coaching. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. DOI: 10.1177/00218863221079937

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