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Afterword: coaching in a time of crisis

Mary Watts

March 27, 2020

Yesterday was something of a defining day for me and I knew this morning that this book couldn’t go to print without acknowledging the enormity of what is happening globally right at this moment.

I’m sitting at my computer looking out of the window. Rays of sun are shining through some huge protected pines, leaving a dappled effect on the old roof opposite and on the spring shrubs and flowers that are growing particularly well this year. Then colours are even brighter and crisper than usual. We’ve had the most perfect weather in the suburbs of London for some days - the sort of weather that I recall when I think of my childhood wearing what I imagine are very rose-tinted glasses. I wonder what glasses I shall be wearing when I look back at this period, if indeed I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to do so. It’s March 2020 and in the last few days we have learned from the UK government that we are all to be confined to our homes apart from essential trips out for food, medicine and one exercise event - a ‘social distance’ of two metres being kept from others at all times except with family members with whom you’re living. Only essential workers are allowed to work away from home, and the only schools left open are those designated for then children so that they can continue in their front-line roles of protecting the rest of us against the deadly Covid-19 virus. The first UK doctor has just died from the disease and the UK Prime Minister and Prince Charles have tested positive. It is a disease that has respect for no one. In its sights we are all equal!

For the last few weeks Ian Florance and I have been striving to get this manuscript ready to send to Routledge, fearful that we will be the only people with access to it. A shared drive now including just the latest version of chapters gives access to others, in case something should happen to us. Perhaps it’s something that we should have done right from the start and the fact that we didn’t maybe reflects something of our complacency about life, its stability and its ongoing nature.

Had I been writing this only six months ago what I’m describing would have been thought the stuff of fiction. Had any of the authors of this book created a potential scenario similar to the one that each of us, together and separately, is now living, in order to demonstrate a particular coaching theme, they would not have been taken seriously. In this book of Emerging Conversations in Coaching and Coaching Psychology, change is a recurring theme but I’m absolutely sure that none of us, as we wrote, could have imagined the tsunami of change that would so rapidly envelope the whole world in little more than a matter of weeks.

For a few days my mind has been in tunnoil at a personal and professional level. Today the mist is clearing. At one level nothing has changed but some events of yesterday helped me to focus more clearly on one area at least, which relates closely to the contents of this book. Each of the chapters has been written by authors who each in their own way are committed to making the world a betterplace through the ethical empowerment of individuals, organisations and whole societies. Never has that been more needed than now and as the weeks and month pass by this imperative will become even greater.

An experience yesterday brought to life for me, in a very unsure Covid-19 world, many of the themes and issues addressed in this book. I took part in a live online introduction to mental health first aid (MHFA). It lasted half a day and would normally have been offered as a face-to-face course. Each of the 15 attendees were there as we had a real interest in the topic and had agreed to be ‘guinea pigs’ for the trialling of the online version. Being something of a technophobe and incompetent, it also gave me the opportunity to ‘face my fears’ as my grandson puts it, and to deal with a new reality. I’m proud to say that I feel I coped well with break-out rooms for small group discussion, using thumbs up and clapping symbols in the multiple choice quiz to indicate a yes or no response, contributing to some of the written chats and spoken discussions that took place, and mastering turning my video and speaker on and off at various times to cope with dog barking at my end and short breaks when we left for a coffee so that I wasn’t seen or heard after leaving the meeting. In a small but important way I was able to take control of an area of my life, tackle a fear and leam a lot in the process.

So, what did I leam that went beyond the technology? It was commented on that the course was designed in ‘peace time’ as one might say. A pre-Covid-19 world when we all went about our daily business in what now seems a pretty routine sort of way. Its focus was not on creating mental health counsellors or psychologists but alerting us to the basic skills that can better enable us to help others as well as ourselves by applying them in a range of situations in which mental health first aid could make a real difference to someone’s well-being. The real-life examples shared by participants were easy to relate to.

As we know from physical health first aid, early action can, at the extreme, save lives, and in less dramatic contexts make a vast difference to someone’s pain and recovery from injury or ill health. As I listened to the teaching and discussions, and later read the manuals (MHFA 2018), it became clear that all of it applied equally, and maybe even more so, to our cunent very troubled times. Many of the key skills highlighted overlapped closely with many core coaching skills, for example: engaging in deep, non-judgmental listening; taiowing how to engage with someone in distress rather than avoid them as so often can happen; showing empathy; being alert to vulnerability, both our own and that of others; and being knowledgeable about, and open to, referring people to a range of alternative resources that may be of help to them.

Interestingly many of the core triggers for needing mental health first aid are those that we see as triggers for distress in our coachees, such as rapid change and the uncertainty that may go with this; personal and interpersonal conflict; health and well-being issues; feeling powerless to bring about even the smallest of changes to enhance the quality of life; existential crisis and related questions such as what is my life for and about? And perhaps above all, experiencing loss in a variety of ways, for example, of our freedom, income, and, sadly, even of loved ones. All or any of these may be experienced at any time - even, for example, when we’ve just achieved a much-wanted promotion, a pay rise, or our new business is thriving.

As I reflect on yesterday’s course I’m thinking of how we might read and reflect on the contents of this book in ways that will enable us to be most effective as coaches in a dramatically new era - one that, at this stage, we have no idea what it will look like. A review of the chapters this morning has reinforced for me that each is hugely relevant right now and will continue to be as we move forward. But each chapter is no more than an emerging conversation, and changing life circumstances and our lived experience of these will feed into the direction that these conversations will now take.

A second event yesterday has also impacted on my today and what I’m now writing about. My husband has been using his time at home to do some sorting out. He’s in what has been designated as the particularly vulnerable group in terms of Covid-19 as he is over 70 and has Parkinson’s disease. He came across a couple of old videos filmed many years ago when I was working at a London University, teaching trainee counselling psychologists. In the first video an extremely distressed lady was talking to the therapist about her obsessive-compulsive problems, which were totally wrecking any possibility of ‘normal’ and fillfilling living. She had acute fears of contamination, and hand washing, and avoidance behaviours had taken over her everyday living. In the second, an equally distressed lady was talking about her anxiety and extreme panic attacks which had led to recent agoraphobia. So changed was my self-presentation that my husband was some way into the first film before he realized that the client was me. I had lived and worked with the pain and anxieties of such clients for many years and as a colleague therapist interviewed me, watched by a large group of students, it was easy to be a real, feeling person. I wasn’t an actor -1 just was .. .

At that time, I could go home, leave distress behind me and re-enter my personal and ‘normal’ world. This was vital to the maintenance of my own health and well-being, which, in turn, was needed to support me in the challenging yet rewarding work that I was doing. Today I suspect there are very few who can honestly say that they experience nothing of what I was demonstrating in those old videos. We have essential workers putting themselves at considerable risk on a daily basis; expectant mothers who are anxious that they will be giving birth without their birthing partner; people whose businesses are rapidly failing and others who have been laid off from work; many people who, whatever their age, are fearful of stepping outside to buy food or other essentials; and perhaps most tragically we have people suffering alone, maybe with a loved one in hospital and dying alone. We have always known that medical interventions can have significant side effects, but the side effects of what we are now living are almost impossible to contemplate and will be with us for many years.

Why, I wonder, is there so little discussion on how we can best support each other from a mental health perspective? Why is little being said openly about the mental health side effects of the bitter pill that we are all swallowing? Is this a stark reflection of the way that for so many years we have stigmatized those who have spoken out about their own mental health issues and difficulties?

There is huge scope for mental health first aiders and coaches to leant from and collaborate with each other and for this shared learning to include, amongst others, counsellors, psychologists and other health professionals, educators, social care professionals, those from business and industry, and politicians. All of us will have experienced the fallout from Covid-19 and maybe will have to face similar events in the future. This work will be challenging and personal well-being will be core to it.

Over the last few days communications with health-related colleagues in various parts of the world have reinforced for me the enormity of the challenges that together we face. I share in what follows a few anonymised snippets of these. They have come from people in various parts of Europe, the UK, Asia and the USA.

We are in the midst of gearing up and radically changing our work and life.

I’m working full time at a primary care clinic. It has been stressful these past few weeks. We too are lacking the valuable PPE (personal protective equipment) that we need.... Our patients are flipping out with anxiety and feelings of panic . . . and we have no training in mental health.. . .

Things are not easy at the moment but they are going to get worse in the next few days. ... All physicians at the hospital have been asked to help as volunteers. . . . I really, really appreciate your offering

Our work is changing rapidly, we are preparing for the Covid-19 emergency. This is a highly crucial phase for us because if this spreads badly in my country, we don t have the resources that the western world does to handle the situation.

I really appreciate your sorrow.....We are at the calm before the storm . . .

when things have run in (I don t expect it to calm down anytime in the near future) I would really like to reflect on this with you.

Thank you for the time you spent listening to my fears and problems. It makes me really happy to share my thoughts with someone not involved in my daily practice and to get inputs from outside my usual environment.

Having the opportunity to talk makes a real difference

As I re-read these communications I found questions formulating in my mind.

Will the events of today help to reduce and hopefully eliminate the stigma so often associated with admitting to mental distress?

Can any of us, whether in our personal or professional life, ignore the fact that we are all vulnerable and that it is a sign of strength rather than weakness to be aware of this?

Can we ever only work with a part of a person, or do we delude ourselves when we believe we’re doing this?

How might we in our everyday lives and as coaches engage constructively with these issues, the conversations that emerge from them and with the people who are affected by them?

How can we all, whether coach or not, further develop our skills in ways likely to be of help to people in distress, for example in times of rapid change, in situations where they are fearful and feel powerless, tunes when they want a solution but there doesn’t appear to be one, and at times when they are alone and their pain goes unheard and unnoticed?

And mining this around into a more hopeful scenario, how can we best support people as they seek solutions and ways to turn them into action?

From these snippets we are reminded of the power of having the opportunity to talk, of sorrows being shared, and of being really listened to.

As you read the chapters in this book some will have very obvious and direct relevance to these questions, for example the chapters on the contribution of coaching in mental health care, trauma coaching and education. However, each chapter in its own way has huge relevance to these questions and the broader issues raised in this Afterword. One health care colleague says how, when things are calmer, he will want to reflect on events with his coach, which raises questions about what reflection is and can be, and how it might best be used to support clients -all issues addressed in the reflections chapter. The psychometrics, research, and neuro coaching chapters each introduce us to new perspectives relevant to gaining insights into the whole person. These insights are exemplified and added to when we move to a whole-person approach to leadership coaching. When we open our eyes to the whole person it’s impossible to ignore the issues raised in the chapters on diversity and pluralism in terms of our understandings, insights and practices in coaching. The chapter on technology-mediated coaching is hugely relevant to all of us right now: not only to professional coaching activity but to an even greater extent to the daily living of the majority of us as we strive to stay connected with family and friends, and as businesses rapidly seek new ways to survive.

Coaching is enormotrsly rewarding, yet can be challenging, stressfol for the coach as well as the client, and there is always something new to learn, new insights to be had. This is likely to increasingly be the case as the role and boundaries of coaching expand. The chapter on coaching supervision initiates new conversations to complement and support these changes.

Finally, the ethical challenges for coaching are magnified hugely by Covid-19 and are relevant for us as individual coaches and for the profession as a whole. For example, can we as a profession continue to remain largely voiceless politically or are there ways in which we can and should make a difference to the lives of many through various forms of coordinated political representation? If so, can we achieve our political goals when we have no overarching professional organisation to represent coaching at national and international levels?

It’s time to draw a close to this Afterword before yet more questions and conversations emerge - yet as I do so I’m reminded of the power of hope, of positive thinking, and the resilience of the human spirit that clients and others have so often shown me. In working together, we can harness these as we focus on enhancing and advancing coaching knowledge and practice in ethical and humane ways, for the benefit of all not just the few.

Ian and I hope that you will enjoy exploring and reflecting upon the emerging conversations presented by chapter authors and that you allow your thinking and learning to be open ended. We also encourage you to actively engage in initiating, sharing and extending your own emerging conversations in coaching. We also very sincerely hope that over the coming months and years that you find ways to preserve and enhance your own health and well-being as you continue to support others in doing the same.

Reference

MHFA England (2018) Adult Mental Health Aware Half Day Course Manual & Adult Mental Health Aware Half Day Workbook. MHFA England. For more information on MHFA England go to www.mhfaengland.org & This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

 
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