COVID-19 and Coaching Through Global Transition
In 2020, my partner and I experienced a graduation, wedding and cross-country move. Without the “normal” traditions that walk us through transitions, I found that the people who walked through the change with us became all the more significant.
Our world has experienced a year of unknowns with the COVID-19 pandemic. We, as coaches, became key transitional support for our clients, holding their hands through the transition from the end of “normal,” through a confusing stretch of unknown and into a new reality still in the process of unfolding.
COVID-19 became my personal study of global transition as I worked with individuals in various countries and territories, career fields and stages of life. During 2020, I observed my client base experience the stages of grief as the world they knew disappeared and they were forced to transition into a new reality. In this process, the ICF Core Competency of “Maintains Presence” guided me in helping my clients embrace the opportunities for growth that transition always presents.
Stages of Grief in Transition
While change, loss and meaning-making experiences varied from person to person this past year, there was a unifying experience of grief emotions. As COVID-19 progressed, the world grieved, and my clients’ emotions paralleled those often experienced during more traditionally defined losses. William Bridges, author of Transitions, noted that endings are experiences of dying and come with grief as we break connection with the settings in which we know ourselves.
It follows that a global experience of transitional grief would bring out the common emotions highlighted in the seminal Stages of Grief work by Kübler-Ross and Kessler: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance and meaning–making. In the early weeks, most clients were in denial of the world changing, focusing on “toughing it out” and avoiding a connection to the fear that it could be real. Anger—expressed in frustration, irritation and anxiety—set in as changes to the norm continued to unfold and individuals dealt with loneliness, conflict and adjusting to working from home. People bargained as they adjusted their expectations to account for new stressors. Depression arose from overwhelming fear and conflicting data about safety in the pandemic.
Despite all the hardship they bring, transitions are also a beautiful place of identity formation and growth when we lean into them. As coaches, we have had the privilege of leaning into the unknown with our clients, holding space for their grief and supporting their acceptance and meaning–making in the tension. On the other side of letting go of normal, we have celebrated as clients gained insights into their personality and relationships. They leaned into hard decisions, unpacked ongoing burnout, learned to show up in new ways for their teams and exercised emotional intelligence. As coaches, we got to champion the growth in our clients as they acknowledged the struggle and found ways to grow into better versions of themselves.
Maintaining Presence in Coaching
In the chaos of a client’s transition, the structure of coaching may shift, but the focus remains on serving the client’s needs. Practically applying the ICF Core Competency of “Maintains Presence” in 2020 looked like gracefully flexing with clients’ changing needs and adjusting the shape of coaching sessions. In one session, a client who was overwhelmed with loneliness from being home alone asked to focus on connection in the session. In others, the focus shifted from working toward long range goals to supporting clients in figuring out how to do today well. This year revealed the great value in holding space for clients to accept the moment before moving forward. The competency of “Maintains Presence” recentered me—it reminded me that a “successful” session is less about the client walking away with a goal and more about creating a transformative space that meets their needs in today’s session.
Self-care and personal coaching helped me to maintain a curious, empathetic presence with those I coached in the midst of navigating my own experience of global and personal transition. Within my coaching communities, I hear others echo the lurking burnout I have felt. The only way for us to counteract emotional exhaustion is to prioritize space to manage our emotions and experiences so we can continue to hold that space for clients.
As 2021 opens, I encourage you to remember that all of us are still transitioning. Even as we make new beginnings outwardly, the inner beginnings are still unfolding. I challenge you: Do not underestimate the challenge that this year will bring as we continue walking with our clients through the longing for “normal.” Remember that the feelings of grief will continue to show up as we navigate through the layers of this global transition. Your presence walking alongside clients as a safe, collaborative space for transformation is a powerful gift. May 2021 hold deep, rewarding work as we walk along those we serve.
Thanks to coaches Andrew Dormus and Robyn Holloway for sharing their thoughts with me as I gathered my observations!