Saturday, February 2, 2008

Can Coaching Work with Grief, Loss, Dying and Other Catastrophic Life Change?

During a coaching class the other night, the animated and interesting conversation related to the nature of individuation in clients and the need to balance the ability to cultivate trust, understand and implement the client’s innate learning and problem-solving styles, all while helping the client reach toward and attain their stated goals. I was an active participant in this conversation and had offered that my years of experience in hospice work and grief and loss counseling had offered me a kind of gift in how it became necessary for me, in order to be successful, to integrate a coaching style and other support into each patient and family’s natural rhythms and styles of seeking, discovery and change.

I had pondered earlier in the discussion the fact that, with some people in my hospice work, my ability to stay with them through lengthy conversations that seemed to have little to do with the nature of our work in grief, loss, or anticipatory grief, determined how much progress they were able to make once the conversation turned, more directly, to one that involved setting goals and assessing and implementing coping strategies. I wondered aloud during the class discussion if, in fact, I stayed too long in the more social “pre-amble” before I got to the real work of grief. I still wonder this, though even now I can’t think of a time in which any impatience to move into more goal-centered talk in coaching/counseling related to death, grief and loss didn’t result in automatic resistance… and vice versa: any patience I took the care to observe and implement inevitably paid off with rich and productive work in that session and any forthcoming ones.

My reason to bring this up is two fold. In the first case, it has always been my desire to fit grief and loss work, and work with those anticipating their own death or the death of a loved one, into a coaching framework. I have been unsure if that combination would be a good fit, in spite of the fact that I believe my counseling technique has always leaned toward a coaching style as opposed to a more analytic expertise-based counseling or therapy style. I have always seemed to be able to narrow a client’s search for resolution that the discomfort their grief, loss and death events elicits into more concrete and actionable perspectives and behavior change. During the course of my classes with International Coach Academy I have gathered a host of reasons, both for and against, continuing to pursue, at least in part, a way to apply coaching to death, grief and loss work. This conversation in class again amplified some of my ambivalence, in that the techniques I have used through my career have been called into question (by me, mostly) in order to flesh out their worthiness in whole or in part, to see how much or what proportion of them can be transferred to a coaching practice.

I still believe that coaching and grief and loss work are natural fits. And I hope, by the end of writing this, to be able to further itemize why this is so. I think I have, in many respects, already done that for myself at least on an intuitive level. Now the job is to review, isolate, identify and improve the techniques I have used so they become more reliably accessible to me during coaching, particularly coaching those who come to me with problems related to loss or anticipated loss and major life change. Now the job is to integrate those techniques more readily and consciously into my best practice.

The second case, in the two fold reason I bring this up, also involves interactions in the class that night:

After I described some of my interactions and applications of coaching style in my grief and loss and anticipatory loss work in hospice, one of the other participants in the teleclass made the point that she thought the biggest difference between a hospice counselor’s work and a coach’s is that, in the hospice work that she did, she came into a session with an individual or a family with a set agenda that was largely hers. She felt that that may have worked in hospice work, but it is in direct opposition to what we as coaches are expected to do. In coaching, the agenda must be set by the client. I read, perhaps misread, an assumption on her part that all hospice counseling work is done in this way.

I asked myself: Was that true of my work? I was left without a response to her because I felt she might be right, or that her perspective was worth more than a passing consideration as it was exactly the kind of feedback I was interested in, in forming my own approaches and thinking about how I might, or might not, continue to seek to include grief and loss and other thanatological concerns into my coaching practice. Her comments have been very helpful in further defining my own perspectives and I am grateful to her.

That being said, however, and after some thought, I think I have to conclude that the majority of the reason I was successful in my role as a hospice counselor is largely because I went into, especially a first meeting with a family, a patient, or the grieving, with an relatively empty agenda; an empty canvass. My way was to have some questions ready, to integrate them into the initial assessment interview, and to find out what aims the patient, the family, or each individual in the family had in their search for a way to proceed through, and cope with, the devastating events in their lives that had also brought me into their lives. If I carried agenda items into a session they were gleaned from what had already occurred historically between the client and myself, and were easily set aside if more pressing matters emerged, or if the circumstances had changed significantly since my last session. I am not sure I would have had the successes I had in the field had I proceeded in any other way.

This is not to disparage the woman in the class who had good points to make about the potential differences between a counseling approach and a coaching approach. However I believe, now more than ever perhaps, that a coaching approach is particularly effective in grief and other thanatological work, and that, in fact, a counseling approach, that often assumes expertise and a presupposed “correct” way to manage such devastating life change, is contraindicated.

As in most coaching in general, the people encountered in grief work who seek a coach’s assistance are normal or high functioning people who wish to traverse a rocky and frightening… and normal… part of life. They are not often interested in what the coach or counselor thinks is normal or good or workable… they want to find that out for themselves… or already know on some level, through experience and workable coping strategies of their own.

I had, what I witnessed to be and understand even more now to have been, an unusual level of success as a Hospice counselor… and this was precisely because I left the agenda of healing and grief initiated change up to each individual. I helped them remember what their core values are and were. And if they seem to have changed due to loss, or even to be newly bereft of integrated core ways to manage life’s quandaries due to the power of grief, I helped them rekindle old values, strategies for change and coping, or build new ones. I coached them in ways to approach any changes they were forced to implement due to loss in their lives. I facilitated meaningful conversation with them using the signifiers of meaning that they, not I, brought into the relationship.

And so I believe that work in the field of grief and loss related to everything from divorce to anticipation of death, advent of life-limiting disease process, or one’s own imminent death, can perhaps best be served through a coaching approach. At least for me.

It is exciting to me to think that I will be able to continue to offer people a way to build a path through life’s most devastating times through my coaching… and perhaps with an improved perspective and techniques, tweaked and honed by what I have learned through my training through the International Coach Academy.

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