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Coaching People Through Grief

Is it possible, or is it appropriate for executive coaches to work with their clients in relation to helping them come to terms with, and deal with grief in their life?



Today, I'm going to tackle a very unusual subject for coaches, executive coaches in particular, which is the subject of grief.

Many of us who've studied professionally to be coaches will have been told and taught that it's not appropriate for coaches to enter into the realm of counselling - and I don't intend to do that. That's not the point of this particular conversation. What I really want to do is to identify the various types of grief and then share examples of how I've worked with clients who've experienced that kind of grief and then move on towards the neuroscience of how coaches really can help people suffering from some of the worst kinds of grief.

For many people, grief is effectively mourning a loss. Clearly, that can be a bereavement, that can be the loss of a loved one in business terms, that can also be the loss of something, not a person - It could be a business; it could be a job. It could be the way things used to be.

For many people in business, the scale of change that happens to them can lead to a sense of grief, a sense of bereavement. So, if an executive, a business leader has been running an organisation for a long time and for whatever reason, whether it's a promotion or whether it's a dismissal, they find themselves no longer in that role, their connections to the people, to the business, to the organisation, to its future, to everything that was such a large part of their life has been lost. They will find themselves more often than not grieving that loss. It is painful. It is emotional. And whilst there are all the obvious knock-on effects of lack of self-confidence and thinking ‘where did I go wrong’ and so on and so forth.

The reality is that it's just part of life's rich tapestry. It's another change that you need to help your client manage their way through. We all know about the change curve, and we know that the research on that came from bereavement and grief. And so most change curves start with denial - something happens and you say no, that's not really what's happened. Then it dawns on you that it's real and you start to get angry and you resist the change that's coming. Then slowly over time, you'll start to accept that change is a reality. Come to terms with it and move on.

As I said, at the beginning of that little bit, this research underpins the change curve, as we know, it really came from work done with people who were mourning the loss of a loved one. So, if an executive is going through a significant change and that is leading to what is effectively looking back with grief, the thing to do is to help them think about that experience, take from it the good things that they've had from that experience. Focus on those good things, prioritise those good things, the learnings, the growth and personal development that it offered; the friendships even, and the new skill sets, everything that it gave you that you didn't have before that experience.

That experience could have lasted years. If you get them to focus on that long enough and hard enough, they'll begin to look back on what actually happened with a more positive frame of mind with, perhaps, even a smile on their face, as the things go through them, through their mind that they actually enjoyed and where they gained from it.

That's not to undermine the initial shock. That's not to pretend that a bad thing hasn't happened. It's not to suggest that in any way. They should minimise the effect of what's happened because again, in itself it will be a learning curve, but nonetheless, in order for them to recover and recover quickly and soundly from some form of very deep-rooted change in their professional life, looking back and concentrating on the positives it gave you, will undoubtedly position you for more success in the future than simply lamenting what has gone.

When it comes to dealing with clients who actually suffered bereavement and the loss of a loved one, it would seem a very strange role for an executive coach to even think that they should enter into that arena and into that conversation. Well, the truth is in my experience, you don't really get the choice. You may not have set out to coach someone around grief and bereavement, but during the course of a program, it's more than possible that you will find that some of the people that you deal with suffer a traumatic loss during the course of that coaching program.

So, what do you do as a coach? Well, you can't really help with the immediate shock process. You can't really intervene in the processing of what's actually happened, but as they begin to return to work, as they begin to rebuild their lives, you can play a role within the context of a normal coaching program and you can begin to help them focus towards the future.

So how do you do that? Well, deep sorrow comes from love. It comes from losing someone that you care deeply about; someone who has been an enormous part of your life for whatever set of reasons - a parent, a sibling, a partner, and as far as you are concerned, as the bereaved, the emotions that you feel are very deep, very real, very sore, and thinking about that person often triggers those emotions or traumatises you around the loss that you're experiencing.

So as a coach, you can help people think slightly differently about these sorts of situations. Once they're through the initial shock and coming to terms with the reality of the new situation, you can begin to help them think about that person and the great times that they enjoyed together. You can help them to begin to look at what was great about knowing them throughout their life. What was it about them that made you love them? What was it about them that helped you grow? And if you can help them to learn, to think about these things regularly, when they think about this person, then their mind will more regularly turn to the happier thoughts, the more pleasant thoughts around those experiences of those people than focusing on the negativity and the pain of the loss.

It won't replace them. It won't pretend that they haven't gone. It won't mean there isn't a hole in their lives, but it will help them. And it will help them focus on the great joy that person brought them. It will help them focus on the benefits of being in that person's life that they shared together.

As I said, at the beginning of the conversation, I thought I would share with you some experiences of this. First of all, I've coached a number of people whose businesses have simply failed. Often, they failed for reasons beyond the control of that executive, that business owner, for example, the market's collapsed, the customer's gone broke, or whatever the cause. So, not only have they lost their business, but they also feel particularly hard done by, they feel as though they've been cheated in some way. And so, in order to help them rebuild their lives, you as the executive coach can help them focus on what did they gain from being in that business, or from owning that business?

What have they gained in knowledge, experience, contacts, and understanding of technical know-how? What are the great pluses they've now got that they didn't have before they owned and ran that business? And if they can focus on them, rather than wallowing in the loss, you can then move their thinking to what next, if I've gained all of these things from this business, what can I do with that experience? What can I do with that knowledge? What can I do with that network that's going to reposition me for the future, that is going to give me the best chance to return to success and happiness?

If you can help them do that and really coach them through to setting goals, creating a new vision beginning to see themselves as a success, see themselves in a new light, you would've helped them through that change curve. You've helped them through that recovery phase, much more effectively and much more quickly than might have otherwise happened.

I must have coached half a dozen or more people who have been in precisely that situation. As I said before, sometimes you find one of your coaching clients suffers a bereavement through the course of the coaching program, and they may still want to carry on with the coaching program in an attempt to keep business as usual. I think the reality is, provided there has been a gap between the event, and provided that they have come to terms with the fact that this has happened, you can begin to help them to think more positively about the person that they've lost. And by doing that, by highlighting and focusing on the things that they enjoyed about that person, the things they gained from that person being in their life, you can help them start to rebalance the way they are spending their time in the present.

Again, you can start to help them think about what they are going to do going forward and how that sits within the overall coaching program, the overall coaching goals that you set originally, may mean they need revisiting and changing. It may mean they just need reemphasising, but as the coach, you can be sympathetic. You can be supportive; you can be helpful. You don't have to be demanding - you do bring real skills. You are a sounding board, you are able to listen to what they have to say, and you can play back to them the important or positive aspects of the experience of having had that person in their life.

I promised again, at the beginning of this conversation to talk about neuroscience. Well, the simple reality is that emotions like grief come from the deepest senses of loss, the deepest senses of love, and emotions that are right at the core of each person. And so, the more you can move them, to recognise that you can't think your way out of grief, you can't rationalise your way out of grief. You can help them understand that they can reflect more positively on that person and replace those negative emotions with positive emotions.

Neuroscience is to do with neuro pathways. Neural pathways are the way the brain interprets and responds to stimuli in the outside world such as sight, sounds, smells, tastes, and so on. And obviously, all of life's experiences and clearly bereavement is clearly one of those experiences. The neural pathways that we build up are when we think about that person, we turn to love and emotion. And if they're not there and we know we've lost them forever, that quickly turns to all of the negative emotions.

If we can, by getting them to reflect regularly in a short space of time about the positive attitudes, the positive attributes of that person's life and having them in your life, you will replace the ordinary pathways, which will take you down to the sadness and negative emotions of bereavement. If you replace them with positive images, if you replace them with the things that made you smile about that person; that will be the place that you go to first. That will be the place your mind takes you to the moment that you think about that person. In other words, you're building a new neural pathway about your thoughts about that person.

It does not mean you won't be sorry they've gone. It does not mean you'll pretend it didn't happen. It means that when you think about them, you'll be thinking about them in a very balanced kind of way. You'll be concentrating very much on all of the good things that you enjoyed, as well as understanding that they're no longer. And there is, as I say, a neuroscience basis behind that, which sits within all sorts of change that goes on in one's life.

So, there you have it. How coaches can help people, executives, and business leaders who are experiencing profound grief, whether that's profound grief from a professional experience or from the loss of a loved one.


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