What Do You Do When Your Client Shares a Difficult Story

August 21, 2019
Health and Wellness

We’re all here to develop coaching skills, yes? But one of the most challenging to deal with is when a client shares a story that doesn't have a happy ending. And sticks or keeps going back to that story. This is something many life and personal coaches deal with, given that it’s part of the job. But it's also something that isn’t talked about as often as it should be.

You see, coaching is client led. It's all about listening to what your client says, helping them assess their lives, and co-creating a plan to help them get to where they want to be, while providing actionable tips, accountability and sometimes resources. It’s all about seeing the roadblocks and helping them see it as well, so they can learn to navigate through it. But if you have a client who keeps coming back to a story that’s sad, heavy and just not impacting her positively, what do you do?

The Importance of Exchanging Stories

The thing about storytelling is that it shouldn't be one-sided. While many coaches think that sharing their personal story is crossing boundaries, really, it isn’t. It is simply showing some parts of yourself to your client - something that is really helpful in building a stronger, more genuine relationship with your client.

It’s important to note that when we say sharing your personal story, we don’t always mean the gruesome, most painful ones you have. You may be a coach but you’re a person too. And as a person, we all have chapters that we might want to rip out, but those are often the stories that can help others -- stories of how we made it through, how we rose above, sometimes even of how circumstances laid us low but we came out the other side. But whatever you choose, make sure you’re sharing it from a genuine, honest place. We are not required to share our stories with others, but time and time again we've seen that when we come from a place of vulnerability and share wisely, that it can truly help others.

What Do You Do When Your Client Shares a Story That Doesn’t Have a Happy Ending

Listen with your heart

Listening is one thing. We can all do it and we do it all the time. Actively listening with your heart without thinking about your own response, however, is another. And not everybody does it. One of the most important coaching skills to develop is learning how to listen with your heart, regardless of what the story is.

That said, learn to sympathize and empathize. You probably already have these skills if you've been drawn to coaching as a calling. Your client has a reason she keeps coming back to a sad story. Or at least, there's an underlying reason maybe she doesn't even know. But there is one. And in order to deal with this type of client, you need to listen and genuinely care. And make your client know you’re there for her, you feel her, and you support her all the way.

Distance your emotional self

On another aspect, it’s also wise to know that practicing good emotional boundaries and distancing your emotional self is important. While it’s necessary to genuinely listen to your clients, it’s also necessary to safeguard yourself and not get wrapped up in the lives of others to the point of damaging yourself. If you want to start a life coaching business, know that this is a field rooted in emotions and a tremendously fulfilling one, at that. But also, like any other business, it can be draining. Different clients have different issues, and some may hit your personal pain points more than others. Be mindful of how these stories affect you, and safeguard yourself.

If you’re wondering what you should expect from a life coach then this is one of the answers - understanding. So apply that to your business every single chance you get, without compromising your own emotional health. It takes practice to learn how to empathize without battering your emotional health, but with proper coaching training, you’ll become more attuned to the differences.

Be mindful of confidentiality

Not all coaches are mandated reporters, of abuse or other crimes, (you may be, if you're trained as a therapist, psychologist, social worker or other professional designation) but you need to make it clear in your coaching agreement and up front what the expectations of privacy and confidentiality are for your client, and what actions you will take if they reveal certain thoughts or behaviors.

Remind them of the facts

So often, others gloss over or ignore our pain. We never want to do that to a client (or any other human being, really.) Another way to deal with a client who shares a story that doesn't have a happy ending is to guage the situation and, if it's a good fit for your client, remind them of that feelings are real, but they're not always facts. Sometimes going over the facts of the situation or reframing it can make a big impact. However, if your client has been dwelling on the negative feelings for so long, this is when you need to step in and showcase your personal coaching philosophy. Acknowledge the bad, but gently work together to reframe and to figure out a way forward.

Don’t be dismissive

One of the most common mistakes personal coaches can make early on in their careers is that they tend to be dismissive. They think whenever a client shares a sad ending to a story that that ending shouldn’t be part of the story. Or that the client’s feelings are not valid. Some coaches make the mistake of telling their clients to focus on nothing but the happy and positive aspects of life and anything other than it should be dismissed. That's not realistic, and that's not compassionate.

This isn’t really what you should expect from a life coach. Because really, it is the job of a coach to tell clients the importance of acknowledging both the good and bad. It’s one of the most important coaching skills to value every single story your client tells you, and then work together to make a plan for how to navigate through the sad parts of life and the roadblocks. Being dismissive is just not going to help your clients.

Refer out when necessary

Coaching is very different from therapy! Therapy deals more with behavioral or emotional problems, disruptive situations and works to bring clients towards normal function by healing disfunction. Coaching helps functional people achieve higher goals and achieve excellence while creating their ideal life. Coaching is client led, and the topics and issues the client brings to the conversation sets the context.

If a client comes to you wanting to delve into traumas, is asking for assistance that is far outside your knowledge basse, or is constantly rehashing the past, it's time to grab a referral to a therapist or other resources instead. Don't try to deal with things that you are not equipped to deal with! You are good at what you do, but coaching isn't therapy.

Coaching is about goals, but also sympathy and empathy

While already mentioned, this is something we want to highlight. While the coaching industry is rooted in emotions and passion to make a positive impact in someone else's life, many people out there end up in this field because it’s sometimes considered “a trend.” Coaching should be more than a trendy way to make money, to you -- if it's only a money-maker, you'll burn out quicker than you can believe. Building a career takes time and patience, practice and more practice.

Coaches sometimes get so caught up in other things that they can forget that empathy and sympathy are both necessary in this field, especially when listening to clients’ stories. It may sound minimal but in the long run, these two will serve as your strongholds. Every client is different, and the more clients you see, the more comfortable you will get with knowing the differences between a sad story rooted in issues that can't be resolved by coaching, or someone dealing with a difficult time that you yourself can help with. Build up those listening and emotional skills, and be open to the journey.

Ready to learn how to deal with clients compassionately? If you're ready to learn more about how to become a life coach, take a look at The Catalyst Life Coaching Intensive. Vibrant community. Evidence-based life coach training. Lifetime support.


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