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The Symbiotic Dynamic of the Client-Coach Relationship

November 17, 2021
Inspiration
Dawn Williams

Guest blog by Dawn Williams

Dawn grew up with a deep curiosity about human nature. Her family of origin offered extensive case studies, which led her to discovering the world of psychology and self-improvement. It became her lifelong passion to understand what makes us who we are, for better or worse, and how we can alter our course to create a more satisfying, meaningful life.

With true compassion, irreverent humor, and decades of both formal and informal study and training, Dawn has been coaching since 2017, and now serves in the areas of emotional mastery, depression prevention, trauma coaching, and building happiness. Her Beat the Winter Blues group launches December 1st.

Dawn Williams is a 2019 graduate of the JRNI Coaching Intensive. You can follow her work on Instagram @dawnwilliamscoaching or by visiting https://selfpoweredchange.com/.   

The Symbiotic Dynamic of the Client-Coach Relationship

“I just want to feel like I matter again,” my new client said in our first coaching session. “I just want to feel like something I’m doing is making a difference.”

I could already see the passion and drive she felt she’d lost somewhere along the way. Like any good coach, though, I needed to see life through her eyes. I needed to understand the meaning behind the language she used, and the context in which she experienced her stated needs.

The need for meaning in one’s life and avocations is essential. Dr. Martin Seligman, considered by many to be the godfather of Positive Psychology, included meaning as one of the five elements that flourishing individuals have in common. 

Meaning is specific to the individual, aligns with their values, and creates a sense of purpose and self-worth when a person uses their strengths to achieve something that benefits others.

My client had a difficult time naming meaningful activities or efforts, beyond raising her children, working with her husband in their business, and fulfilling community expectations for a woman of her position. Yet she took little pride or satisfaction from these interactions. We had some exploring to do.

The coaching partnership exists for the benefit of the client. It is about her goals, her obstacles, and her answers. But something deep transpires when coach and client connect. 

The dynamics aren’t difficult to understand. To coach effectively, one must come to the partnership with a figurative blank canvas. Not as a blank slate, but as a human with experiences and insights that guide your intuition and approach to coaching. We bring in curiosity, compassion, and an openness to connection.

As coaches, we’re adding to that canvas with every session, with every out-of-session reflection, with every new understanding our client gains. We fill in some of the white space with context as the client’s story unfolds. We go back and add in detail and nuance as the meaning of that story becomes clearer. That portrait stays with us whenever we record session notes, or think about something that was said but glossed over, or when we become curious about certain expressions or mannerisms that suggest another layer of belief underlying the ones already on the canvas.

That exchange, both verbally and energetic, triggers pieces of our own experience. Sometimes those pieces are relevant to the client and can help move the work along.

And sometimes those pieces are meant for us, not to be shared in session, but to be considered and applied to our own way of being.

We’re adding to the client’s canvas with every session, with every new understanding our client gains. And in ways we might not even be aware of, the insights our clients reach often change our own canvas.

My client’s story slowly created a picture of a courageous young woman, one who spoke her mind and worked to change the anti-feminist mores and practices in her community. She would not remain silent and accept a value system that she felt was morally wrong. Her strong sense of justice was evident as she spoke of her early years. 

She stayed that course as long as she could. Until discouragement smothered the spark of righteousness and the hope for change. She married, had children, and began living the very lifestyle she’d fought for years. And while she embraced her responsibilities as best she could, the color gradually faded from her life. 

Bouts of depression and self-destructive behavior began to occur. She’d gotten help and overcome those issues. But the spark never came back.

I admit she was on my mind quite a bit between sessions. We all change as we claim our place in the adult world. Our sense of what is important or appropriate takes on a different flavor. We shed some interests in favor of ones that align with the more mature individual we’ve become.

But most of us don’t lose that vital spark. That’s what my client meant when she said she wanted to feel like she’s making a difference.

I looked back on my own timeline, searching for any experiences that would help me understand my client’s world better. 

I recalled an incident when I realized my efforts to change my dysfunctional family were futile. They focused on anger, blame, and drama. I focused on what made some people lash out, judge, and lose control of their emotions. I carried the same blood in my veins, but I felt like an outsider in my own home. I remember that last attempt to reason with my father when he was in a rage. As always, he shut me down. Stole my voice. My power. My spark. I became a bit of a trouble-maker after that, instead of the rebel with a cause I’d hoped to be.

Why did my client give up her crusade? It hadn’t seemed important before, and she didn’t speak of it often. I asked about this at our next session.

She actually laughed and rolled her eyes at my question. “Oh, I was such a rebel back then”, she said. “I figured it was time to grow up and put all that behind me.”

I help space, letting her hear the words she’d just spoken. After a beat, she began to fidget and seemed uncomfortable. She wasn’t laughing anymore.

“And how does your inner rebel feel about that decision today?” I asked.

My client had written a story in which she played the bad guy for speaking her mind and fighting for a cause. The more we talked about that integral part of her value system, the part of her that valued social justice and contributing to the greater good, her spark returned. She realized killing off the rebel wasn’t what she’d intended to do. It only seemed like the way to gain the acceptance of her community. 

As our work together came to an end, she was already talking about other causes she held great passion for. Several years later, I learned she had written a book about environmental issues and the ways we can slow climate change by making small changes in our way of life.

Her journey to regain her passion for life changed my canvas, too. That long-ago day when my father stole my voice and my power began to heal. I realized, in truth, no one can take away our power to be who we were meant to be.

I’m reminded of a quote from Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

This, ultimately, is what we as coaches help our clients understand. And as we shine a light on their circumstances that created obstacles in the first place, that light helps us change our own canvas to reflect our ongoing growth.   

Want to Become A Coach?

One of our values at JRNI is that we dare to be different. Our coaches like Dawn ignore the expectations society tries to impose on them, and seek to live from their own truth instead. If you are ready to step into your power and you’d like some partners in the process, come check out JRNI Life Coach Training. Grounded in science, our ICF accredited program features authentic instructors, a robust curriculum, and business instruction to prepare you for liftoff.

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