Coaching a client with blocked feelings can be a difficult process requiring a significant investment in time. Executives with blocked feelings are often chronically results-oriented individuals. They push through the tough times to achieve. They may be deemed “high potential” for the sheer volume and reliability of their output. But inside they are stressed and hurting and wondering how they can find a better way to exist. For them, coaching may seem the perfect answer.
Coaches need to be keenly alert to working with a client with blocked feelings. These clients often say they are engaged and excited about coaching, but the coach may experience them as elusive in session. They share their work challenges, but somehow avoid deeper exploration of them. They ask for “tips and tricks” to overcome their challenging situations long after the coach has explained that coaching isn’t advice giving. Well-intentioned coaches with adequate education in coaching and finely-honed listening skills may still not recognise when a client is experiencing difficulty in working with their own emotions. Successful executives, after all, are often image-management experts.
The High-functioning, Well-adjusted Executive
Carl Rogers in his article “A Process Conception of Psychotherapy” describes seven stages of human development in the recognition of and acceptance of our own feelings. (See Rogers’s collection of essays, On Becoming a Person.) The higher levels of Rogers’s stages (stages 6 and 7) are frequently seen in executive coaching clients. High functioning, well-adjust individuals are able to recognise what they feel in the moment, and accept and understand those feelings in themselves. They use their feelings to inform themselves about situations. They accept themselves without self-damning judgment for those feelings, and remain in control of their subsequent behaviour. Individuals who are not able to recognise and manage their feelings may be prone to automatic behaviours that historically accompany those same (often unrecognised) feelings and cause difficulty for themselves or others.
Here is a small example. In a meeting, a person feels underprepared and considers herself to be lacking in relevant experience to participate. And yet the organisation has invited her there and expects her participation. If she is high-functioning, she can recognise these feelings as possibly stemming from her own drive for perfection and diligence. She strives to recognise that in herself, and not let it hinder her. She can instead focus on participating by listening well, asking a relevant question or two, and develop a broader view of the business.
Conversely, if she cannot accept these feelings of inadequacy, and instead plunges into despair or deeper feelings of shame, she may respond in the meeting in an unhelpful fashion. For example, she may nitpick at a mistake in another’s presentation as an unconscious act to prove herself worthy. Or she may remain silent though brimming with questions and comments that she is too afraid to voice. Either way, upon leaving the meeting she will have lost the opportunity to collaborate.
What Does a Client with Blocked Feelings Look Like?
I have coached many a client with blocked feelings. Two indicators from Rogers’ work stand out. Firstly, the person experiences self as an object and problems are external to self. They report that things happen to or around them. They are not aware of their own contribution, impact, or power over situations. For example, such a person may say, “Disorganisation keeps appearing in my life,” or “Problem staff members always end up in my team.”
Another indicator is that present day situations are experienced as past similar situations were. The response is the same as if the past situation were the current reality. Subsequently, the current response seems disproportionate or extreme. The client may not even own or recognise his own behaviour. Anybody can have an off moment that has a shelf-life of half a career. Emotionally high-functioning executives, however, can own their behaviour and learn from it by processing the situation. They identify and process the feelings that prompted the disruptive behaviour. Executives with blocked feelings cannot. Either they simply do not recognise the incident and their part in it, or the feelings accompanying it are too painful to verbalise. In some instances the words to describe the feelings are not there. (See this article about Alexithymia.)
Approaches for the Coach of a Client with Blocked Feelings
The Attentive Mirror
When encountering a client with blocked feelings, coaches must remain firmly attentive. Rogers is known for his “unconditional positive regard” for the client. A stance that many, many coaches espouse as their own. That is, an acceptance of the client as he is, regardless of what he says, thinks, feels, or does. Rogers also asserted that “personal change is facilitated when the psychotherapist is what he is, when in the relationship with his client he is genuine and without “front” or facade, openly being the feelings and attitudes which at the moment are flowing in him.”
This ability to use the self as a mirror to the client, to selectively respond in the moment in the service of the client, with the client’s needs and goals and stage of development in mind, is what distinguishes a master coach from her peers. It is also what we each as coaches strive for with each client, fully accepting that to achieve this with a high level of consistency is the ultimate goal. Clients with blocked feelings especially can learn from being in relationship with the coach. They learn first-hand the impact they may be having on others.
Coaches who work with clients with blocked feelings can also contract with the client for full exploration of situations. Early in the engagement, seek agreement to look at the thoughts, behaviours and feelings of any work challenges, no matter how difficult it may seem. An attempted exploration of these three “doors” as Paul Ware terms them, can highlight any blocked feelings the client may have and ease into a deeper developmental discussion. (A good resource for understanding Paul Ware’s door theory is Joines & Stewart’s book, Personality Adaptations.)
Using Physical Phenomena
Bear in mind, however, that some clients may be unable to distinguish their feelings at all. If that is the scenario, describing physical phenomena is a viable alternative. Tightness in the shoulders, stomach pain, shallow breathing, etc. may have accompanied a work challenge. The client can learn to pay attention to their own emotional needs through physical phenomena.
Realistic Coaching Goals
Lastly, coaches with a client with blocked feelings must ensure that the coaching goal plan is achievable within the number of sessions the organisation has granted. (See Are You Ready for Coaching? on the Talent Futures website.) While this is true for all clients, it is particularly true for clients with blocked feelings. For example, it is beyond the scope of eight sessions to create a fully engaged team if the client has difficulty recognising her own feelings. More appropriate goals may include actions toward a fully engaged team such as creation of a forum where team members can raise difficulties to a team representative, or a renewed commitment to have regular one-to-ones, or a new team meeting format.
Coaching a client with blocked feelings can be difficult or it can be rewarding. The coach must show acceptance of the client and a keen interest to continue throughout the engagement. Blocked feelings must be viewed not as a defect, but as part of their unique person. Certainly their highly successful career to date is to be lauded. The partnership with the coach enhances that success by creating greater freedom and self-understanding. As with most aspects of coaching, self-knowledge on the part of the coach is vital. Understanding your own willingness and abilities in working with such clients can make all the difference.
Victoria Hall, Executive Coach
Founder of Talent Futures