What is the best way to respond when a coaching client starts to cry? That topic came up in a recent mentor coach training with a group of new coaches. During three of the coaching demonstrations, the clients had welled up in tears, and some had openly wept.
In the debrief, most of the students expressed some relief that it hadn’t happened when they were coaching, because they wouldn’t have known what to do.
“Just take a couple of minutes,” is what I usually say, “And when you’re ready, we can continue.”
Another possibility is to ask, “So what would be helpful for me to know about what just happened, if anything?”
We also discussed what not to do, including do not simply hand the client a box of tissues. You can certainly have them there, but passing them to the client can be perceived as a subtle message that we want them to stop crying.
Years ago, a coaching student asked if we should just automatically refer people to therapy if they cry. The answer is “No!” Tears, which are just one sign of the strong emotions that can show up in a coaching session, do not automatically mean therapy. They mean we’ve gotten to, or are getting closer to, the core.
Aside from tears, we may see strong anger or nervous laughter that doesn’t seem to match what’s actually going on.
Be sensitive to all possibilities and all emotions, including your own. For example, anger can feel threatening, even if we’re not physically in the room with the person.
Culturally, in our family of origin, emotions may or may not have been expressed openly. In some families and cultures people may be more expressive, and in others emotions are kept to yourself, especially any that could be perceived as weak. This can be true not only for the coach or leader, but for the individual being coached or led.
No matter what, any leader needs to gain awareness of themselves in a whole host of situations. The more aware we are of ourselves, the better.
How were emotions expressed and dealt with in your family of origin? How do you feel about expressing your own emotions to someone else? How do you feel when you are around strong emotions?
When a client is expressing strong emotions, find ways to communicate – with words and nonverbal cues – that there is no judgment here. This is a place they can show up and be real, and it’s okay. Help them step back and talk about what’s going on. That can be incredibly helpful.
Students have asked, is it okay to cry along with a client? Is it okay to laugh along with your client? My response has always been yes, if you feel that, as long as it’s not more intense than your client, and does not interfere with your ability to work with your client. We are not AI robots; we are humans, and that humanness is part of our coaching sessions, from one human to another.
We need to be aware that strong emotions elicit a response in us as the coach. What do we do with that, not only in the session but afterward? Here’s where every coach needs a coach, or some other helping professional relationship where you can debrief what’s happening. This will help you develop the self-awareness to recognize what’s happening and do what you have to do to detach and protect yourself.