Giedre Lesmaityte and Adrian Myers discuss ‘safe space’ in coaching sessions and how it’s created
Have you ever experienced a coaching session, where, despite the impressive credentials and experience of the coach, you were reluctant to talk openly about your concerns?
We explored this using ‘Conceptual Encounter’ (De Rivera, 1981) methodology with six coaching clients. This enabled an indepth exploration of the experience of research participants through dialogue and emerging from the initial understanding of the researcher (first author).
The term ‘safe space’ is commonly used among coaching practitioners but is sparsely discussed in the coaching literature. The concept dates back to the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott who coined and developed the term ‘holding environment’ referring to the set of conditions created by the therapist which provide a sense of safety for the client (Abram, 2007).
The concept was further developed by Modell (1976) who emphasised the importance of ‘affective communication’ between therapist and client.
Safe space is discussed in psychodynamic coaching (Lee, 2014) while ontological coaching also refers to how a safe environment is created through a deeply respectful relationship (Sieler, 2014).
All notions of safe space in coaching focus on the importance of special conditions but appear limited in providing clear descriptions of these.
Dialogue with clients suggested a sense of safety arose if there was an overarching sense of affinity between coach and client. The clients referred to this concept as a “special kind of connection” (Kristijonas); “The click” (Anne); “That vibe” (Christina); “[We] get each other” (Antonio); “Some sort of chemistry” (Gisele); “An instant feel” (Aria).
Affinity was created when there was a sense of similarity with their coach (eg, professional background and education, personality). The sense of affinity was more organismic than rational but always difficult to define: “some kind of attraction [client emphasis]” (Antonio).
The clients also spoke of the importance of a caring coach and of visible progress. The term ‘caring coach’ is used to describe the perception of a professional taking personal interest in the client’s progress, remembering their details, who arrives on time and, makes the client “feel special” (Christina).
The term ‘visible progress’ refers to the importance the clients gave to having a sense of their coaches working with them effectively, providing a sense of reassurance.
Dialogue also highlighted the importance of psychological conditions (the client being in the right state of mind) and of being: in a healthy physical state, located in a safe physical environment and in agreement with the coaching process.
Safe Space in coaching can be visualised as an outer boundary with the environment (eg, external threats, harm of exposure) created by affinity between the coach and client. Without this outer boundary, there would be no safe space. This outer layer is supported by an inner layer consisting of a caring coach and visible progress.
Within the confines of a safe space, there are a range of other conditions of less note but still important in creating a safe space for coaching work.
NB: All names of research participants have been changed to protect confidentiality
About the authors
- Giedre Lesmaityte is a graduate of the Masters in Coaching and Mentoring Practice at Oxford Brookes University, founder, partner, coach and trainer at LucidHead solutions and MBSR teacher.
- Dr Adrian Myers is programme lead for the MA in Coaching and Mentoring Practice at Oxford Brookes University
- J Abram, The Language of Winnicott : a Dictionary of Winnicott’s Use of Words (2nd edn.), London: Karnac, 2007
- J De Rivera, Conceptual encounter: a method for the exploration of human experience, University Press of America, 1981
- G Lee, ‘The psychodynamic approach to coaching’, in Cox, E, Bachkirova, T & Clutterbuck, D (eds.), The Complete Handbook of Coaching, London: Sage, 21-33, 2014
- A H Modell, ‘The holding environment and the therapeutic action of psychoanalysis’, in Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 24(2), 285-307, 1976
- A Sieler, ‘Ontological coaching’, in Cox, E, Bachkirova, T & Clutterbuck, D (eds.), The Complete Handbook of Coaching, London: Sage, 104-116, 2014