Panic and pandemic: a series of coaching and leadership conversations – part 5

In this series, leadership coach Rachel Ellison MBE shares a beneath-the-surface approach to what’s going on around us, for leaders and coaches.

Part 5: what are we saying?



A look at the language of contagion

Restaurants, parks, cinemas and fitness clubs are closed. All but essential food shopping has gone online. Pharmacies let people through the door, but only one customer at a time. The children of key workers must shower both before and after school.

Those who’ve lived through the Ebola Virus, SARS or swine flu, may recognise some of the anti-contagion measures but for most of us, quarantine is a new, surreal and sometimes alarming experience.

The drive to connect

From soap to social distancing, we’ve seen an incremental tightening of boundaries and barriers, alongside ultra-vigilant hygiene protocols. Scientific advice and government directives attempt to reduce our physical connection, in a bid to gain control of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Apart from an unexpected show of angst regarding toilet roll and flour, one of the strongest urges appears to be the human drive to connect. Society is driven by contact – the desire to touch, to be close. The drive – or is it the instinct – to create community?

Demand for virtual conversation is soaring. From business meetings and ‘office drinks’, to yoga classes, music lessons and home schooling. In every discipline, leaders are finding ways to stay solvent as well as take care of psychological wellbeing.

For coaches, this is a time of opportunity – both paid and pro-bono – to make a real difference, helping leaders unpack what they are experiencing. It’s also an ideal time to tune in carefully to the language we and others are using to express ourselves.. 

The language of contagion

Let’s look at the language of boundaries, borders and barriers. Terms such as ‘lock-down’ and self-isolation’ have slipped into our lexicon as if we always spoke like this. As medical staff appeal desperately for more ‘PPE’ (personal protective equipment – that’s gowns, gloves and face-masks), we witness their simultaneous desire for separation and distance, with a fervent commitment to go towards a potentially deadly contagion, to treat patients with Covid-19.    

Metaphors and beneath-the-surface indicators abound in what is without doubt, a global health and economic crisis. Looking at the language we use in coaching and leadership conversations could offer important insight. What we say is no accident. That’s because the subconscious is busily at work…

Discrimination, but not as we normally think of it

Notions of prejudice and bias are being turned upside down. The coronavirus context is creating unexpected types of segregation, with new categories of inclusion and exclusion.

For example, there is now positive, institutionalised discrimination when it comes to education. Only children of key workers such as NHS staff and those involved in food, logistics and public health, are allowed to go to school. ‘At risk’ children or those with a social worker are also welcomed.

Age related bias is a barrier we are usually keen to break down, especially in terms of employment opportunity. But not so with Covid-19. Separating themselves from beloved grandchildren, many of the over 70s have readily identified themselves, diving into deep isolation. Some will quarantine for three weeks, others for three months.

All around the world, we are asserting borders and inserting barriers. Turning us from a global, woven system into a set of individual component parts. Think of planets orbiting solo.

There is much reframing going on, at a macro but also micro level. Over the top hand washing is currently seen as a desirable, appropriate behaviour, rather than obsessive compulsive.

Equality and inclusion has is being temporarily redefined. Consider Freud’s concept of ‘other’…There are those who are allowed out and those who must stay at home. Then there’s the reverse – those who would feel safer staying at home, but as key-workers must break the lock-down to serve on the front-line of this pandemic, be that a hospital or a supermarket.

So let’s look closely at the words we are using. What meaning do these phrases have at a surface level? Then examine what they may convey for us individually, at a deeper level. When coaching clients, it would be wise to ask not assume when it comes to meaning. And to call out jargon in case it is a mask for more profound or raw fears and feelings.

Metaphor exploration word list

  • Boundaries
  • Borders
  • Barriers
  • Quarantine
  • Lock-down
  • Self-isolation
  • Gaining control
  • Connection
  • Physical connection
  • Virtual connection
  • Drive
  • Instinct
  • Community
  • Inclusion
  • Exclusion
  • Segregation
  • ‘Other’


First published in the online magazine Training Zone.

About the author

Rachel Ellison MBE is a former BBC news reporter, now executive leadership coach. Rachel was awarded an honorary doctorate for her book, Global Leadership & Coaching – flourishing under intense pressure at work. She takes a beneath-the-surface psychological approach to leadership challenges and events in the world around us.

Rachel is currently offering short-burst 30 minute virtual ‘emergency coaching’ packages, for leaders and those supporting them during the Covid-19 pandemic.