This three-part ‘Buckle up’ series on resilience from earthquake survivor, coach and resilience expert Kathryn Jackson offers insights from coaching during turbulent times
Chapter One: The power of the story
Close your eyes and smell the air. It’s heavy, rich and damp. It’s filled with the aroma of blossom – an exotic wave of jasmine and frangipani, but there’s something else too, a rotten smell of rubbish, excrement and possibly vomit that infuses the flowery deliciousness.
You’re standing on the runway at Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong. Ready for the plane that will take you on your next adventure. You’ve said goodbye to all your friends, your home and your life and you’re getting ready to start the next exciting chapter of your life.
It’s been like this since you were born.
At the age of eight you sit in the back of the car, somehow knowing that now is not the time for eye spy or number plate bingo. The Soviet guard is scanning your vehicle. Walking around again and again, slowly. No words.
Do not make eye contact; it is forbidden. Do not under any circumstances say anything to him. The whole family breathes with relief as you are waved through the checkpoint, past the border patrols, the enormous guard dogs, the watchtowers and the barbed wire.
Now you can spend the day in East Berlin, visiting friends, finding adventures, and pretending not to notice the Stasi police who follow your every move.
To say that my childhood was filled with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity would be an understatement.
Every aspect of change was simply a part of my life and by the time I was 18 my family had visited or lived in more than 25 countries and I had attended seven schools.
It was the most incredible, wonderful, and energising experience and it anchored my perception and expectations of change.
As a result, I never really gave the idea of resilience a second thought. When things didn’t go to plan, or when life wobbled in its usual way; workplace bullying, redundancy, miscarriage… I simply found a way around the problem and continued moving forwards filled with hope and positivity.
A wake-up call
Fast forward to the year 2010 and I am now living in Christchurch, New Zealand.
A chance opportunity to fulfil a dream resulted in relocation from Scotland and within four years of moving I had set up a thriving coaching practice that specialised in supporting career transition. Despite the usual bumps that you encounter establishing yourself as self-employed things were going swimmingly.
The first earthquake took everybody by surprise. A 4:35am wakeup call that felt and sounded as though a jumbo jet had landed in the street.
Immediately we knew that our beloved home was beyond repair, but it took a further 21 months of living in a broken shell and sharing a line of portaloos with all our neighbours before we would be able to relocate to the safety of life in a shed (yes, literally).
During the next four years, the region endured relentless aftershocks, and the ground continually moved as though on the deck of a ship. The most extreme and globally famous aftershock being that of 22 February 2011, a quake that broke world records for its intensity, and which claimed the lives of 185 people and damaged over 80% of our city.
For the longest five hours I have ever encountered in my life I was unable to contact my husband. Murmurs and whisperings around me: “The buildings in the heart of the city have all fallen.”
I had come from the heart of the city and had indeed walked through rubble and smoke, my brain barely allowing me to register the enormity of what had happened.
“It doesn’t feel like he is dead. I’m sure that I would feel that.” I stood in the park at the front of the hospital for what seemed like an eternity. Watching endless arrivals of ambulances, cars filled with the injured and listening to the whirring of the helicopters.
Willing him to somehow know that this is where I would be waiting for him. No phone lines. Even text messages were taking hours to receive.
Finally, a message. Breathe again.
It was at this time that I learned my first lesson about what it’s like to be a coach during times of extreme turbulence, and it was this:
You must be aware of the impact of your own story about change because it will impact how you personally navigate this time.
For deep within my beloved childhood filled with memories of excitement and adventure was also an over-enthusiastic response to vigilance, fear and anxiety.
Those 18 amazing years had included watching for and reporting the unusual, regular checks for car bombs, neighbours murdered, door knocks in the dead of night and a constant threat of terror attacks. My earthquake years would now require me to navigate my own personal journey to understand and build strategies to help me control my reignited vigilance, fear and anxiety response.
One thing about crisis is it will find the teeny cracks in your emotional world and prise them open. It will take the things you meant to get round to focusing on, understanding, addressing – and force you to face them square on.
It has no mercy and no timeline.
As a coach, I was always the calm harbour for other people to shelter in during respite from their personal storms. Now I needed my own harbour.
Noticing this sense of overwhelm led me on the most incredible professional journey, one which will be shared during this three-part series. It helped me to become a stronger person, and it forced me to better understand the science that became critical to supporting my coaching clients.
Our journey in Christchurch continues today. We learned that crisis is not simply an immediate event to get through, though of course this is almost always where the journey begins.
Our city lost treasured friends, beautiful buildings and to some extent we also lost our sense of innocence, but what we gained was the most incredible sense of purpose, a resounding reminder of what’s important in life and the most amazing insight into how to build and maintain resilience during unprecedented turmoil.
These lessons learned were tested once more in November 2016 when the region was rocked by yet another series of enormous earthquakes and again in March 2019 when Christchurch was the scene of the deadliest mass shooting in NZ’s modern history.
I hope what we have learned might come in handy as we all walk together towards an unknown future that has been given the most unimaginable shake-up.
Here are some practical actions for you to consider today, as you prepare to coach your clients on their journeys through this changed world.
Go somewhere you can find peace and, if it feels safe to do so, imagine yourself back into the world where you grew up.
- Take notice of the words that come to mind, the images, and the memories. Be curious about how they might they be influencing the way that you are feeling or acting right now.
- Consider how the beliefs that you have anchored about change (in particular, extreme change) might be helping or harming you at this time.
- Invite yourself to notice how this story might be impacting your own coaching practice. Talk this through with a trusted friend or supervisor if you can.
Reflect on the potential benefits of seeking personal psychosocial support, to enable you to be the strongest possible version of you. For eight months, I met with a psychologist to better understand my own experience and emotional response. This not only reassured me personally but was largely responsible for my interest in understanding wellbeing and resilience since 2010.
If you prefer, extend your knowledge about the power of story by researching some resources that could help you or your clients understand your experience at this time. My favourites include the Kübler-Ross model and David Kessler’s Stages of Grief and Meaning, William Bridges’ Transition Model and David Rock’s SCARF model. Consider how your learning might help your clients to navigate their own personal stories of change.
If you can, complete a psychological first aid programme with an organisation like St John Ambulance or the Red Cross (or other similar reputable organisation). This training is designed to enhance your ability to sit with, and support others sitting with, powerful emotions. It will help you to notice the boundaries of your coaching practice more consciously, and more importantly ensure that you stay within the limits of your competence. It will also give you confidence in being able to encourage your clients to seek psychosocial support if that is more appropriate for them.
I can promise these will all be a critical part of your toolkit for the years ahead.
During our next two episodes we will explore the wellbeing science that has influenced how we deliberately built and maintained resilience during the rebuild years in New Zealand. We will also consider several frameworks and resources to help you and your clients make choices that will help you to buckle up and stay strong on the rollercoaster that lies ahead.
- Kathryn Jackson is the author of Resilience at Work: Practical Tools for Career Success (2018) – a finalist for Best International Business Book, with the Business Book Awards (London) and a finalist for the Australian Career Book Awards (Melbourne). The content of this book has recently been embedded into a 30-week resilience programme within the Kite Support app and a six-week webinar series called, Let’s Talk Resilience at Work. Her coaching practice, careerbalance Ltd, has been working with professionals who want to grow confidence, success and resilience, since 2006. Her practical coaching skills workbook, Essential Questions to GROW Your Team (2017) is recommended reading at business schools around the world.She qualified as a coach with the Oxford School of Coaching and Mentoring in 2004 and became a senior practitioner with the EMCC in 2017. She is a Fellow of the CIPD and RSA, and an associate with the New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing & Resilience.