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 Two: The road to resilience
Welcome back to our consideration of the science, resources and reflections that could be helpful as we face unprecedented times in the world of coaching.
In our first article we considered how our personal story and expectations of what lies ahead could potentially influence our coaching practice. Now we’re going to explore frameworks that have proven valuable to support coaching during extreme turbulence.
Christchurch, New Zealand
Within the space of nine years the region of Canterbury, New Zealand has had to navigate three significant events: the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010+, the North Canterbury earthquakes of 2016+ and the Mosque shootings in 2012.
This combination of significant natural and human-made disasters contributed to an increased presence of mental health and wellbeing practitioners in the district, many of whom played a role in increasing our understanding of navigating uncertainty.
At the time of the Christchurch earthquakes in 2010, one of my coaching assignments was with the St John leadership team, whose members were of course critical to the emergency response of this tragedy. I was unexpectedly thrown out of leadership development coaching and into coaching during crisis.
It became immediately apparent that understanding psychological first aid was going to become an essential part of my coaching practice, so I completed training to help me better support my clients and carefully manage the ethical boundaries of my coaching practice.
During this time, I was also employed as a Peak Performance coach within an organisation called the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team. This team, affectionately known as SCIRT, was responsible for fixing more than 80% of the roads and underground systems that had been damaged during the earthquakes.
Even more importantly, the team also committed to leaving the construction industry (including the people) stronger than ever.
To support the achievement of this, Peak Performance coaches had a unique opportunity to collaborate with the Red Cross psychosocial teams, the University of Canterbury and the Resilient Organisations consultancy to explore what it takes to thrive, rather than just survive, during times of great uncertainty.
We used their findings to deliberately design wellbeing and resilience into our teams as often as we could.
The scale of the Christchurch rebuild was unprecedented and quite literally had never been attempted before in New Zealand. There was no single company big enough to complete the work, so five construction companies came together to design and implement the rebuild.
Understanding how to support these courageous teams would require me to provide more than just ‘normal’ coaching. I would need the confidence and capability to help leaders to command teams that were operating without precedents, who were delivering against seemingly impossible deadlines and who were going home at night to broken homes (and in some cases, traumatised families).
I would need to be prepared to become the safest of places for my clients to simply be. A place where they could talk, relax and, if necessary, to cry.
What quickly became clear, was that to remain resilient my coaching needed to focus on three specific topics: the ‘’: Evidence, Empower, Embed.
First, my clients needed to better notice the Evidence of their emotions.
The cold truth is that life brings wobbles, which creates stress. Some of those wobbles are chronic, eg, bills, kids, health. They happen to us all the time, and to some extent we’ve normalised them. We expect them to cause us daily stress and they gradually drain our battery and deplete our ability to handle other events, decreasing our everyday resilience.
Others of life’s wobbles cause us considerable distress – job loss, the death of a loved one, earthquakes.
Although typically less usual than chronic wobbles, they can cause an even greater sudden spike in our stress response, also decreasing our resilience.
But not all stress is problematic, in fact some of these life wobbles can also galvanise us into action because of our pounding heart and rushing adrenalin. They can cause us to re-evaluate our priorities, decide to make changes to our life and help us to develop our resilience, despite their occurrence.
Some of our response to life’s wobbles is linked to how we think and feel; whether we can quickly notice if we’ve become stuck wallowing in negative thoughts (real, or perceived) about the challenges we are facing.
Tuning into how we’re thinking and feeling is not something that comes naturally to many of us, so growing emotional literacy and better understanding how to navigate the natural negative bias of our brains can be critical for supporting coaching clients navigating turbulence.
Using a specially designed Emotions List (available free from: www.careerbalance.co.nz/books), my coaching clients explored their natural ebbs and flows of emotional state, and considered the personal and professional impact of soft, neutral and extreme emotions.
This helped them more quickly to notice when they no longer had a ‘full battery pack’, consider patterns to their feelings and to tune in to their more positive emotions as well as the negative.
At first, convincing some of them that this might be helpful was tricky.
“I am an engineer who likes black and white. I am either happy or sad. Occasionally I get cross. I fail to see how this learning is going to help me.”
The very same person contacted me several months later to confess that in using the Emotions List to support an important personal discussion, he’d learned more about his daughters than ever before.
The second thing that my clients needed at this turbulent time was a coach with information to Empower them to make better choices.
It can be very easy to simply reach for the chocolate and Netflix when the world turns to custard. I know because it happened to me.
Biologically, we are programmed to crave more fat and sugar when our cortisol levels go up because they inhibit the production of stress hormones. Except choices like this, which suppress our stress response in the short-term, can easily become eating habits if the stress (or more importantly, the perceived stress) persists.
Instead, we can encourage our clients to look at science and research for ideas to better ensure long-term wellbeing, because when we make choices that invest in our wellbeing, the knock-on impact is that we build resilience.
We literally create strength by making a series of better everyday choices about how we look after ourselves and recharge our ‘Resilience Battery’.
The science of wellbeing is relatively new, but is very simple to understand once you find it.
Some helpful evidence-based resources include: The Five Ways to Wellbeing (https://bit.ly/31fSsi6), Te Whare Tapa Wha (the four cornerstones of Maori health), Yale University’s Science of Wellbeing course, workplace wellbeing pioneers, Robertson Cooper and NZ-based Resilient Organisations Ltd.
In summarising what I learned from coaching during turbulent times in Christchurch into my book, Resilience at Work (2018), I needed to create an original framework to guide my readers.
I wanted this framework to be simple and clearly signpost the journey towards wellbeing, and therefore resilience. This is what I created (see Figure 1 below).
The traits at the heart of the model are those that we found in the most resilient of people during my research.
Beginning with Emotional Honesty (the consideration of emotional evidence that creates emotional wellbeing), the framework highlights three further foundations for resilience:
Self-care is the investment we choose to make in our spiritual and physical wellbeing. The most resilient of people are both mindful and energised, having made (typically) daily choices to invest in both areas.
The form of investment is a very personal one: physical wellbeing can include decisions about eating, resting and moving. Spiritual wellbeing might include mindfulness or meditation, a sense of meaning, connectedness with nature or religion and faith.
Some of us choose to achieve this Self-Care recharge in a solitary way, and others like to join a ‘tribe’ or group, but the most resilient people prioritise this even if they are busy and don’t feel like they have the time.
When coaching, our role can be to encourage clients to recall what they choose to invest in when they are feeling good and functioning well. We can then explore how these choices compare with the Self-Investment choices they’re making in the present, and whether there are spiritual or physical needs that are being neglected.
Our Connections also recharge our Resilience Battery, largely because of the biochemical responses that take place when we spend time with people who care about us, and whom we care about in return.
Work by the late neuroscientist Dr Judith E Glaser, highlighted that it could take just 0.07 seconds for our oxytocin levels to go up when talking to a trusted friend. As we communicate, our brains trigger a neurochemical cocktail that can make us feel good and give us a sense of wellbeing, helping us to feel safe and building our resilience.
Typically, the most resilient people have strong, established networks they can call on for support (and whom they could in turn support), and a desire to want to help other people.
For coaching, this means that it’s important for us to be curious with our clients about how they’re nurturing their existing connections – or building new ones – as they travel extreme turbulence. For many people, the urge to withdraw from people can be strong when life wobbles. Many of us withdraw to our cave.
This withdrawal, as many are experiencing in the pandemic, can have the unintended consequence of depleting our social wellbeing still further, therefore taking away even more from our Resilience Battery. Coaching in this context can gently build awareness of this and empower clients to make a more informed choice about their Connections.
The final piece of the jigsaw for building resilience as we coach through turbulent times, is that of Learning.
Without learning, there is a risk that our clients simply cope with life’s wobbles instead of growing stronger from them so they can handle them even better next time.
Coaching can encourage clients to seek the wisdom of others who’ve travelled their path, look for the power or opportunity presented by failure and ask questions that generate insight and encourage new ideas.
Coaching can also explore and explain the concepts of neuroplasticity and Growth Mindset to support clients who do not believe that it’s possible to grow and learn. There can be significant resistance to both of these concepts from anybody who has grown up believing themselves to have been born with predetermined potential.
In the next and final episode of this insight’s series, we will explore the final E: Embed. Supporting our clients to regularly notice and nudge their wellbeing choices can be life changing during times of extreme stress.
For now, here are some practical actions for you to consider today, as you prepare to coach your clients on their journeys through this changed world.
Take a moment to reflect on the main causes of stress or pressure in your own life or work right now and notice their impact on your own emotional state.
- Perhaps use my free Emotions List (www.careerbalance.co.nz/books), or one of the many Emotions lists online.
- Consider the choices you’re making personally to recharge your Resilience Battery. Notice whether you’re over-investing or under-investing in one of the resilience foundations, and reflect on the impact of this.
- Make a commitment to try out something new in one of the resilience foundations and reflect on the impact this has on your sense of wellbeing.
If you prefer, consider deepening your knowledge about the road to resilience by visiting other great sources of information. Some recommendations include the Resilience Engine (https://bit.ly/39Ph85b), the (UK) Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development resilience resources (https://bit.ly/39QK64q) and the Challenge of Change programme (https://bit.ly/30pB8s6).
One of the most critical additions to my own coaching practice during turbulence was a psychosocial team. This enabled me to quietly encourage any coaching clients who found themselves stuck in negative emotional state or experiencing extreme emotional response, to work even more deeply with trusted professionals.
Consider reaching out to meet psychosocial practitioners, including counsellors, social workers and clinical psychologists, and find out how they might work alongside your practice.
Make sure you’ve researched the wider mental health support teams in your country, so that, if required, you can easily share their contact details with your clients too.
Understanding the science of wellbeing, walking your talk and role-modelling daily choices with your clients and having a strong trusted support team will be vital to your coaching practice on the road to resilience.
- Next issue: Embedding resilience
- 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.
Fig 1: Resilience framework