Red Alert

Surely the treatment of shame belongs to the therapist? One experienced psychologist and coach believes otherwise and describes her work with sensitive clients .
Marion Gillie
Shame isn’t a word you hear often in business. You’re more likely to talk about the fear of humiliation; a close cousin of it.

Shame is that sense of sudden exposure in front of others coupled with an overwhelming desire to hide. While we may not encounter shame-prone clients in our coaching work as often as in the therapy room, I believe an understanding of the dynamics of shame and how to work with it are highly relevant to our practice.

Shame has its roots deep in our early relationships. As small children, a tendency to feel shame can arise from repeatedly being judged – and found lacking. Individuals can develop a sense of not being “OK” at their core, and grow up with a heightened sensitivity to shame.

In one way this can be viewed as a useful survival tactic: it causes the individual to withdraw from close contact with others to protect against further hurt.

Since shame is rooted in relationships, and coaching is a relational process, there are many implications for us as coaches in how we understand and work with shame-prone clients. Let me illustrate some of these through my work with Kevin.

Kevin is a senior leader in a global financial services firm. Three months into a new role, his manager offered him coaching to support his transition, as Kevin’s new colleagues were finding him “hard to read”.

I met a sharp, intelligent man who seemed keen to tell me how important his role was to the business and how successful he was in his last role. He grilled me about my credentials, and his confidence and boastfulness bordered on the arrogant. I struggled to elicit his hopes for coaching.

When asked directly, he replied that he was “willing to give it a go”, as he knew that high-flyers like him often had coaches. When I mentioned the feedback from his boss, he flushed, looked away and became defensive. Clearly I’d hit a nerve.

Look at me!

It would have been easy for me to walk away from this assignment, because of Kevin’s apparent lack of commitment and because I felt irritated at being seen as “coach-as-business-fashion-accessory”.

However, vulnerability isn’t always apparent. The early clues that you may have a shame-prone client are often non-verbal – the way Kevin pulled back from interpersonal contact, and his reaction when I mentioned the team’s feedback, ticked the boxes.

What’s more, feelings of inadequacy are inherent in shame, so in some instances the very fact that we are engaging in coaching may evoke in the client the sense of “needing outside help” and a feeling of being less adequate than the coach. I needed to recognise my irritation and be aware of the potential I had for inadvertently provoking shame through my judgment.

We clarified our contract and started our work. Kevin began our third meeting by again telling me about his successes since taking up his new role. I listened very carefully to the subtext, which seemed to be screaming, “Look how well I am doing, I don’t need you.” In response I could feel myself retreating from him.

Kept at bay

Experienced coaches know that how the client relates to them in the coaching relationship will mirror their way of relating in the wider world. Given that shame serves to keep the individual “out of relationship”, it is really important in working with shame-prone clients that the coach pays close attention to how the client avoids close contact in the coaching session.

Here, Kevin’s boastfulness was keeping me at bay and I wondered if this was part of the reason why his colleagues were finding him hard to read.

As I allowed myself to listen for the potential “small voice” within the big stories, I noticed that I began to feel much more compassion for Kevin, a desire to find a way of reaching him.

I feel you

Many coaches at this point may be tempted to challenge the client, to describe the discrepancy between what is being said and what is sensed, or leap at the chance of pointing out that they, too, are experiencing what the team seem to be feeling.

With shame-prone clients, early challenge can be unconsciously experienced as “yet another person for whom I am not OK”. Providing adequate support is vital and without it such clients frequently find a way of terminating coaching.

It is here that you have to make a clear choice about whether or not working with shame is appropriate for this client under these circumstances. If, to achieve their career aspirations, your client needs to transform the way they build relationships at work, then helping them to become aware of their patterns of relating is going to be important.

However, this may not be possible without providing enough support for them to risk showing their vulnerability to you.

So how do you do this? By listening for what the client is most trying to tell you, which may be at odds with what is actually being said, and gently acknowledging this. As Carlson and Kolodny say: “At a fundamental level, providing support involves the process of transforming the experience of shame from one of isolation… to one of belonging and contact.”

I said to Kevin in a particularly gentle tone: “As I listen to you talking about your achievements, I feel moved. I picture you out there working so hard in a new and challenging role, and I find myself wondering how easy it would be in your shoes to be able to admit that it’s also incredibly tough at times.”

Again I noticed the blotches around his neck and loss of eye contact (a common indicator of a shame response).

What just happened?

By paying close attention to our own internal response to the client and sharing what the client evokes, we signal our desire to engage with them at a deeper level. It is important to be aware that over-support can leave a client feeling weak or needy – both shame-evoking sensations in themselves. So I was careful to offer just a little support at this stage and to wait to see how this was received.

Kevin paused for a long time before moving back to his familiar topic, but I could see that I’d touched him. I didn’t want to miss the moment so I said again, in a gentle tone: “Before we move on… what happened just then? Did I miss the mark completely?”

The here and now

Had Kevin dismissed my invitation completely, even though I was fairly sure I was on the right track, it would have been important for me to step back and admit the possibility of being mistaken (signalling my own fallibility).

Had I pursued my hunch further, I would be letting Kevin know that I didn’t believe him, thus reinforcing his (unconscious) belief that he wouldn’t be adequately received. However, his pause suggested that he might be available for another approach.

Drawing on my Gestalt background (Gillie, 2000) I decided to take the risk of inviting Kevin to stay with his “here and now” experience as a way of expanding his awareness of how he related to people, through how he was relating to me right then.

Looking very uncomfortable and still with no eye contact, he revealed to me that it was hard for him to talk about his challenges. I waited. Eventually, he glanced up at me, nodded and confessed that he was feeling very stressed in his new role, that he knew he needed help but was finding it impossible to approach his boss for help.

We explored this more fully and Kevin revealed that he had been given the job under false pretences. At his interview he had exaggerated the role he played in the success of his previous project, taking the credit for things that others had done. He was terrified that his new boss would find him out.

I said to him very gently: “I imagine that you might be feeling pretty awful, perhaps a little ashamed of what you did.”

He put his head in his hands, nodding vigorously. We sat together for a while until he was able to look up at me. I smiled and said: “Well, we’d better work together to find out how you can work this through and get to a place that feels better than it does now”. His look of relief was also a relief to me.

The very nature of shame means it is often the “big unspoken secret”. While it’s not always necessary or appropriate to name it, I have found that it can be liberating to “speak the unspeakable”.
In this session Kevin discovered that by revealing the depths of his vulnerability to me he could be “adequately received” and not judged but supported in finding a way forward.

As a coach, being able to “be with” the client while they face their shame in the session is challenging but necessary. We need to acknowledge the huge risk that they are taking – the risk of our disapproval.

Over a number of sessions we were able to look at what sense he made of what had happened, the purpose his boasting served and how he could move forward.

New territory

As a final word, I daresay that many of you would argue that this work belongs in the realm of therapy. I would disagree. Our work focused entirely on Kevin in his work context. Truly transformational coaching requires working at the edge of our own competence and, as Carlson and Kolodny say, “This is new territory for us… and for most others who work with organisations.”

About the author

Marion Gillie is a chartered psychologist, consultant and Apecs-accredited executive coach. She is a director of The Gillie Partnership and programme director of the advanced diploma and master practitioner programme at The Academy of Executive Coaching. With 25 years’ experience in organisations, plus a master’s in Gestalt psychotherapy, she has great in-depth understanding of the complexities of human behaviour in the business setting.


  • C Carlson and R Kolodny, “Have we been missing something fundamental to our (consulting) work?”, in G Wheeler and D Ullman (eds), Evolution of Gestalt vol 1: Co-creating the Field: Intention and Practice in the Age of Complexity, Esalen and the Gestalt Press, in press.
  • M Gillie, “Shame and bulimia – a sickness of the soul”, in British Gestalt Journal, 9(2), pp98-104, 2000.

Volume 4, Issue 1

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