Executive Leadership Coach and Author Rachel Ellison Ltd
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Panic and the coronavirus pandemic: how to listen with presence in a time of uncertainty

In her third article in a new content series on panic and the coronavirus pandemic, Rachel Ellison MBE discusses the difficulties of being ‘fully present’ for clients during tumultuous times and offers advice for coaches on how to create a space for clients to think through their issues calmly. 

25th Mar 2020
Executive Leadership Coach and Author Rachel Ellison Ltd
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Close-up of a girl holding her hand next to her ear.
iStock/franz12

During the Covid-19 outbreak, it’s more important than ever before that we learn to listen. As learning professionals, we’re used to listening in a centred, well-grounded, mostly non-directional way. The goal of a coach is to be fully ‘present’, not just in the room. When working with high-flying executives, we aim to provide a psychological ‘basket’ into which the client can tip all manner of professional and personal angst.

Your goal as a coach is not to solve issues, but rather to create a peaceful thinking space, as your client unfurls the many difficult feelings and thoughts that may be swirling around for them right now. 

When the person holding that basket is struggling with regulating their own emotional responses, however, either because of something upsetting going on in their life, or because of something disruptive happening in the wider world, their capacity to offer such psychological ‘containment’ may be reduced – or perhaps not possible at all.

In this case, it’s time to refocus – not away from the Covid-19 disease outbreak or from the news, but work on being fully present in your client conversations. You are more likely to survive as a business and be successful longer term if everything you do right now resonates with quality and integrity. Revisit what good listening looks like.

Prepare to be fully present

Before you start a coaching session, breathe. Exercise. Arrive at your screen or telephone 15 minutes early, as you would normally, even for virtual coaching.

Role model self-care and appropriate boundaries. That means being fed and watered. Not slurping an unfinished mug of tea or washing up a cereal bowl in the background. Get dressed – baggy jogging bottoms look as if you don’t care.

In leadership, everything you do and everything you don’t do, sends a signal. The same applies to coaches. Curate the background of your Zoom or Skype call so that you appear calm not chaotic. Sit up straight. Be poised but not stiff. As you breathe out, let your shoulder blades slide down your back towards your waist. Be ready to begin. Be ready to just be.

Riveted detachment

Former head of coaching at the BBC, Liz Macann, encourages listening with ‘riveted detachment’. This means giving the coaching client your full attention, yet not being sucked in by their story. Put aside email alerts, or group Whatsapps. Discard anything that pings or distracts, interrupts the quality of your presence. Quarantine your fears around coronavirus and coping with lockdown. Have good boundaries and keep them, so that you can be psychologically ‘available’ to your client.

Coaching with backbone and heart

Your goal as a coach is not to solve issues, but rather to create a peaceful thinking space, as your client unfurls the many difficult feelings and thoughts that may be swirling around for them right now. Some of these may echo how you are feeling too, but the coaching space is not about you – it’s about them.

I greatly admire the work of Nancy Kline whose approach offers quiet, still, unrushed listening. She argues that the quality of your listening directly correlates with the quality of the other person’s thinking. The best thinking comes from being offered relaxed listening, so listen with ease. Create a gentle, spacious coaching space, rather than a go-perform, high speed, high expectation environment.

Appreciation versus criticism

Remember and perhaps remind your clients of the 5:1 ratio. This means you offer five pieces of appreciation for every one piece of criticism.

Ask yourself whether you are listening to understand, with no particular end in mind or whether in fact, you are listening to jump in with a clever insight. Or are you formulating your next question whilst the other person is still talking. Do you interrupt? If you notice you’re rushing your client to think faster, you may also notice they begin to stutter. It takes them far longer to get to the point. Be still and don’t push.

Valuing silences

Hold the silence. Silences are rarely as long as they feel. This is when people are thinking. You are here to enable new thinking and better thinking. What we need in this unprecedented national and global crisis is new thinking. High quality thinking. Innovative thinking. Coaches have the potential to enable that. People are more creative and resourceful when their ideas are held for them, rather than judged. Remember the psychological containment basket?

Whilst writing this piece, I notice how directive I am being. Throughout I appear to be issuing instructions in a frankly rather bossy manner. I think this reflects an intention to offer a straightforward, practical listening refresher. This is more coach training, than coaching. As a psychoanalytically informed coach, I like to dip beneath the surface, to be curious about the deeper meaning of all this.

My theory is that being so directive may be a response to the current emergent and emergency of pandemic, a desire for instruction, for certainty and a yearning to know what’s going to happen. We want control. We want to know that this will soon be over, or at least some form of hope or fantasy that taking the right measures now will help quash this disease.

Beneath the surface

I offer this reflection, along with some beneath the surface themes (listed below), in order to support coaches and leaders shepherding others through crisis. I also invite you to investigate likewise. What do you notice about yourself right now?

Listening and presence reminders:

  • Arrive in the coaching space in good time.
  • Breathe into the space.
  • Create a relaxed, unrushed environment.
  • Focus on being fully present.
  • Calm the noise of external stimuli and interruptions.
  • 5:1 appreciation to criticism ratio.
  • Listen with ease.
  • Listen without interrupting.
  • Listen with riveted detachment.
  • Do not rush your client’s thinking.
  • Let them finish what they are saying.
  • Create a spacious, relaxed, stillness.
  • Hold the silences.

Beneath the surface themes for reflective learning:

  • Emergent
  • Emergency
  • Containment
  • Being bossy and directive
  • Yearning for certainty
  • Wanting instruction
  • Obeying instruction
  • Lockdown
  • Control
  • Fantasy
  • Hope

Duty of care caveat: This article shares ideas and suggestions but does not represent official advice. Individuals need to make appropriate decisions in relation to their safety, health and psychological wellbeing, according to the latest medical and scientific knowledge in their locale and from government or the NHS.

Rachel Ellison book cover

Rachel Ellison MBE is a former BBC news reporter, now executive leadership coach. She 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. Visit www.rachelellison.com

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