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Coaching Below the Surface

By Martha Lasley, Virginia Kellogg,
Richard Michaels & Sharon Brown

Coaching for Transformation
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When we work only with what people think, we see only the tip of the iceberg. Working with emotions melts old ways of thinking and brings surprising insights to the surface. Emotions hold the key to motivation because they arise from our needs. We feel happy or thrilled when our needs are met, and angry, afraid, sad, or ashamed when our needs are not met. Too often people ignore how they feel or want to change how they feel without recognizing the needs connected to their feelings. Many of us try to push emotions away to avoid being perceived as needy or overly-emotional. Instead of treating emotions as something to get over, when we acknowledge the beauty of the emotions, we turn the soil over, develop fertile ground, and create opportunities for the seedlings to emerge.

We can help people explore what is under the surface and learn from their emotions. When we support them by staying with their emotional reactions, they can allow themselves the freedom to fully experience and express what they are feeling. They become free to more readily access their creativity and integrate their experience and choices in a more meaningful way.

Staying present helps us become available to emotions. Just as a lightning rod channels the currents of electricity so it is not destructive, our body has the capacity to digest emotions that create distress. The first key to working with the realm of emotions is to breathe and remind ourselves that we do not have to save the person, supply the answer, or change their experience. On the contrary, we can help people experience the full range of emotions. Sometimes people have a more difficult time being with joy and fulfillment than with sadness or anger. To help them step into all of it, we can ask them about what they notice, breathe deeply, and pay attention to the energy.

Because of our need for harmony, it’s not uncommon to want to de-escalate emotions. When I attended a workshop with Roger Schwarz, author of The Skilled Facilitator, he explained that when people get emotional, most beginner facilitators would say, “Let’s take a break.” Skilled facilitators will know they’ve hit pay dirt because it means people are talking about what’s really important.

To create safety for exploration of emotions, we accept and trust in the inherent wholeness of each person. When we listen with our hearts, relax, and communicate that we care, we create an atmosphere of safety. Staying curious without interpreting increases the sense of safety. The people in the group are whole and do not need fixing, so resist the temptation to make it all smooth. Substantive movement comes from self-awareness and direct experience more than thinking your way out of feelings or challenges.


Coaching is life-changing, world-changing work. The coaching programs at Leadership that Works go beyond theories and models and work with clients on a deeper level. You learn how to coach the whole person: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Whole person Transformation.

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