How can we find a way of engaging with grace and knowing how to dis-engage with compassion?

When I trained as an Executive Coach, 17 years ago, we didn’t use the language of mental health and most of my clients wanted to keep emotions out of the conversation. Over the years of practice, and additional learning, I realise how naïve it is to imagine we can be our optimal selves without bringing our whole self to the moment.

I will come clean and be completely transparent I contract with my clients to work whole person, whole life. Yes, my clients are often partners in professional service firms, a higher % are male, successful, focussed, revenue orientated, and they recognise the pressure they and their teams are under. They seek ways of redressing the balance between organisation and individual demands/ needs.

My take on this is that if we each understand how we can stay in our window of presence, that place where we can adapt and adjust appropriately to what in happening in the moment, then we can all thrive. Working with someone who is not doing so well, supporting them to co-regulate is a real gift. It means we provide a secure base for them to find enough resourcefulness to take a step.  That may or may not be coaching and we can still have a human centred conversation.

Let me explain with a couple of case studies.

My client Ahmed, based in the middle east, high potential on a leadership programme and I was his coach. He’d created as part of an assessment a development plan which was laudable yet unlikely to be achieved. This was evident when I asked what might get in his way of achieving these goals. Pressure, too much work, too many competing demands, no break, no exercise, challenges at home with children and life partner. He struggled to stay present in the moment with me. He oscillated between high pressure, high stress, what if’s, I should, I need to and exhaustion. I’m done. He wasn’t in a state where learning was probable, and energy was low. Here was a classic case of organisational demands vs individuals’ wellbeing. The message he was telling himself was that the organisations need, the client’s needs came first.

Before I decided whether to carry on, I’d like you to be aware that I’m well equipped to have conversations relating to declining mental and emotional health.

  • I’ve trained in psychology to master’s level.
  • I know how to build and sustain wellbeing, mind, and body, including a nutrition coaching qualification alongside my others.
  • I teach and advocate mental health awareness, including suicide prevention, navigating the landscape, not a one-dimensional view.
  • I have trained to support people who are in crisis including suicidal.
  • I am a Trauma informed coach.
  • I have a counselling qualification.
  • I’m a mentor coach and assess coaches on a PCC level course.
  • I am a PCC Executive and wellness coach, accredited and qualified.
  • I have several relevant specific qualifications that support my work.
  • I have both clinical and “normal” supervision

These aren’t bragging rights; I’m saying I am well equipped to have conversations about declining mental health – and how to thrive! And I am clear that when I show up as a coach, I have boundaries, professional standards, and a way of being that ensures we are safe and connected. If one or both of us are unsafe, and we cannot connect in this moment, I am unlikely to coach this person now.

With Ahmed I went through a series of questions both to myself and some with him.

  • How ready, willing, and able was he to be coached?
  • How ready, willing, and able was I to be coach?
  • What, if anything, could we co-create in service of his goals?
  • What were mine, our, concerns about working together right now?
  • What did he need? What would serve that need?
  • Are we working within a window of presence or are we at the edges where a different intervention might be needed?

We had an open conversation where I wondered the impact the pressure and competing priorities was having as he looked at the development plan. We navigated together the landscape of what might need to happen first for the coaching to be impactful. We centred around his realisation that he wasn’t looking after himself at all. He recognised how this was a long-term pattern. He wanted change and wasn’t sure where to start. We agreed that we would focus on increasing his capacity by delegating, de-prioritising, and going back to the gym and work with a PT. We agreed to see if that made a difference for when we next met up with the possibility there might be other approaches that would serve him better.

What gave me comfort was that he could see that was happening and talk about it, explore it realistically, and openly. He stayed within the window of presence meaning he didn’t go to a fight or flight space, super anxious, irritated by it all, nor did he seem overwhelmed, low mood and stuck there. Yes, he seemed to have a lot going on and he wasn’t in a great place, yet we could plan, set milestones, create habits, and that we reasoned might be the steps he most needed at this time.

Caroline is another client who offered a different story.

She was struggling at work and making a lot of mistakes where previously had been one of the high performers. When her boss asked her about what was going on she said everything was fine. Our coaching was designed around supporting her in building her resilience through a lens of deep health. The organisation used a tool to look at multiple aspects of mental fitness and wellbeing, so they started there.

When I saw the results, it was evident here was someone who was barely coping day to day. You could see that the capacity to manage was being compromised and when I met her, I could see someone who was not in their window of presence. There was no here and now with us connecting around co-creating possibilities. The future looked bleak, the past was filled with blame and not taking responsibility for one’s own part in what was happening. In previous years I may have been sucked in and wanting to rescue. Feeling an empathy with someone struggling and needing to be seen and heard. Yet now I appreciate that whilst coaching can be spectacular, we need people to be coachable, to be able to look in on themselves in a whole and healthy way.

Going through those questions, I did not believe that creating a coaching contract at this stage was appropriate. It didn’t mean not ever, just not for now. I needed to think about how I dis-engaged. We spoke about what had changed for her. What was she feeling and experiencing. I shared that I was here to listen, and that for now let’s put coaching on pause while we create a resourcing way forward. We talked about what helps coaching to add value and how that might be unhelpful if you are seeking more guidance, and in need of being handheld rather than co-creating the space together. Sure, my knowledge, skill, experience all came to me in those moments. What was more important though was being there, in human connection, listening without passing judgement or advising. Exploring the impact of her feelings, and what was going on, just listening with the intention for her to be seen and heard.

When we can press pause during all the busy-ness, and connect human to human, in our window o presence, we will be what’s needed in the here and now.

To new coaches I would say:

  • Educate yourself around the landscape of health, including mental and emotional health.
  • Build your skills of presence, being in the moment, listening without needing to advise or pass judgement.
  • Find yourself a supervisor who can support you as you grow in your wisdom about this complex, yet simple subject.


This blog was written by Anne Archer, ICF PCC, MSc Psychology of Wellbeing, Trauma informed Coach, Supervisor and passionate advocate for smashing the stigma of mental health.

Read more blogs from Anne: Navigating the continuum of mental health in a coaching session