When a coachee or mentee reveals that they have a serious illness, such as cancer or clinical depression, it can be hard to know how best to react. You want to be sympathetic, supportive and helpful, but you know that your role doesn’t encompass helping them manage their illness. Coaches and mentors in this situation often report that they feel confused and unsure what to do. So here are some practical tips for maintaining the developmental focus of your conversations with them, while being appropriately supportive of their immediate needs.

  • When people feel overwhelmed by crisis, their whole perspective narrows. The illness and its implications (for them and for their dependents, if they have any) are all they can concentrate on on for a time. You can help by acknowledging their concerns and enabling them to articulate what it is that they most fear. Only when these fears are in the open, can they begin to manage them and develop coping strategies that will lessen their anxiety. In other words, when we have clarity about what we are up against, we have greater capacity to find ways to carry on with our lives. Useful questions here are:
    • What precisely are your fears for yourself/ for others?
    • What needs to happen for you to manage those fears and the situation?
    • What resources can you call upon from other people?
    • What resources can you call upon from within yourself?
  • Don’t expect the person to be aware of all the emotions they are feeling. They may be numb in shock, or some strong emotions may be temporarily smothering others. Give them time to think about how they are feeling. Be honest about your feelings and encourage them to do the same – a small investment in emotional honesty now will pay dividends later.
  • Be sensitive to when they are ready to move on emotionally and start to plan how to manage their life and their work in the new circumstances. A useful question is: “What do you need to do now or in the next few days to put you back in control of your life?”
  • Coming to terms with a major illness often causes people to question many of their deeply held assumptions, relating to identity, personal purpose and what’s important in their lives. It takes time for them to work these things through, so don’t be surprised, if they appear to vacillate and change their minds. This is all part of the process of coming to terms with atraumatic situation.
  • Although the person’s initial, instinctive response to the crisis may be that they have to give up on their coaching or mentoring goals, with reflection and support they often realise that having something aspirational to work towards is important, in terms of both helping to cope with their situation and, in many cases, as part of the cure. You can help them work out whether they really want to abandon their learning journey, or simply to slow it down, or to replace this learning journey with another that will captivate their imagination.
  • Mirroring their deep, negative emotions about themselves and their situation isn’t helpful. Neither is the opposite – trying to be desperately cheerful! When we react in either of these ways, we are typically trying to maintain our own emotional equilibrium, which has been disturbed by our empathy. It is not recommended to ask what the silver lining to the situation might be! However, you can ask though-provoking questions that direct the person to sources of their own resilience. For example:
    • What is there in your life that you can still find joy in?
    • What do you still deeply care about?
    • What could you still contribute to the world, no matter what happens?
  • Help them think through and rehearse conversations they need to have with other people – their boss, their colleagues, key family and friends and so on. Because these people will also often struggle to find an appropriate response, such conversations are vital in creating a fully supportive environment for them.
  • Ensure that they know where to go to for professional counselling and other, practical support and be careful not to step into that role yourself.
  • Be available when needed, at least in the early stages, but make it clear that this “on demand” availability is to help them through the period, while they establish a new equilibrium in their life.
  • Learn from the experience. Useful questions to ask yourself in quiet moments include:
    • How would I want to react, if something similar happened to me?
    • What support would I call upon?
    • How would I find the resilience I needed?

Your answers to yourself may also give you ideas on how to be more helpful to your coachee/ mentee. Remember that none of us know quite how we will react to personal crisis, but that thinking it through beforehand can help us move through the stages of grief more quickly and sure-footedly.

Also useful to read here is the article: What if…the coachee/ mentee is already receiving help from a counsellor or therapist?

© David Clutterbuck, 2016


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