A Trauma-Informed Coaching Model

The air was thick with the energy that my client radiated as she described her most recent interaction with her supervisor. Suddenly her voice trailed off and I noticed she was teleported into a meeting that occurred 10 years prior. As I listened intensely, I acknowledged the pain invoked by the traumatic flashback and supported her to move forward, inviting the examination of her own growth from that distant memory. The scene that I am describing is one that is familiar to many coaches who work with clients that have elevated levels of trauma.


“Psychological trauma involves experiences (witnessed or confronted) with extreme human suffering, severe bodily harm or injury, coercive exploitation or harassment, sexual violation, ethno violence, politically-based violence or immediate threat of death.” (Marcenich, 2009)


Trauma overwhelms our clients’ coping capacity and can limit their access to physical, emotional, intellectual or spiritual energy and power. The perception and impact of trauma varies greatly and many display a mix of survival responses including but not limited to:

  • Fight,
  • Flight,
  • Freeze,
  • Submit, or
  • Shut down non-essential tasks which means that rational thought is less possible.


As humans navigating life we have all experienced traumatic events and often the impact leaves a lasting impact on how we move through life. Using a 3-Phase trauma informed framework, we can assist clients to slow down, get curious, identify impact and determine next steps. During the first phase we work to create a safe and supportive environment. The second phase provides a space to pause, recognize and acknowledge the trauma. This includes an opportunity to discuss and determine additional mental health support. The third and final phase creates an opportunity to highlight and promote the resiliency and resourcefulness of the client, launching them into action.


During Phase 1 the coach supports the client by creating a coaching environment that promotes physical and emotional safety. To support physical safety, coaches assist clients to locate a space that is free from threat, harm or danger by partners, family, other consumers, visitors or staff. If coaching is conducted virtually the coach should engage the client to ensure they are in a space where they feel safe.

To support emotional safety, coaches start all coaching relationships with co-designed conscious community agreements. These agreements provide a space to identify strategies that support the client’s on-going emotional safety including; plans for good and rocky times, mental health history reviews, identifying support systems and planning for the client’s connection to community resources.


During Phase 2 the coach supports the client to recognize the impact of trauma on their everyday lives. Trauma often represents the place where many people have lost a part of themselves. By acknowledging trauma we are able to assist clients to reconnect with lost parts of themselves.

When trauma is triggered, we can support clients to pause and acknowledge the presence of pain, numbness, or confusion associated with trauma.

We can also support clients to move through a traumatic flashback (a temporary pause that transports the client back to the initial moment of trauma) by assisting them to connect and ground in the present moment.

Coaching assumes that the client is already high functioning and is capable of taking consistent action steps toward their life vision. Therefore if we notice that our clients’ trauma makes them unable to function at a level that supports moving toward their goals, we:

“Recognize when a referral might be indicated for psychotherapy and/or medical assessment. (see “When to Refer Clients for Mental Health Services” in Chapter 11)

Discern when a client is actually asking for counseling but prefers to call it “coaching.”

Understand how the intensity and longevity of blocks, ruts, and fears differ in high functioning people from blocks, ruts, and fears, from people who need psychotherapy to move beyond their stuck place.” (Benham, K. Fox, S. , 2002).


When supporting clients who have experienced trauma it is important to listen for behaviors that indicate a client might be suicidal. Active suicidal ideation involves an existing wish to die accompanied by a plan to carry out the death. Anyone who has or knows someone who has active suicidal ideation should call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately. Passive suicidal ideation involves a desire to die, but without a specific plan for carrying out the death.


When passive suicidal ideation is observed or indicated we support clients to develop a Safety Plan, a prioritized written list of coping strategies and sources of support for clients at risk for suicide.

It should identify any triggers that may lead to a suicidal crisis, such as an anniversary of a loss, alcohol, or stress from relationships. Also include contact numbers for the person’s doctor or therapist, as well as friends and family members who will help in an emergency. The basic components of the safety plan include:

1 Recognizing warning signs that are proximal to an impending suicidal crisis;

2 Assisting client to identify and employ their internal coping strategies;

3 Utilizing client contacts as a means of distraction from suicidal thoughts and urges. This includes going to healthy social settings, such as a coffee shop or place of worship or socializing with family members or others who may offer support without discussing suicidal thoughts;

4 Assisting client in contacting family members or friends who may help to resolve a crisis and with whom suicidal thoughts can be discussed;

5 Contacting mental health professionals or agencies; and

6 Assist clients to reduce the immediate potential for use of lethal means.


During Phase 3 the coach assists the client to reclaim the power lost during the traumatic experience by acknowledging their resiliency and resourcefulness. “Resiliency is the capability to cope successfully in the face of significant change, adversity, or risk. While resourcefulness is the ability to deal promptly and skillfully in new situations or during difficulties.” (Stewart et al.,1991 as cited by Greene and Conrad, 2002) To assist clients during this phase coaches should:

  • Hold the client’s agendas;
  • Pause to celebrate resiliency;
  • Recognize and build upon resourcefulness; and
  • Assist the client to reclaim power and take action toward their goals.
As we work through this model with our clients, we may experience second hand trauma ourselves. Good self-care is always imperative for coaches.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/ace/

Greene, R. R. (Ed.). (2002). Resiliency: An integrated approach to practice, policy, and research. Washington, D.C.: NASW Press.

Marcenich, L., (2010) Trauma Informed Care, Powerpoint Presentation, Available at: http:// smchealth.org/sites/default/fi les/docs/ LMarcenichPwrpt.pdf

Meinke, L., Top Ten Indicators to Refer a Client to a Mental Health Professional, Retrieved on May 7, 2015 from: www.coachcommunity.de/networks/fi les/ download.162283

Stanley, B. & Brown, G. K. (2008). Safety Planning: A Brief Intervention to Mitigate Suicide Risk. Submitted for publication. Retrieved on May 7, 2015 from: www. mentalhealth.va.gov/docs/VA_Safety_planning_ manual.doc

Written by Leslie Brown

Excerpt from Coaching for Transformation by Lasley, Kellogg, Michaels and Brown. 

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