When you listen to teachers speak about challenges they’re facing in the classroom, how do you respond? In my model of transformational coaching, you can respond from a “directive” or “facilitative” stance. When you take a facilitative stance, you guide a client in his or her thinking. There are different ways you can facilitate this kind of reflection, and one of those is to take a “cathartic” approach. This term and approach come from the work of John Heron, an expert in the field of adult learning, counseling, and personal development.
What Is the Cathartic Approach?
The cathartic approach gives a coachee the space to release and express painful emotions such as a fear or failure, concerns about their competence, or feelings of frustration. If you’re working with a client who is struggling with difficult emotions—perhaps a teacher who received an unfavorable evaluation or a principal disappointed with the outcome of a recent staff meeting—this approach can be a powerful way to both validate and create self-awareness in your client. For coaches, the cathartic approach may initially seem intimidating (talking about feelings can be scary!) or just plain frustrating (it is process and not goal-oriented), but there are a few important reasons for using this approach when big emotions arise.
- Feelings affect actions. Consider the principal who was displeased with the training he provided at a recent staff meeting. In your conversation with the principal, it is clear that he is frustrated about the meeting. It might be helpful to ask, “I’m wondering what that felt like for you. Is that something we can talk about for a minute?” This is an invitation for the client to share disappointment, embarrassment, or annoyance about what happened during the staff meeting. Without processing these emotions in a coaching session, the principal risks displaying these emotions at the next staff meeting, resulting in unexpected (and likely, undesired) consequences. It’s important to remember that emotions affect how people perform their jobs and interact with others. Without clearing negative emotions, it will be difficult for your client to experience real change.
- Voicing emotions leads to deeper understanding. One cathartic exercise that is particularly useful is something called, echo processing. In this method, the coach invites the client to explore what they’re feeling by asking them to tell as much about the issue as possible. The coach might say, “Tell me everything. Don’t filter yourself as you speak. Talk as fast as possible.” Clients usually appreciate the opportunity to open up, and as they do, the coach takes notes, jotting down key phrases and ideas, but does not interrupt. Then, the coach reads backs the items just as the client said them, in the client’s voice (“I felt humiliated,” or “I was so mad!”). During this time, the client listens, hearing his/her own words spoken back. Finally, the coach asks reflective questions such as, “Was there anything you said that surprised you?” or “Did you come to any new awareness?” This can be a revelatory experience for the client. This process works because we often don’t know what we think or feel until we hear ourselves say it out loud. Understanding what we’re feeling is the first step in letting go and moving on.
- Affirmation is everything. Just as you need affirmation that your coaching is effective and meaningful, your clients need affirmation that you see and appreciate their effort and accomplishments. The cathartic approach ensures that your client feels listened to and validated, not just during trying times, but also in response to triumphs. Often, educators don’t get the chance to celebrate their accomplishments or share positive feelings about their work. Using echo processing--the process describe above--to flesh out a client’s feelings about positive emotions can go a long way in building a powerful and effective coaching relationship.
Next time you’re listening to a teacher describe a difficult class or express strong emotions, try using one of these cathartic strategies to validate their experiences, help them process the incident, and to release the strong emotions. Coaches are not therapists, but coaches often need to use strategies to address emotions.
Cathartic coaching helps a coachee release emotions. Photo by Elena Aguilar
The opinions expressed in The Art of Coaching Teachers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.