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  • Writer's picturedrdiannedowling

When shadows are cast

Coaching the shadows in a client’s life can be difficult and unexpected. We might witness unexpected behaviour when a client brings to the table something completely straightforward, like a career move or it could be triggered by a more serious life event such as a cancer diagnosis. When someone is ‘stuck’ it might be that unconscious feelings have arisen that are outside the conscious awareness of the client which affects the way they act. This can happen in the normal course of events and coaches should be ready to acknowledge these thoughts and patterns or behaviour.

Richard R Kilburg demonstrates how this comes into play in a coaching session with a company executive. This succinct account is acted out very powerfully in his paper: When Shadows Fall: Using Psychodynamic Approaches in Executive Coaching. Kilburg says in short: “...unconscious material in the form of past experience, emotional responses, defensive reactions, underlying and unresolved conflicts, and dysfunctional patterns of thinking and behaving can contribute to poor leadership and consequently to decreased organizational effectiveness”. With cancer patients, receiving a diagnosis can trigger other major life events that the client may have repressed.

So, what can coaches do when these unexpected behaviours occur in their coaching sessions?

Firstly, helping clients to become aware of their emotional intelligence is key, for example, noticing and understanding emotions in oneself is important – this applies to therapists and coaches too. Mindfulness meditation can also be encouraged as part of the coaching sessions. Noticing thoughts and feelings with no judgement or trying to solve matters helps clients to observe their emotions whilst not getting involved in the detail of that emotional experience.

The main task of a coach is to listen and note patterns of behaviour and to stay in the ‘here and now’ rather than slip back into the ‘there and then’ of a client’s past experiences.

For useful exercises in shadow side work and positive psychology toolkit, visit links below:


1.Charoensukmongkol, P. (2014). Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation on Emotional Intelligence, General Self-Efficacy, and Perceived Stress: Evidence from Thailand. Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 16, 171–192.

2.Davies, M., Stankov, L., & Roberts, R. D. (1998). Emotional intelligence: In search of an elusive construct. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 989-1015.

3.Feldman, G., Hayes, A., Kumar, S., Greeson, J., & Laurenceau, J.-P. (2007). Mindfulness and emotion regulation: The development and initial validation of the Cognitive and Affective Mindfulness Scale-Revised (CAMSR). Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 29, 177–190.


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