Cozying Up To The Conversation On Intimacy
This past Valentine’s Day, Certified Life Coaching Institute comes together to discuss a timely topic: intimacy. What might intimacy mean in coaching? Being physically close with clients? Having the types of relationships that we might think about in the lens of Valentine’s Day? Or something else altogether?
Join us at CLCI while Brooke Adair Walters (ACC), Jerome LeDuff Jr (MCLC), Anthony Lopez (MCPC), Lisa Finck (PCC), and Jen Long (MCPC) talk through what it means to see intimacy in the coaching world.
What is Intimacy?
Intimacy could mean many things, but all definitions involve a core of closeness.
In the coaching world, we might think of intimacy and couples coaches. But what about others? Spiritual coaches? Business coaches? Creativity coaches? Any life coach? Here’s a bold claim: intimacy has its place in life coaching of all kinds.
Let's consider for a moment that there could be more than one type of intimacy. Carmen Cusido from PsychCentral proposes that there are four types of intimacy:
All of it involves a feeling of being “close” with another on the different levels that compose the whole individual. And coaching will involve this sense of being close, whether that be through Zoom or in person.
Intimacy comes with trust. Trust comes with respect. When we feel we are being respected by another, we are more willing to open up to them. We trust them more to not hurt us with the vulnerability we offer. There needs to be this feeling of safety before a client opens up to their coach.
MFT John Amodeo writes about this in an article on The Essential Ingredient for True Intimacy for Psychology Today:
Feeling emotionally safe frees us to share our feelings, thoughts, and desires without an intimacy-stifling fear.
What then acts to prevent this feeling of emotional safety?
The subtle or not-so-subtle ways we blame, criticize, and shame people are kryptonite to intimacy
A coaching space that does not make the client feel emotionally safe will be counterintuitive to productive sessions. At the core of feeling emotionally safe is a sense of trust in the coach and feeling that the coach respects them. From this, the client can become more intimate, in the session, with their conversation, and with themselves.
Trust has been described as perhaps the most important ingredient for the development and maintenance of happy, well-functioning relationships.
This sounds like common sense when we consider our personal relationships. Of course we would rather spend our time and energy with people we trust! But the same goes for professional relationships and consider, for a moment, how vulnerable some professional relationships can make one of the involved parties.
Researchers in 2020 wanted to uncover the reasons why a patient in a clinical therapy setting might not open up to their new therapists. Frontiers in Psychology shared these findings and, while specifically about the relationship between patient and therapist (not life coach!), it is interesting to note what was found to hold most people back from being vulnerable: “The participants held back because they feared different consequences of opening up.”
Consequences. Our own vulnerability turned back around to hurt us.
In coaching, we often encourage clients to be open with us and themselves, but our own reactions to a moment of vulnerability could either foster more intimacy or do the opposite!
Consider a client who expresses that they would like to quit their new job, despite having worked for some time to be hired for it. What is their reason? What emotions are leading this declaration? They might not even know at the moment, but could find that answer through conversation with you, their coach. You can tell they are upset, despite phrasing quitting as something they would “like” to do.
Responding by going into planning mode and questioning how they are going to begin this process of quitting may be read poorly by the client. While this response it may be sound strategically, it isn’t emotionally relevant. It’s keeping the conversation surface level while they are boiling over inside.
Contrast this with a session where your client has begun to talk about a hypothetical hiking trip they would like to take, but think they have no time for. A coach that smiles as they smile, that reflects their joy and excitement when they perk up to describe this trip, has given a more intimate response.
Which coach would you feel safer opening up to, as the client?
Establishing An Emotional Safe Space
We can actually begin trying to influence client intimacy before even beginning a session.
For some coaches, it could start in marketing. This would depend on what brand of coaching you’ve been offering, but being authentic and even vulnerable yourself in your marketing can inspire trust in interested clients.
By doing so, you can demonstrate to clients that your sessions together won’t just be surface level. You will be going deeper.
And of course there is the coaching contract. Confidentiality is an absolute must as a coach, and you can stress how seriously you take it. Remember, most of us fear opening up because of the potential consequences. We fear being hurt. Confidentiality is a promise that whatever vulnerabilities a client entrusts to their coach, it won’t leave the room without permission (this is barring instances where confidentiality does not apply, such as someone being a danger to themselves or others). An emphasis on this promise is like extending a hand: there can be intimacy in the coaching to come, but it is all on you, the client’s, timing. You direct this show. You take the hand when you want to.
A final important piece is to not rush a client. Rushing on either end can lead to clients shutting down, rather than opening up. Just be respectful of your client as a person, be respectful to their boundaries, and be as human as they are. It's easier to feel safe and comfortable in a new space when the owner of that space is comfortable with it too.
Everyone could use a listening ear who won’t shame, blame or dismiss them. Needing to feel close, whether literally, intellectually, emotionally or spiritually, is an inescapable part of being human, and our clients will be no exceptions.
Brooke Adair Walters (ACC), Jerome LeDuff Jr (MCLC), Anthony Lopez (MCPC), Lisa Finck (PCC), and Jen Long (MCPC)!
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