I started exploring the world and my work as a coach through the lens of being a Highly Sensitive Person about two years ago. I was fascinated to see how what I had felt as my “difference” found a home in this concept and in the community of Highly Sensitive People (HSP).
Along the way, I’ve had so many “ah, this makes sense now” moments and, partly because of this, I’ve become interested in working with others who have this trait.
There isn’t a great deal of literature on the HSP trait and I haven’t been able to find anything on being an HSP coach, even though this trait is certainly over-represented within the coaching community.
I want to change this and I aim to bring a supervisory lens to what it means to be an HSP in coaching.
I have explored the HSP trait as an HSP myself, through coaching and therapy; as a coach – working with clients who have this trait; and now, as a supervisor – working with other coaches who are also HSP.
I believe this first-hand experience of the HSP trait in the coaching and supervisory space gives me a unique, multi-layered perspective on what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person in coaching, and how we can nurture the innate strengths of this personality trait.
But what do I even mean by highly-sensitive people, how does a highly-sensitive coach work and what does a supervisor need to understand to work more effectively with them?
Growing up as a Highly Sensitive Person isn’t easy. Especially when you don’t know about the existence of this trait and you can’t quite understand why you feel different or out of place.
As is true for many HSPs, I have learned about this trait at a moment when I needed it the most – at a time when I was struggling because of it. Understanding it has helped me take measures to calm my overstimulated nervous system at the time and to work towards finding balance in my life – a journey I’m still undertaking (though now, with a lot more ease and awareness than before). The Highly Sensitive trait refers to an increased or deeper sensitivity in the central nervous system to physical, emotional or social stimuli.
In my multi-layered process of exploring the HSP trait, I have honed in on 5 key characteristics of the Highly Sensitive Coach.
In my experience as a supervisor, these characteristics represent the biggest opportunity for HSP coaches to offer powerful transformations to their clients, in a way that honours themselves and their natural abilities. However, these skills are double-edged swords, because within them they contain the light and the dark aspects of those skills. An HSP coach who understands and is able to integrate the duality of these 5 key skills I believe is able to become a catalyst for truly powerful transformations for their clients.
In exploring these 5 skills, I will be taking a supervisory lens. The reason for this is because supervision, I believe, is like “coaching on steroids”: on one hand, there is nowhere to hide in the supervision space; on the other hand, in supervision, one can become the conduit for a coach’s experience which, combined with the high sensitivity trait can lead to an experience which I can only describe as “becoming one” with the person on the other end of the call.
The 5 key characteristics I’ll be exploring are:
- Inner Work
- Sensing the Subtle
I remember asking myself this question at the beginning of my coaching journey:
“What is the difference between intuition and assumption?”
Intuition is vague. You can’t touch it, pick it up, measure it and offer data to evidence the effective use of intuition.
However, one common dictionary definition seems to be: “the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning”.
I don’t fully agree with this definition because it may be apparent that there is no reasoning contributing to this, but in fact, in my personal study of intuition, I have found that it is based on an internal process that stems from an ability to see patterns. In my experience, intuitive people see the world in patterns and they are able to take a seemingly unrelated pattern and apply it in a new situation. This is why the majority of innovators tend to be intuitive personalities.
Jungian typology has helped me understand intuition in a more specific and rigorous way. The most common personality typing tool using the Jungian typology is MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator). Although this tool is controversial because it has often been misused particularly in organisations and decision-making, for me it creates a foundation to understanding the deeper aspects of being an HSP. According to research done by Dr. Elaine Aron and other academics who studied this trait, most Highly Sensitive People tend to be NF personality types (Intuitive Feelers): INFPs, INFJs, ENFJs, ENFPs.
This is the reason why intuition plays such a big part in the HSPs life, and more so in an HSPs coaching style. When combined with the function of Feeling, Intuition takes a very caring, nurturing and emotional expression. Most HSPs would describe themselves as caring and wanting to be of service – which is perhaps the reason why many HSPs naturally make their way into the coaching space or other helping professions.
To answer the question between intuition and assumption, I often reflected on my coaching and the results of pursuing my intuition. My biggest findings related to intuition in coaching are:
a) Your intuition is not the destination, but the starting point.
In the beginning of my coaching journey, whenever I had an intuition I used to become very attached to it, wanting to bring it into the space, leading the session based on my intuition and wanting to help the client see what I am seeing. I’d give myself bonus points if I could do it without asking leading questions.
I spent a lot of time using trial-and-error approaches to exploring and nurturing my intuition. Sometimes (ok, very often) I got it wrong, and occasionally I got it right. The more I started getting this data in, the more I was able to reduce the amount times when I got it wrong, and increase my effective use of it.
The most effective way of using your intuition is to let it guide your curiosity. This is what I mean by “intuition is not the destination”. Just because you have an intuition, doesn’t make it right – and even if it is, clients may not always be ready to hear or receive it. What I mean by this is that we need to meet our clients where they are, and we cannot rush their process or do the journey for them. That is interference with our clients’ journey, or what Michael Brown would describe as “picking someone else up to carry them – when you put them down again, the moment their feet touch the ground, they will be back in the spot where you picked them up from.”
b) If you have an intuition, set it free.
Knowing when to let go is key in nurturing our intuition. I found that when I had a flash of insight related to my client, I immediately wanted to bring it into space. And that doesn’t always work – the client might change the subject and you never get to share your intuition.
This, in my experience, is the fastest way to become attached to your intuition and therefore separate from your client and lose presence. The best way to handle these situations is to trust the process – trust that if this trail is meant to be pursued, it will come back in the session or at the right time. By learning to trust the process in this way, I have been able to allow insights or hunches to disappear. I needn’t hold onto them tightly, because they will come back anyway if they are meant to be explored.
c) Your “stuff” can interfere with your intuition
I cannot stress this point enough. In my quest to uncover the difference between intuition and assumption, I’ve found this point to be the key differentiator. It’s so important to be able to stay clean in the coaching space – by that I mean unobstructed by feelings or beliefs/judgements about my clients (whether positive or negative). Projection is such a common occurrence in the coaching space, and it can very easily show up both ways. Projection is also what can lead us to make assumptions about our clients which may not be accurate.
So if you’re noticing any strong preferences or projections in the coaching space, I recommend bringing them to supervision to explore them so you can “clean” your intuition and allow it to support you rather than hinder you.
2. Sensing the Subtle
Dr Elaine Aron who coined the term of Highly Sensitive Person and researched it, found that Sensing the Subtle is one of the 4 key characteristics of the HSP trait.
Sensing the Subtle refers to our ability to notice things that other people may miss, such as subtle changes in the environment or in another person’s energy, posture or non-verbal cues. HSPs are often aware of people’s needs before they even get the chance to verbalise them. Of course, this characteristic is very useful in coaching, but also has a downside in that we can easily become overstimulated and drained because our brains are processing a large amount of information.
This is a skill that benefits the coaching space hugely, which is why combining coaching with approaches like Gestalt or mindfulness and working with what is present in the space can support the client to have shifts on a much deeper and more integrated level. In my supervision, I model for coaches and encourage them to pay attention to subtle shifts in body language and non-verbal cues, and offer them back to the client. This is where I see one of the biggest opportunities for HSP coaches to be courageous in the space by naming those subtle things they notice.
If we think of the Johari Window, the Blind Spots quadrant represents things that are unknown to our client, but known (or noticed) by us. Our biggest opportunity as coaches in general, and as HSPs in particular, is to help our client uncover their blind spots by helping them become aware of their blind spots through subtle behavioural cues.
Of course, the ability to sense the subtle, also makes us more prone to become overstimulated and drained. Taking care of our energy is essential so when we show up in the coaching relationship we are clear and spacious to take in these subtleties and offer them to our clients.
Empathy, in a nutshell, is the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. Of course, empathy is not unique to HSPs, but in combination with depth of processing and sensing the subtle, empathy can and often does take a whole new level of depth for the Highly Sensitive Coach.
The ability to see the world through our clients’ eyes makes a big difference when we’re taking this journey together with them. Empathy allows us to understand and feel a lot more than what our clients are saying, and combined with intuition it gives a pretty good “feel” of our clients’ challenges even when they aren’t entirely verbalised.
Unlike other skills of the Highly Sensitive Coach, in my experience empathy is very well developed in most (if not all) HSP coaches, and the opportunity here is often not to grow or develop our empathy further, but to boundary it.
The shadow side of empathy tends to show up much more often in the supervision space because HSP coaches often tend to absorb people’s emotions and “take their work home” which can be draining for the coach’s energy and ability to stay present and detached. This trait also makes coaches more likely to change their behaviour as a coach in the relationship, either by becoming overly attached to “helping” the client, getting results for them, or by entering games in the coaching space.
In my experience working with the Drama Triangle, I have noticed that HSP coaches have a tendency towards a default position as a Rescuer. Of course, through our coach training and our supervision, we are able to stay anchored in our Adult ego state and not join into games such as Rescuer-Victim.
However, very often clients come to us in a Child or Victim state. That’s often the reality of coaching: clients only ask for support when it’s become too difficult or challenging for them to handle their issues themselves and need external help. Therefore, for HSP coaches who have a high degree of empathy, it’s very important to become aware of the higher risk of being invited, or being more prone, to take the role of Nurturing Parent or Rescuer in the coaching relationship.
This game-playing in the coaching relationship can have a significant impact on the balance of “power” in the space and can lead to disempowering the client. Some signals for this imbalance in the coaching space are:
- When the client keeps saying “I don’t know”
- When the client seems to seek approval from the coach
- When there is an unspoken “expectation” or desire for the coach to help or provide answers for the client
This dynamic is even more obvious in the supervision space where there is an element of mentoring and guidance, and it’s very common for coaches to present in a Child ego state. I have found it very useful to name what I’m experiencing in the space. This simple awareness and putting it on the table can be enough to enable the client to notice where they are giving power away, and take it back.
Because of the high level of empathy in the Highly Sensitive Coach, it’s common for boundaries to become blurry. Very often, coaches don’t even notice that boundaries have been crossed until they come to supervision because of coaching relationships that create some level of discomfort for the coach.
I have found that some signals that flag potential blurred boundaries can be:
- Feeling annoyed, angry or resentful towards the client
- Feeling worried about the client
- Feeling a compulsion to provide answers/advice or exit the coaching space, under the guise of “providing value” for the client
- An inability to “let go” of the content of a session and ruminating over clients’ challenges and how we might support them
- A strong sense of responsibility (or over-responsibility) for the client
Especially for coaches with a deep level of empathy, boundaries can be difficult to maintain or even set. I have found that a sense of over-responsibility is one of the most common challenges faced by HSP coaches when we explored this in supervision. Looking at ego states or the drama triangle usually enables coaches to notice where they are giving (or taking) power and that in itself can be sufficient for the coach to rebalance this. However, often I have found that further exploration needs to be done in supervision and that bringing the specific cases to supervision allows the coach to shine a light on how this over-responsibility shows up. Self-reflection and looking at the drama triangle or the PAC model is sometimes not enough to overcome these patterns as sometimes they are deeply embedded in the coach’s psyche and shining a light on them can be a process of discovery rather than one singular lightbulb moment.
5. Inner Work
I am deeply passionate about the unique characteristics of the Highly Sensitive Person, as I am about understanding the duality within us and integrating it. With every day and every client, I feel more in awe of how our biggest struggles as HSPs can also be our biggest opportunities.
This is the reason I’ve left the most important opportunity last – because all previous skills and characteristics of the Highly Sensitive Coach are surrounded and held by the space of inner work we do on ourselves.
Gene Mauch, an American Football player and manager, said: “You can’t take someone else further than you have gone yourself”. I would also add, you can’t take someone else deeper than you have gone yourself.
Because awareness of the HSP trait is still emerging, many of us grew up believing we are different or that we don’t fit in, because of the way we interact with the world due to our trait. Unless we’ve had an upbringing where our HSP nature was honoured and celebrated, it’s highly possible for many HSPs to have experienced many parts of their life’s journey as a traumatic experience. This is also the reason why some of our biggest skills as HSPs can show up in their shadow aspect.
I don’t see these shadow aspects as something bad or something to be afraid of. On the contrary, I see them as the biggest opportunity for our own growth. Our own growth isn’t just a necessity for our personal well-being, but also as the biggest gift we can offer to our clients as coaches and supervisors.
I sometimes speak with fellow coaches who take pride in their ability to coach themselves. I believe this is an essential ability (and dedication) to furthering our own work by being self-reflective on our coaching skills and constantly grow. At the same time, in my view, must come in balance with external support (whether in the form of coaching, therapy or another approach), for two essential reasons:
We see the world (outside and within us) through our mindset. Our mindset is the sum of experiences, history and potential within us. This is why I believe it’s not possible to overcome challenges with the same mindset where they were created.
The experience of mirroring and being in the presence of an “other” (e.g. therapist) is essential in the process of alchemising problematic emotions and experiences. C. G. Jung said “the experience must be rehearsed in the presence of the doctor”. In relation to this quote, Donald Kalsched said “The presence of a witness to experience seems to be necessary to constellate that “otherness” which brings the psyche into being as a “third” factor.”
I am sure that as my work evolves, I will be delving deeper into what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Coach and how we can embrace our natural abilities as HSPs. I feel it’s also equally important to embrace what makes us unique, irrespective of any labels or concepts we identify as. I think of my life’s journey as 35 years to become something I’m not, and – God willing – I will be spending the next 35 (or more) becoming who I am. Understanding ourselves as HSPs is a lens we can take, like any other lens, like TA, Gestalt, Existentialism or Cognitive-Behavioural. I invite you to filter this through your own personal experience and take what is true for you.
Bibliography and further reading:
- Dr. Elaine Aron – The Highly Sensitive Person
- G. Jung – Psychological Types
- Donald Kalsched – Inner World of Trauma
- Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig – Power in the Helping Professions
- Michael Brown – The Presence Process