To Bear Witness
Holding space for distress and pain.
“There’s always pain in the room” ~ Peter Frost
There is no shortage of suffering. Whether one is wrestling with economic and financial concerns, carrying the weight of caregiving, or navigating an experience of loss, pain is among us. Always.
While existential thinkers have acknowledged the great paradoxes that shape our lives, many of us, mostly in an effort to protect ourselves, retreat from seeing the existential facets which accompany the human experience. We hide and numb ourselves from the discomfort of considering our place in the world. We grapple with our sense of meaning and purpose. We struggle with feelings of isolation and disconnection.
Now, this avoidance occurs both internally and externally. Just as I may quickly press “next” on the latest Netflix show or scroll through Instagram reels to distract my attention from my inner discomfort, I can also create barriers with others. Perhaps I move quickly to the “tasks” without checking in, or I offer a quick solace (“Don’t worry, just look on the bright side!”) when you mention having a tough week.
As humanity’s difficulties continue to permeate our everyday lives, there is significant risk if the struggles and pain are not tended to. I worry about the impact of not making space for suffering. What may become the broader consequences, in our workplaces and communities, if we pass over opportunities for compassion and connection.
“When the effect is such that people feel stripped of their hope, self-esteem or confidence, the likely consequence is that people will become disconnected from what is going on at work, become obsessive about their pain, the source of it, and how others are responding.” ~ Peter Frost
What does it mean to truly see the suffering that others carry?
Many scholars have examined who supports others through suffering, and how. In the area of post-traumatic growth, Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhounidentified the role of ‘expert companions’ whose focus is on being with someone in their journey towards healing after trauma experiences. An expert companion could be anyone, including a friend or family member, and the emphasis is on being proficient as a companion (as opposed to holding expertise in navigating trauma).
The late Peter Frost also conveyed the value of ‘toxin handlers’ in organizations, who recognize and help process the emotional pain of others in the workplace. Similar to expert companions, many people can fulfill this type of role. Frost suggests that “what these people have in common is a capacity for empathy and a willingness to act to try to address pain and suffering in others”.
To me, this indicates an incredible potential for workplaces to build capacity in being willing to see and be with the suffering that is ever-present and often surfaces in all sorts of complicated ways.
So how does this materialize? How do individuals, teams, and organizations build the necessary capacity?
As a coach working in healthcare, where widespread effects of the pandemic continue to manifest, I feel a deep sense of privilege in walking alongside leaders who share their stories and experiences with me. I consider it a great honour to offer space for those who are present and tend to many of the highest highs and lowest lows as people interact with healthcare services throughout their lives.
Through this, I’ve invested a great deal of time reflecting on my role in serving those who are experiencing the strains of working in healthcare, and how to generate more spaces and interactions beyond the coaching relationship for people to disclose and acknowledge the struggles, sacrifices, and successes (yes, even those can be difficult to share!).
These reflections are especially salient as I embark on a journey with Trauma-Informed Coaching. I notice a desire to describe comprehensive guidance in how to build organizational capacity. I also recognize I am a learner in this space, and suspect this line of inquiry will be one I continue to travel for many years to come. In effort to share what’s emerged from my reflections thus far and seek perspectives from other brilliant minds in this space, I’d like to offer a few initial thoughts and practices that have served me:
1) Become willing to see
The first step in generating compassion is being able to notice the presence of pain. It involves being able and willing to see the suffering in you which, to some degree, also means I need to develop an ability to confront my own pain. I can't see your struggles if I don't also recognize some of the same difficulties in me.
In reconciling my own relationship to suffering, I am reminded of a period of personal struggle some time ago when I came across Scott M. Peck’s words “A full life will be full of pain. But the only alternative is not to live fully or not to live at all”These words instilled a belief in me that while the pain was truly awful, it meant I was here. Alive and capable. I desired the full life; one of immense joy. I recognized that in order to achieve that, I needed to find ways to practice equanimity with life’s darker companions of loss and suffering.
This lesson has proved invaluable in my journey, both personally and professionally. While I’ve certainly had my fair share of wishing to rid myself and others of hardships and difficulties, I’ve also found a deep sense of appreciation for the role of sorrow in our lives. This not to say that suffering and trauma are reframed as "good”, but in Frankl’s words: “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning". Among difficulty becomes possibility for transformation.
As someone discloses their suffering, do you move away from or closer to them?
A wise leader recently introduced me to the Zulu practice of ‘Sawubona’, which is a greeting that translates to “I see you”. It conveys a message that the speaker values and witnesses the entirety of the person in front of them: the beautiful, the complex, and the exquisitely messy. In practice, this bears to mind a deep honouring and appreciation of each person and their unique qualities and experiences. It indicates an opening for a different type of connection and interaction, where one can express vulnerability. Even when not explicitly knowing others’ experiences, holding an awareness that in any interaction the person in front of you could be carrying a heaviness that accompanies each and every step allows space for compassion and grace to emerge.
2) Holding space
A beneficial aspect of expert companionship is that you do not need to solve someone’s suffering. I find this both a relief and incredibly empowering, particularly as I support people through very complex challenges that neither of us may have the complete ability to resolve. Instead, who I am can provide the scaffolding from which processing and transformation can occur.
In holding space, three facets emerge:
Presence: one’s ability to fully be with another. In focusing wholeheartedly to the person before you with mindful attunement, a quality of listening emerges.
Bracketing: suspending my own worldview, my own problems, and my own interpretations to truly seek to understand the experience of the other.
Responsiveness: this involves letting go of “arriving somewhere” and being willing to meet the other person where they are in the moment. In coaching, this is often referred to as “dancing in the moment” and requires a certain degree of comfort in the realm of uncertainty.
Opportunities for disclosure and human-to-human connection serve crucial needs. My research on group coaching (in press) suggests the significance of places that act as a ‘safe haven’ to explore one’s current experiences. Holding space for others in their struggles can happen in formal settings, such as in coaching, or during informal interactions, like a meeting with a colleague. Where do you offer a harbour for others to rest from the storm?
3) Nourishing self
As one bears witnesses to suffering, there can be the potential to take on the pain of others. A person’s disclosure and expression of pain can evoke resonance and a reaction for their companion, reducing the ability to be present and potentially igniting secondary spirals.
It’s essential to know what sustains our ability to be with others. What keeps us grounded and refueled to continue seeing the fullness of others, and minimizes occurrences of compassion fatigue.
Here are a few elements I’ve been drawing upon recently:
Grounding: From a few mindful breaths to extended meditations, being able to calm my body and mind is vital. In the moment, these practices help me tune in to what’s emerging and refocus on the other when I sense my own heightened emotions. Over time, I sense a strengthening of my capacity for equanimity and holding myself and others resourceful and whole. A couple of valuable resources include Kristin Neff’s library of guided practices and Wendy Palmer’s simple yet profound 'Centering Practice’.
“When you breathe in, your mind comes back to your body. And then you become fully aware that you’re alive, that you are a miracle and everything you touch could be a miracle — the orange in your hand, the blue sky, the face of a child … And that is a miracle because you know the role that suffering plays in life. And you are not trying to run away from suffering anymore.”
— Thich Nhat Hahn, in the On Being episode “Being Peace in a World of Trauma”
Foster Community: In acknowledging the value of companionship, I have also benefitted from turning toward others who offer generous wisdom and care. From beloved friends who ask thoughtful questions to the dear Coaching Community of Practice members who gather in reflective connection, I receive a well of nourishment for which I am deeply grateful .
Recovery: Engaging in joyful activities offers the mind and heart space for rest and rejuvenation. For me, this includes wanders in nature, marveling at the wonders of toddlerhood, and spending quality time with loved ones. Lately, I’ve also found the incredibly meditative capabilities that exist with knitting (knit, purl, knit, purl…).
As Fred Rogers shared in his moving acceptance speech: “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being”.
I am in awe of the sacred beauty and possibility that exists when we tap into our common humanity, foster grace for what is, and choose deeply intentional ways of being. It’s not an easy road to travel, but, in my mind, it’s well worth it.
Much love to all of you who share your hearts and souls in service of others.
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Wong, P. T. P. (2010). What is existential positive psychology? International Journal of Existential Psychology & Psychotherapy, 3(1), http://www.drpaulwong.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/what-is-existential-positive-psychology.pdf
Frost, P. J. (2003). Emotions in the workplace and the important role of toxin handlers. Ivey Business Journal.
Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327965pli1501_01
Frost, P. J. (2003). Emotions in the workplace and the important role of toxin handlers. Ivey Business Journal.
Worline, M. & Dutton, J. E. (2017). Awakening compassion at work. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Peck, M. S. (1979). The road less traveled: A new psychology of love, traditional values, and spiritual growth. Simon and Schuster.
Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. Beacon Press.
Jacob, Y. (2019). An introduction to existential coaching: How philosophy can help your clients live with greater awareness, courage and ownership (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429432330