How to Coach Overwhelmed Clients: Adapting ICF Guidelines

As a coach following the International Coaching Federation (ICF) guidelines, you aim for a clear agenda, measurable criteria for success, and collaborative problem-solving to help clients identify the gap between their present and future. You want your client to have an aha moment! However, what you want might not align with the client’s capacity on some days. Whether or not they have ADHD, a client might arrive feeling overwhelmed, with thoughts racing a mile a minute. Here’s how rigidly following ICF guidelines could make things worse and what to do instead:

1. Pushing for Wins

Problem: Pushing for wins can increase their emotional distress when it doesn’t align with their current state.

  • Example: Ignoring statements about their feelings of overwhelm or saying, “Let’s focus on your wins from last week.”
  • Instead try: Modelling self-compassion and training clients to give them what they need in the moment before proceeding. “I hear that you’re feeling really overwhelmed right now. What if we take a moment to figure out what you need right now?”

2. Asking Open-Ended or Complex Questions

Problem: Open-ended or complex questions require the client to process and organize a lot of information, which can increase cognitive load.

  • Example: At times, even the question of “What would you like to focus on, work on, explore today?” can be overwhelming.
  • Instead try: Simplifying your inquiries to reduce cognitive load. “Would you like to spend 10 minutes unpacking what’s on your mind?”

3. Pushing for a Takeaway or Measurable Criteria for the Success of the Call

Problem: Pressuring the client to make decisions and narrow the focus of the call on the spot can heighten stress and cognitive overload.

  • Example: “What would you like to accomplish by the end of the call today?”
  • Instead try: Allowing the client time to process.
    • Example: “Let’s take our time to see what feels manageable today.”

4. Moving Too Quickly Through the Session

Problem: A fast-paced session can prevent the client from processing information and keeping up, exacerbating feelings of overwhelm.

  • Example: Quickly shifting from the importance of the topic to the thing behind the thing to creating a gap can be disarming for an overwhelmed client.
  • Instead try: Slowing down the pace of the session.
    • Example: “Let’s take one step at a time. We can pause and take a moment to reflect on each point before moving forward.”

5. Encouraging Deep Reflection Too Soon

Problem: Discussing multiple topics can scatter the client’s focus and add to their sense of chaos. This requires their already overwhelmed working memory to hold many more pieces of information.

  • Example: “Given that’s where you are now, where would you like to be?”
  • Instead try: Validating any intense, difficult, unpleasant emotions, breathing with the client, and making space for them to choose the next step. Co-regulate your nervous systems together; your calm will go a long way. The goal is to move towards a more tolerable present for your client before they can imagine a future.

6. Introducing Technical or Clinical Jargon

Problem: Using complicated terminology can confuse the client and make them feel more overwhelmed.

  • Example: Terms like “executive function deficits” or “amygdala hijack” without proper explanation can add to their cognitive burden.
  • Instead try: Using simple, understandable language.
    • Example: “You might be having trouble focusing and organizing your thoughts because you’re feeling very stressed right now.”

The above won’t work for everyone all the time. There are many things you can do instead, and it’s likely that you’re already doing them and will continue to get better. Validating their emotions, modeling calm, and engaging in mindfulness activities will go a long way, as will relieving any pressure or expectation for the client to show up in a certain way. Here’s one concrete way of moving forward—there are many.

Adjusted Coaching Session for Clients in Overwhelm

Welcome and Grounding:

  • Welcome the Client: Begin with a warm, empathetic greeting.
  • Grounding Exercise: Start with a short grounding exercise or mindfulness activity to help them center and calm their mind. This could be a few deep breaths, a brief meditation, or a simple body scan.

Gentle Check-In:

  • Simple Check-In: Ask a gentle, open-ended question to assess their current state, such as, “How are you feeling right now?” or “What’s present for you at this moment?”
  • Acknowledge Emotions: Validate their feelings and acknowledge the difficulty they are experiencing.

Simplify the Agenda Setting:

  • Focus on the Immediate: Instead of asking what they’d like to focus on for the session, ask, “What feels most urgent or pressing right now?” or “Is there something specific that’s been on your mind that we can talk about?”
  • Offer Suggestions: If they struggle to identify a topic, offer gentle suggestions based on what you know about their situation, such as, “Would it help to talk about ways to manage your current stress?” or “Should we explore some immediate steps to bring you a bit of relief?”

Clarify in Small Steps:

  • Break Down Questions: Instead of asking broad questions, break them down into smaller, more manageable ones. For example, “What’s one small thing that’s been particularly challenging today?” or “Can you think of one thing that might make you feel a little better right now?”
  • Use Yes/No or Either/Or Questions: Simplify choices by offering yes/no questions or presenting two options to reduce decision fatigue.
    • Example: “If by the end of our session you feel a bit more calm or have a small action step to try, would that feel helpful?”

Gentle Exploration:

  • Supportive Inquiry: Use supportive, gentle inquiry to explore their feelings and thoughts.
    • Example: “Would you like to spend a few minutes talking about what’s been most overwhelming for you?”
  • Reflective Listening: Reflect back what you hear to show understanding and to help them feel heard and validated.

Re-affirming collaboration

  • Check-ins: As the client calms down, you can integrate small check-ins and questions to re-affirm your ongoing, moment-to-moment collaboration
    • Example: We’ve spent 30 minutes unpacking X topic and have 30 minutes remaining…would you like to continue in this direction?

Creating a Calming Action Plan:

  • Immediate Actions: Focus on creating a simple, immediate action plan to help them manage their overwhelm. This could include strategies like taking breaks, engaging in a favourite activity, or using relaxation techniques.
  • Small Steps: Emphasize taking small, manageable steps rather than trying to solve everything at once.
    • Example: “Let’s identify one small thing you can do after our session that might help you feel a bit more in control.”

Ending with Reassurance:

  • Share Observations: End the session with reassurance and share observations that help them manage future overwhelm.
    • Example: “During this session, I watched you move from overwhelm to clarity. You did XYZ. What do you make of that?”
  • Encourage Self-Compassion: Encourage self-compassion and remind them that it’s okay to take things one step at a time.

Clients with ADHD are likely to show up overwhelmed at higher rates than those without. By adapting your approach to meet the client where they are, you can provide the support they need to transition from a state of overwhelm to a state of calm and focus, ensuring a more productive and positive coaching experience. As a coach with ADHD who is still learning to detach from my own needs for excellence in every single session, I can say that the expectation to closely follow the ICF guidelines when a client is in distress would be more about me and less about coaching the person in front of me. I hope this work in progress opens up your own curiosity about your practice and encourages you to adapt flexibly to meet your clients where they are.

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