Big emotions arise. You’re the coach: what to do?

“Big” emotions can arise in Critical Friends Group work: trust has been built, the circle we sit in truly has become friends, and we’ve grown to depend on one another’s help when we’re facing dilemmas that have troubled us, sometimes for years.

In Transitions

Sometimes at the start of a meeting or a training session, people experiencing profound feelings bring it up during Transitions. When something big has been shared, others may freeze, not knowing what to say (see previous Connections article: “A Time and Place for Pie”). Or the floodgates may open and many people reveal their own painful experiences. As a result, people may want to “break protocol” and launch into a discussion in the middle of this activity. During Transitions, it’s VERY important to remember that this is not a time for dialogue: people may be sharing simply to “let these thoughts go” so they can deal with the work at hand, or they may be alerting the group to their need for a bit more gentleness, or they may be forewarning that they may need to step out of the room for important phone calls. Remember your Group Agreements, and remember what NSRF National Facilitators often remind us in training: “Wanting more time to talk more while we’re in a protocol means that you’ll have good conversations at lunchtime, on breaks, or after our training day. Let’s honor the work at hand, the presenter, and everyone’s limited time, and come back to the protocol.” Also, as the coach or facilitator, if you feel it’s necessary or appropriate, after you close Transitions, you may ask if anyone has anything else they’d like to say or ask about what was said during the protocol. Bear in mind if you do that, to honor the desire of anyone who is being “replied to” — if they say they don’t want to talk about it further, or don’t want to talk about it in the group, honor that statement.

In training

Sometimes the content of ideas or materials presented within a protocol or activity brings up unexpected (to the presenter and/or to the facilitator or coach), powerful emotions. As a white woman with comfortable economic and social status, I have blind spots to my own privilege, even though I have been working these last few years to learn about and overcome my internalized biases. In the latest CFG Coaches’ Training I led, I was informed in debrief that a text I used was white-centering and therefore caused discomfort if not harm to people of color. Having long held this text in my heart as a favorite and consistently received appreciation for bringing the text to training, I felt quite startled. Rapidly taking steps to decenter myself in the moment, I held space for the participant and others helping educate me and the rest of the group, and I returned to my task of facilitating this work for the group as a whole. After my heart rate settled down, I was deeply honored that some of my participants helped me see what had been invisible to me before. (And yes, this blog post is centering, but centered upon coaches and facilitators who need some basic information about how to respond to big emotions. I hold the group’s Confidentiality agreement very seriously.)

In protocol work

Similarly, particularly in dilemma protocols, when a presenter trusts the group enough to bring up seemingly insurmountable problems, tears of sadness, pain, frustration, or anger may all arise. Because we encourage schools to form Critical Friends Group communities that are diverse in all ways (grade level, subject matter, experience level, as well as cultural), sometimes our eyes and hearts can be broken open by what our Critical Friends are sharing. In fact, as hard as those experiences are, I hope this will happen to you, Dear Reader, because here lies some of the most profound work of connection and belonging that we have the grace to experience. As teachers and as colleagues, we want to have healthy boundaries between us, but not insurmountable walls.

Grief and sharing

When I was a young woman, my mother died. Hundreds of people attended her wake, most of whom were complete strangers to me. Because of my mother’s career, she assisted her clients in some of the most painful times in their lives, and when they came to honor her passing, many of them wept, some fairly dramatically. I know that my mother cared for her clients deeply, but they weren’t friends in the way most of us consider friends, and they certainly weren’t Critical Friends who depended upon each other equally.

From that experience and many others since, I have learned that whenever anyone is grieving, witnesses may be profoundly affected, sometimes in unexpected ways. Witnessed grief often triggers any unresolved grief still living in the listeners’ bones. And the deeper the emotions that are shared, the more likely we are to experience shock and reverberations ourselves.

Advice, such as it is

As a facilitator and coach, I must take care to de-center my own feelings and hold the space for the group. I breathe deeply and ask others to do the same. I quietly allow the person expressing big feelings to say what they feel they need to say (while maintaining the safety of the group and the individual speaking). In the case of big feelings during Transitions, I invite everyone to come to the next work on the agenda whole-heartedly and with KINDNESS. Even the folks who didn’t share their troubles aloud may be carrying equally hard stories.

When emotions are shared, this is when the FRIEND part of Critical Friends Group work is most important to remember. It’s also important to remember that CFG work is not therapy, but our friendships outside of CFG work are not therapy either: we can and should still be supportive of one another.

I invite feedback on this blog post, either here on the site or at my email: