The Anatomy of Attachment, Part 3

By Lotus Josiah Seng

By looking at the person rather than an isolated problem, clients can experience a lasting transformation through the coaching process.

As coaches, we have the ability take a step beyond the content of clients’ experiences to look at the way those experiences are told and the reasoning structures that support them. We then can define and understand these processes based on clients’ defensive approaches, introspective skills, motivation and more.

Safely attached clients can reflect on their inner world effectively and easily form help questions. They have more insight into their functioning and learn from and integrate new experiences. The “ideal” client is motivated, introspective, and not too dependent nor offensive in the relationship with the coach.

Avoiding clients usually communicate that they rely on their strengths. They have learned early to stand on their own and tend so seek help from a desperate need for autonomy rather than welcoming collaboration. Because they avoid emotional dependence, they will have limited insight into their own affective needs and the needs of others. They present themselves as much less problematic than their environment experiences suggest they should be; they minimize problems.

Painful experiences are kept away because there was no one to provide comfort and shelter in earlier situations of despair. Because they place their problems outside of themselves and their environment, they are often described as “not motivated” or “non-introspective.”

If an unsafe attached person needs help, it signifies an attack on his or her autonomy, a sign of weakness and proof a problem cannot be solved independently. Therefore, the fear of losing autonomy ultimately can lead to defeat. In these cases, clients are likely to respond in opposition with anger or boredom. The coach may feel the help offer and knowledge are rejected and that the client is not interested in help at all. It is important that the coach realizes that the client’s response here is most likely based on fear of dependence and loss of autonomy. In these situations, gradually help the client to face and tolerate the feelings of fear, pain and sadness.

Occupied attached clients will tend to maximize their complaints and communicate helplessness and dependence. They continuously experience fear of rejection, and they closely monitor others, especially those who are emotionally important to them. Their self-esteem depends on the judgment of others, which makes them very vulnerable. They are constantly looking for reassurance, but at the same time they rarely can be reassured, and reassurance is short-lived because each developing situation implies a new possibility of rejection. They become anxious, insecure and angry when sensing that others are judging them. In the foreground is the fear of abandonment, and in the coaching relationship they will tend to depend on themselves.

Typical counter-responses from the coach include taking responsibility for problem-solving. Feelings of frustration, impotence and rejection can arise because the client continues to emphasize his or her impotence and “does nothing” with the help offered. The coach may feel overwhelmed by the objections from a client and experience the appeal of the client as suffocating. Knowledge and understanding of the underlying attachment problems helps to “place” this behavior. Fear of abandonment that has arisen in the context of an intrusive and contradictory upbringing is the central focus of these clients. The primary therapeutic strategy is to provide security through acceptance and support, while at the same time receiving and limiting the overflowing emotions through confinement by the coach.

Unresolved unsecured clients seem to have the most significant chance of developing psychopathology. Children of parents who themselves are insecure and have trauma are often classified in this group. Trauma caused by abuse, violence and loss in connection with the attachment style often classifies mature clients in this group, too. Old traumatic experiences are reactivated by the behavior of others, including their children, so that their views on reality are obscured. Perception is disturbed, and one hears and sees threats where there are none.

Even with disoriented unsafe clients, the coach can have a positive impact, but it is essential to have an eye for the attachment style here because theories about attachment styles can be useful to help explain to clients what is happening. It is valuable because destructive responses in the here-and-now will become understandable to the client. This depathologizes and paves the way to validate feelings and experiences. Understanding and care for the child that the client once was becomes self-evident and part of a healing process.

How Attachment Styles Assist in Coaching

Attention to the client’s language. How does the client tell his or her story? The concept of metacognitive capabilities draws attention from the content to the structure—not just what is told but how it is told becomes very important. The coach must be alert to inconsistencies between the language and the emotion expressed in any given situation. The language itself easily escapes attention, but it is crucial because it says something about unresolved or unconscious experiences or conflict areas. The coach should not be tempted to behave in accordance with the client’s early attachment experiences and, for example, go along in an avoiding or dependent style. The coach must create a situation in which recognition can be given for past suffering and for the strategies that were necessary to survive. In the safe relationship with the coach, in which the feelings and experiences of the client are validated and captured, an ability to mentalize can still be developed, and the client can continue as a safe attached adult.

Attention to physical reactions. “Knowingness” of the past is stored in procedural memory and becomes tangible and visible in our body. These bodily reactions are the autopilot that anticipates and responds to what’s happening around us. Complex hormonal and neurological systems trigger response patterns. These patterns belong to us and are not perceived as dysfunctional. Nevertheless, we all suffer from the consequences of emotional distress, tensions and conflicts.

Recognition of the body’s reactions can provide access to feelings and memories that are initially unavailable. Emotional responses are often too vicious or overly corrected, and the control of impulses is either insufficient or too restrictive. Understanding the nuances and the meaning of physical experiences forms the basis for both self-awareness and self-regulation.

According to Fonagy, transformational change is more about the connection with another safe person than insight! In this connection, changes may occur in the procedural (unconscious) memory. Psychopathology is often associated with dysfunction of impulse control that is insufficient or too restrictive. Emotional responses are either too fierce or too controlled.

Attention to the meaning of the problem or concern for the person. The attachment theory creates a meaningful dynamic around the coach-client relationship. The attention focuses on the client with the concern rather than the dynamics around the concern itself. This is important because the concern not only refers to pathology but is the result of a coping mechanism. The dynamics reveal what strategy the person originated to survive as a child. The reaction patterns that follow lead to dysfunction, but they are feasible and comprehensible in this context for both the coach and the client. A reevaluation of the client’s current situation eliminates old defenses and the concerns may disappear. Knowledge of the attachment theory raises an understanding of the client, and this approach can help coaches to avoid designing an incomplete track or a track with deficiencies. In other words, the client receives the best possible coaching track if we assess thoroughly at the start of the coaching relationship based on the dynamics of the client, hearing his/her story as it presents itself, and understaning how the client will connect to us as coaches.

In Closing

Today’s increasing focus on short-term coaching contracts and problem-oriented coaching relationships, rather than personal-oriented coaching relationships, is not beneficial. If coaches take a long-term perspective and address the person rather than isolated problems, lasting transformation can be achieved. Moreover, the relationship  does not need to be pumped up within a system of problem-oriented, technical and protocol coaching contracts. It is also the baseline for a healthy coach-client relationship that minimizes the risk of receiving complaints in the long run.

Lotus Josiah Seng, MA., Ph.D., is a Certified Change Management Professional; Certified and Associated IWCA Master Coach; Master Expert NLP; Certified Expert Lean Management Practitioner; and CSSB. She is the owner of ETSbyLotus, LLC, a coaching, mediation and consulting firm with offices in Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginiaand New York. Currently, five coaches are affiliated with the firm.  ETS’ team has more than 25 years of accumulative experience as licensed meditators and certified relationship, cognitive behavior therapy, NLP and change management coaching practitioners. ETS’ team consists of C-suite executives who serve as mentors for peers in several industries. The ETS team works as coaches and mediators with companies, couples, siblings, families and executives to foster personal growth,  improve relationships, and foster all aspects of healthy and effective communication. ETS’ objective is to inspire leaders and influencers to discover their uncovered potential. Lotus’ vision stems from her solution-focused coaching philosophy. She created the Map. Your. Future.© interactive game and methodology using neuroscience to tap clients’ unique strengths. Her 17- and 18-steps plan results in a creative visual map based on critical thinking and an analytical process towards (shared) goals, missions and objectives. For more information email: or follow Lotus on Twitter: EtsbyLotus or Instagram: Sheswalkingwithwings.

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