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How to Coach a Friend or Colleague Through Crisis and Uncertainty

3 steps for helping others think through their fears and doubts.

Source: alphaspirit/Depositphotos

My clients always know what’s best to do. But until they say it out loud, clearly and with conviction, they don’t know they know.

Most of us have enough experience and knowledge to solve our own problems. Yet even in normal times, our worries and unsupported assumptions can fog our brains. Then, in times of extreme uncertainty and unfamiliar problems, we get trapped in a sense of helplessness, victimized by fear about the future.1 The swirling thoughts paralyze our thinking and actions.

In addition to the swirl of negative messages that bombard us daily, we worry about what others will think of our choices today and what will be the impact of our decisions in the future. Then our brains envision the worst-case scenario. This never-ending loop of “what ifs” increases the fog and hesitation to act.

Helping others see through the fog

It doesn’t help to tell people to think positively. Telling them how to think and what to do breeds resentment and guilt. You shut down their thinking instead of stimulating contemplation.

Taking a coaching approach to conversations may be the most useful way to help friends, colleagues, and family members see possible solutions and actions more clearly. By replaying key words and ideas they share and the emotions you notice, you help them sort through the fog of uncertainty, doubt, and fear. You become their thinking partner. Hopefully, they will feel more positive and see new possibilities as a result.

Coaching helps people take the stories circling in their minds and, metaphorically, puts them on the table so they can see what is working and what isn’t. Using compassionate curiosity — combining warmth and concern with your desire to learn more — we encourage others to objectively evaluate their stories.2

You don’t need to have answers to be helpful. You will develop a stronger relationship when you help them find answers on their own.3 They will feel more valued and cared for when you listen and seek to understand their thinking.

How to Take a Coaching Approach

Start by summarizing their words and paraphrasing key ideas. Notice shifts in tone of voice and facial gestures so they think about the truth of what they are saying and what is bothering them most. Say things like, “So you are telling me…” “It sounds like you think no one will support your ideas. Is that true?” and “You got quiet and looked away when you mentioned that. Can you tell me what you were thinking?” Clarify what they believe is true about the present situation and the assumptions they are making about the future.

Your reflections will help uncover their fears and doubts and reveal the beliefs that don’t serve them. When you follow up a reflection with a question, you could clear the fog for them to clearly see the real problem and desirable resolutions.

Although getting trained to use a coaching approach is helpful, you don't need formal training to stimulate thinking in others. Here are three tips to help you coach friends, family, and colleagues through fear and uncertainty:

  1. Set the right expectation for the conversation. Let them know you aren’t going to give them answers, but that you want to be their thinking partner to explore the situation together. There are a number of ways for the problem to be solved. Their ideas are vital to finding the best way forward.
  2. Clarify the desired outcome of the conversation. Determine what they most want to have that is different from what they have now. If the problem is solved or the decision is made, what do they hope to achieve? And if they achieve that, what will they have? You need a destination for your conversation to make sure progress is made.
  3. Once you know where the conversation is going, listen to their story. Summarize what you hear. Share when you notice them getting excited or doubtful. Mention anytime they use the word should. Is there a fear or sense of obligation that is holding them back? Help them see the assumptions they are making about the future that may or may not happen.

Above all, believe in them. They can figure this out. When you coach the person, not their problem, you expand their mind and strengthen their will to move forward.

Ideas in this post are constructed from excerpts in Dr. Reynolds' book, Coach the Person, Not the Problem: A Guide to Using Reflective Inquiry.


John Renesch, Nondualism as a Re-framing of perspective. Bridging the Gap Between Wisdom and Practice blog post. May, 2020.

Grant Hilary Brenner MD. A Simple & Powerful Brainhack Puts You In The Driver's Seat, blog post, Feb. 17, 2020.

Marcia Reynolds, PsyD. When They Look to You to Lead is the Perfect Time to Coach, Covisioning blog post, April 20, 2020.