Coaching clients through overwhelm

Clients may not come to you specifically for coaching around feeling overwhelmed, but it could present itself at any point during a course of coaching sessions.  As coaches, it is important to be able to coach your clients through overwhelm and help them move forward successfully in achieving their goals and dreams.

Overwhelm often creeps up when there’s too many demands on someone’s overscheduled and exhaustive workday. Or when they are staring at a huge goal resembling a ‘pipe dream’ to them and its sheer size and complexity overwhelm them, so they dismiss it before they even begin.

Do You Know Why This Happens?

This can be explained by a simple thinking model often referred to as The ABC Model. Created by psychologist and researcher Dr Albert Ellis. He created this model in his attempt to help people understand the meaning of our reactions to adversity.

Let’s look in detail at what the abbreviations stand for:

● A is the Adversity — the event or situation

 B is the Belief – our belief or thoughts about the event

 C is the Consequent emotion and behaviour — the feelings and reactive behaviours that our belief causes

Using feeling overwhelmed by work demands as an example, here’s how a client might experience the ABC model:-

A: They decide to commit to stepping out of their comfort zone and agree to lead a major new project on top of their already busy work and home life schedule as it could lead to a new promotion.

B: Once they have confirmed they will do it, they quickly start to panic, thinking to themselves — Am I ready to do this? Do I have enough experience? How will I fit in this new project around my usual tasks? Will I have the time and energy to still fit in my home commitments? What if I mess up and can’t deliver the new objectives? How will I manage it all?!?

C: Overwhelmed and distressed, they start thinking to themselves ‘I can’t handle this, I should have never taken this on! What was I thinking?’. They might start to feel consumed by it all, which is then likely to impact their work performance, they might start forgetting to do things or start procrastinating with work and home tasks.  All of this may impact their home life and those around them, as well as at work too.  They may even give up on the idea and find an excuse to withdraw, missing out on what could be a major opportunity in their career.

As you can see from the above, what often happens is in the ‘belief’ stage ‘reactive behaviour’ kicks in when they automatically jump to negative beliefs and thoughts which can create overpowering feelings of overwhelm.

So, how can we coach our clients through overwhelm?

The simple trick here is to not go with the flow of ‘reactive behaviour’.  In the example above, you can see how reactive behaviour does not help the client move forward confidently and effectively.  Instead, you can help your coaching clients change their beliefs about an event or situation and feel less overwhelmed using the 3 steps below:-

1. Create A ‘Brain Dump’ List

The aim of the brain dump is to clear their mind by getting all the tasks, day-to-day demands, projects, ideas, to-do lists out of their mind and onto the paper. You can invite them to do this within a session or as pre-work.

2. Organise Their List

Next, they need to organise their tasks from their ‘dump’ list using Eisenhower’s Priority matrix. The priority matrix is a simple tool that helps to identify which activities to prioritise, and which activities to delegate or eliminate by splitting them into four categories:-

  • Important & Urgent                   = Do
  • Important & Not-Urgent           = Schedule
  • Not Important & Urgent           = Delegate
  • Not Important & Not Urgent    = Drop

This helps people make best use of the limited time available to them.  Feeling overwhelmed often comes as a result of approaching deadlines or the sheer complexity of the task or goal.

3. Redo Their Schedule

Now they are clear on what tasks are ‘quick’ wins and ‘major’ projects, equally what tasks should be delegated and completely eliminated, so they can plan their new tasks into their current schedule.

Be aware of ‘The Planning Fallacy’ — a phenomenon in which predictions about how much time will be needed to complete a future task display an optimism bias and underestimate the time needed.  On the flip side, you need to make sure you don’t over plan, this is known as Parkinson’s Law — “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Having scheduled their workload will ease the overwhelm; even in the cases where it takes them past any imposed deadlines. It will also play a role of a good tool when re-negotiating priorities and deadlines.  In the case of your major goal, the scheduled sub tasks will minimise the goal, making it feel more manageable and tangible so the goal will feel more within their reach.

So, you see it, helping your clients to deal with being overwhelmed does not need to be an over complicated or prolonged activity, often taking the above three steps will do the trick to help coach your clients through overwhelm.  I use this three-step tool with my coaching clients all the time, as well as with myself!

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