Coregulation: The Heart of Skillful Response
By Joy Reichart, New Ventures West, guest contributor
“If you want to improve the world, start by helping people feel safer.” —Stephen Porges
Can you recall a moment in your life when you felt truly supported? Perhaps it was a session with a therapist, bodyworker, coach, or teacher. Maybe it was a good conversation with a trusted friend. Or maybe someone came to your aid following a disturbing event.
What was that person’s bearing, and what sort of effect did it have on you?
Regardless of the aim of the session or conversation—regardless, even of the person’s training or even their intentions for the interaction—it’s likely that what made you feel safe (or not) was how settled (or not) their nervous system was.
Learning new things versus being new ways
Students studying Integral Coaching do a great deal of reading during their year. We study the brain and the nervous system, emotions, trauma, embodiment, addiction, mindfulness and more. Here is a very short list of examples.
- The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, Deb Dana
- How Emotions are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett
- My Grandmother’s Hands, Resmaa Manekem
- The Body Keeps the Score, Bessell van der Kolk
- Shambala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Chögyam Trungpa
- A Path with Heart, Jack Kornfield
- Focusing in Clinical Practice, Anne Weiser Cornell
- Leadership Embodiment, Wendy Palmer
Nobody can argue that by studying these approaches that we’re learning a whole lot. And there is the essential question that is always in the background of our work—and for anyone who takes up a path of service: “For the sake of what?”
In this case, we’ve found the ‘what’ is that, to truly support someone else, it is vital to cultivate a body and nervous system that are grounded, steady, and coherent. In other words, as one teacher put it, we are not learning new things so much as we are being new ways.
Skillful responses to stress
A couple of years ago my car was rear ended hard by a big pickup truck whose driver had been texting. I had slowed to let pedestrians cross in front of me, so in addition to absorbing the impact of the crash, I also needed to swerve hard to avoid hitting one of the children in the crosswalk.
Once I’d pulled to the side of the road, two people approached. One was a woman who lived nearby, shouting, “Oh my god, I saw that! If you need a witness, I saw the whole thing! I think she was texting, oh my god!” I can hardly remember her words or her face—largely because it was impossible to stay present in the face of her big emotions. She disappeared as abruptly as she showed up. Of course she was coming to the situation with deep empathy: it was indeed an upsetting thing that just happened. But despite her intentions, she did not have a skillful response.
The second person, ironically, was the father of the family who had been crossing the street— who had watched as his son narrowly avoided being run over. He asked me if I was OK. He remained calm as I shakily attempted to acknowledge what had just happened and how grateful I was that everyone was alright. We introduced ourselves to each other by name and exchanged phone numbers before he rounded up his family and they ambled away.
From there, all that came next felt almost mellow. It had everything to do with that first touch point with someone who was doing the opposite of panicking, and who helped me find the ground underneath me. Perhaps he was a doctor, clergyperson, or emergency worker: someone whose bearing and training allows him to remain steady in the face of crisis. Perhaps my own experience with martial arts, mindfulness and coaching played a role in our quiet interaction. Regardless, it shaped the experience for me in such a way that there were hardly any lasting effects except for my car’s caved-in hatchback, which was eventually fixed.
This is a somewhat drastic example of what we have the opportunity to do as practitioners.
There is a name for it: coregulation. Here’s how coregulation is explained in an article from the Khiron Trauma Clinic in the UK:
Coregulation lies at the heart of all human relationships... it is the reciprocal sending and receiving of signals of safety. It is not merely the absence of danger but connection between two nervous systems; each nourishing and regulating the other in the process.
Because it is baked into our evolutionary past, it is not a desire, but a need – one developed to facilitate survival. As humans, we therefore are programmed to seek interpersonal connection: it is a biological imperative.
Clients don’t usually come to coaching completely dysregulated, but they are generally in a transition of some kind: a place in their life that is unfamiliar and groundless. However mildly, their nervous systems are not completely settled. Fear and stress may be kicking up old patterns. Or hope and anticipation could have them revving in a direction far from the present moment. There are lots of ways our systems become disorganized in times of upheaval. A good practitioner has practiced being in a state that is free of agenda, that doesn’t take on their client’s distress, and retains a coherent field that the client can rest in.
So yes, therapists, coaches, clergyfolk, bodyworkers, and other practitioners certainly study particular ways of delivering the response they bring. At the heart of their education, however, is how they are learning to be: namely, a presence that allows for the other person to settle; to remember who they are outside of their reactivity, survival mechanisms, and learned behavior; and to find a way forward from the truth of who they are.
What do you do to bring yourself back when you are dysregulated? Please share in the comments.
You can start to experience how this works in Foundations of Coaching, our virtual introductory workshop, offered monthly. Readers of this blog are welcome to take $100 off tuition using the coupon code MINDFULLEADER at checkout.
Joy Reichart is the Communications Director at New Ventures West in San Francisco.
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