Managing emotion within the coaching session

Managing emotion within the coaching session

“Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you.”

Roger Ebert

I was coaching a senior client in a professional service firm, and we were in the first session. The client had begun coaching to develop her resilience, as she had realised this had been impacted over the last year as result of a promotion, the experience of organisational change and leading a large team virtually during the pandemic.

We had been exploring her stress in the past week when she connected to her experience of the pressure she was under, and an emotion arose.

As coaches, we discover how emotions are sources of vital information as well as being the fuel for change. As Paul Brown and Virginia Brown describe, “an emotion is energy in motion.”

However, one area we need to explore first is our own relationship with emotions — as this will show up in the way we meet and hold the coaching session.

Pause now and reflect upon:

  • What are your beliefs about emotions?
  • What is your relationship with emotion?
  • What emotions are you comfortable exploring and what are you less comfortable in holding?
  • How do your beliefs about emotions help or hinder you as a coach as you meet the coachee’s emotional knowing in a session?

Coaching supervision is a place for us to explore anything that has risen from the above personal inquiry.

As coaches in these critical moments, the way we are present, model mindful attention and compassion is key. Being grounded before and during the session helps us to notice and regulate any of our own subtle internal reactions to this energy.

This holding of a space of openness and non-judgement is not by chance — it comes from the daily discipline of a self-care practice such as mindfulness, tai chi or time in nature.

The more we practice, the greater our capacity to hold the emotions emerging within the coaching session. Consider the analogy of putting a teaspoon of salt in a glass of water and how salty the water would taste vs putting a teaspoon of salt in a lake and how unaffected this spacious and expansive volume of water would be.

This is the reason we train coaches in mindfulness and embodiment practices: so that, in these critical moments, they can stay centred, resourced, expansive and hold the space for the coachee to work through their emotions if they choose to.

Pause and reflect upon:

  • What supports you to be fully present, resourced and fully available to your coachee when emotion arises?
  • What supports your window of tolerance (see below)?
  • How do you recenter in the moment?

A further model we would encourage coaches to consider is Figure 1: The Window of Tolerance – Daniel Siegal (1999).

Daniel Siegel describes this as follows:

“Our mental experience and neural firing patterns for particular emotions or situations appear to have a span of tolerance in which we can function optimally. Within the window we do well; outside the window we push beyond tolerable levels of arousal and move to either chaos or rigidity and lose our adaptive and harmonious functioning.”

Knowing our own window of tolerance as a coach is paramount, alongside learning ways to regulate ourselves so that we are functioning optimally when we are attuning to our clients and their emotions.

We can also use this to consider where the client is in the moment. Are they ok and within their own window of tolerance? Or are they moving to chaos and overwhelm or rigidity and shutting down when the emotion arises? How can we support them to move back into their window of tolerance before we move to exploration?

In the coaching session itself, we encourage coaches to:

  1. Consider time
    Where you are in the session? Do you have enough time to explore what is arising (if the coachee chooses to)? Remember we are responsible for the process and ensuring the coachee leaves the session in an Adult Ego State.
  2. Intentionality
    What is your intention in offering to work with the emotion? For coaches that have trained with us, remember the 5 tests!
  3. Acknowledge
    Acknowledge the emotion that the coachee has touched into so the coachee experiences being seen and heard.
  4. Spot contract
    Keep choice with the coachee in terms of moving into exploring what is emerging or not.
  5. Normalise emotions within coaching
    Help your coachee understand that connecting to emotions is important within coaching, e.g. “It is ok for this emotion to be here; this is important information and it is ok for us to explore it.”
  6. Ground and anchor the coachee
    Guide the coachee through short grounding practices to resource them before you begin exploring the emotion, e.g. Inviting the client to connect to the felt experience/physical sensations of their feet on the ground. Reinforcing that, at any stage, they can move back to these anchor points as a way of supporting themselves through the exploration you are about to do. Invite them to take a conscious breath or two.
  7. Emotional Inquiry
    Practice and develop a way of supporting the coachee to stay with and explore the emotional energy, e.g. where are you experiencing the emotion in the body? Where is it mostly? What are the thoughts that go with it? What kind of emotion is it? What is the shape? How does it develop or change? Is there movement? What happens if you breathe with it?

Supporting a client to work with their emotions is one way coaching becomes more transformational, as the client experiences a felt emotional, energetic and embodied shift during the coaching session.

For further information about working with emotions in coaching, we would recommend watching our webinar on working with emotions (see below).

YouTube video


  • Neuropsychology for Coaches: Understanding the Basics by Paul Brown and Virginia Brown
  • The Mindful Therapist by Daniel Siegel. 

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