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COVID-19 Edition, Life Creating a Sense of Safety in Your Remote Conversations


I belong to a community that gathers online once a week to help each other make short promotional videos. I don’t know these people outside of our gatherings, but I can tell you who I would trust to work with and who I would avoid. Although I learned to coach remotely a long time ago, this community has added to my “rule list” for creating a sense of trust and safety online to quickly create a strong connection with my clients.

Your success depends on how quickly your clients feel comfortable enough to say what is on their minds. This may be more difficult to do online than live, but it is just as critical to achieving a satisfying outcome.

Your clients need to know you won’t judge them when they express emotions, which includes trying to make them feel better instead of accepting how they feel. Coaching is often the only place people can show up and fully be themselves. You must create conditions that generate trust and safety quickly in your online conversations.


Creating a psychologically safe environment is more difficult in times of crisis and uncertainty when people are experiencing high levels of fear and doubt. Social distancing caused anxiety, depression, stress. 1 As communities open up, many people are afraid to go back to work and to talk about their struggles and fears. The quality of your presence needs to relieve their wariness.

When people feel psychological safe, the need to protect and defend oneself is regulated down. Only then will they be open and willing to explore what else they might think and feel right now.


In addition to your personal presence, the visible environment on your screen affects warmth and safety. New School of Architecture and Design professor Dave Alan Kopec says lighting, colors, objects, and proportion have a direct impact on emotions and perceptions. What people see on their computer screen impacts their level of comfort.


Follow these five tips for managing your inner and outer space to establish a safe and trusting connection in your remote conversations:

1) Prepare your stage.

Get dressed like it’s a regular workday. Make sure your room is free of clutter. Zoom’s virtual backgrounds don’t always work but if you use them, choose a professional image.

Position yourself to have light in front of you so the image is smooth. Make sure you have enough power and bandwidth for undisrupted communications. Look into the camera when you talk and listen.

Have your head fill most of the screen so people feel you are with them, leaving just a little breathing room between you and the top of the screen so you aren’t overwhelming.

Turn off your phone and computer notifications.

Make sure there are no pets demanding attention.

2) Choose your emotional state.

Release your stress before the call; you can’t hide it. Even virtually, they will feel your tension and judge you as lacking in warmth and engagement.

To release tenseness in your body, breathe in the emotions you want to feel, such as “curious and care.” If the conversation becomes emotionally challenging, maintain visual contact. It is better to state what you are feeling than trying to mask your emotions. Even fleeting changes in your expressions impact the conversation.

3) Be compassionately curious about their personal state before diving in.

Inquire how they are feeling right now. Ask if anything that happened that day is still lingering in their thoughts and what they need to do to be present to the conversation. Even if they say they are ready to talk, give them time to shift their focus to the coaching conversation.

Listen deeply to their stories before pushing for the outcome they want to achieve. Ask about the meaning of the words they choose to make sure you understand what they mean and need.

As they relate their story, help them examine the usefulness of their beliefs about the present situation and assumptions about the future. This will help their brains focus, bringing the clarity they to move beyond the stories they are living by today.

4) Practice non-reactive empathy so they feel heard, not coddled.

Many coaches tell me they are sensitive and deeply feel their client’s emotions. Getting attached in coaching is a bad habit, not a noble fault. You must learn to take in what they are expressing, notice how you feel, but then breathe and release the feelings so you can return to exploring what the emotions mean to them and their desired outcome. This is called using non-reactive empathy.

You should never try to make your clients feel better. This means you are judging their reactions. They will feel weakened, frustrated, or guilty for making you feel badly. You aren’t there to cheer them up. Your job is to make them feel okay no matter what they are feeling. Then you can process their reactions together.

Remember, you are coaching the person to solve their own problems. You cannot attach to their emotions and their story and coach well.

5) Use reflective statements so they feel heard.

The use of reflective statements not only help people sort through their thoughts, but they also feel seen, heard and valued when they hear you replay their words. Use summarizing and paraphrasing to reflect what you hear. Ask about shifts in emotions you see them express. Start your sentences with, “So you are saying…,” “What seems to be most important to you is…” or “What were you thinking when you got quiet and looked away.” Your reflections create a deeper connection.

Coaching helps people climb a tree in their brain and look down on how they think and feel. They must feel safe before they will go out on the limb with you.

DR. MARCIA REYNOLDS is a world-renowned expert on inspiring change through conversations. She has delivered programs in 41 countries, teaches for coaching schools in the US, China, Russia, and the Philippines, and she frequently presents programs to coaches online.

She is a past ICF global chair and one of 10 coaches recognized in the ICF Circle of Distinction. She has four award-winning books including The Discomfort Zone; Wander Woman; Outsmart Your Brain; her latest, Coach the Person, Not the Problem was just released with rave reviews.


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