On a rainy and gray Tuesday morning in Vancouver, Canada, I (Niamh, Content Specialist at Session) interviewed Eugenia, who was sitting in her apartment in Kyiv, Ukraine. After following the situation in Ukraine since the outbreak of war back in February, it was almost surreal to have such an intimate conversation with someone at the epicenter of the war. It also made me reflect on the power of technology - and its ability to connect two people, in two distant countries, experiencing two very different realities. What amazes me the most about Eugenia, is that even in the face of tragedy, she is determined to get on with her life, her coaching profession, and even her hobbies. Eugenia has managed to find purpose and meaning in the middle of chaos, and has cultivated a sense of calm within herself. In this conversation, we discuss how hardship can deepen your work and bring you new perspectives. We also discuss advice for coaches and people going through difficult times, the importance of values, and tips on how to manage your mental and physical state in hard situations. I hope you’ll be as inspired as I am by Eugenia’s strength, courage, and resiliency.
Niamh: Eugenia, thank you so much for meeting with me today. It’s hard to imagine what you’re experiencing right now. Can you talk to me about the current situation in Kyiv and how you’re coping in these extremely difficult conditions?
Eugenia: First of all, the situation is really developing and it’s different from what was happening in the first week, and even two weeks. Unfortunately, even in the worst situation, we are somehow adapting to it. Of course, the first emotion we experienced was just total shock. Now, as I recall the outbreak of the war, some situations and facts are mixed up in my head, such as dates, times,etc. As I mentioned on our coaching community call, emotions are alternating between certain things, such as worrying about safety, feeling of danger, hearing air raid sirens, sleeping all night at the shelter, etc. But at the same time, I'm thinking about more high-level thoughts: how could this happen, what factors contributed to it, and how did the world come to this terrible situation.
For me as a coach, I have quite a well-developed skill of self-reflecting. But even for me, I questioned if I would ever be able to continue my profession - my coaching work. I had a feeling that very fundamental coaching grounds like human values, principles, and virtues were completely ruined, and as if I lost the grounds to stand on. Besides, being present, and being able to manage my own emotions, is a very important part of the ethical code of coaching, as described in the ICF Core Values and Ethical Standards. So, in the beginning, my perception was that all of those things were completely destroyed and that I would never get them back.
Niamh: Yes, it’s so hard to even imagine how you continue to face a regular day of work, because obviously, your mind is so overwhelmed, distracted, and just horrified. So like you said, getting back on your feet again and trying to coach must have been so difficult.
Eugenia: Yes, but it’s important to remember that on February 24th, (when the war broke out) nobody continued to work, everything just stopped. Except for critical infrastructure workers, that is. So my reflection was impacted by this. As of February 23rd, my working activity was very intense. I had six consulting and coaching projects as the main business and also successfully managed my own boutique yoga studio as a parallel activity. Everything just crashed and came to a complete halt. And a similar experience happened to the majority of people in Ukraine. My reflection around being able to coach was quite theoretical, quite hypothetical in such circumstances. Yet, I realized quite well that this was probably because of a desire to keep a feeling of control at least in my professional capacity for the future.
Niamh: Now that you are able to coach, although not being able to coach as you did before, how are you finding this helps - even as a distraction? In the midst of all of this tragedy, is coaching helping you with purpose, with meaning?
Eugenia: Yeah, it’s a very good question. Thinking about purpose was very important to me, because at that period of time, without clients or work, my intention first of all was to sort out all of my emotions, reflect on my values, and discover that painful experience. Honestly, besides the obvious external threats of war, the high level of anger and hate is our constant internal challenge now and requires significant efforts to overcome. To keep open eyes toward everything that was happening inside, embracing all emotions was very meaningful for me. Thus, secondly, I had to save, or even reinvent, what my approach to coaching was. It is not a secret for anyone from "helping professions" that the main focus of work in the midst of a tragic experience is to search for hope and perspective. Here my ability to find some kind of internal resources really helped me. Getting back to a ‘’normal’’ state of being was really effective for me, not for the sake of denying reality, but accepting things as they are and also being resourceful - with my friends, with my network, and so on. Eventually with time, as things started to stabilize for me a bit more, at least I could continue coaching.
Niamh: During Session’s coaching community meeting, you also mentioned that having activities outside of work, such as art and yoga, has helped you cope. And it’s great to have a creative outlet as well as a physical outlet of expression. How important do you think having hobbies and activities is for helping people to cope?
At the moment when everything happened, I, fortunately, was lucky enough to have a very strong discipline in yoga, because I have been regularly practicing for the past 20 years. Of course, for the first 7-10 days, it was not possible to practice, as we spent most of our time in the shelter. But as soon as I realized I could do something in between the air raid sirens at the moments we were back to our apartment, I started to renew my practice - which helped very much. Unfortunately, I still have not resumed my painting activity, because here it is more difficult to find inspiration. It’s as if I’ve lost the ability to see colors. Of course, intellectually I can still go through this, but it’s difficult to practice yet. I hope over time that I will come back to painting. But yoga, yes, meditation and breathing techniques have been so powerful. I only can encourage everyone to try these practices, to incorporate them into their routine, because in such a dangerous and disturbing situation, it really helps.
Niamh: Another question that is somewhat spiritual in nature. Do you think going through this awful experience has deepened your coaching in any way? How do you see your coaching evolving because of this?
Eugenia: Absolutely, and I can give you an example. Recently, I had a conversation with my friend and colleague, who moved to another country a couple of years ago. We discussed the current situation with business in Ukraine, and I gave her an example of one of the very successful companies before the war which has now almost become bankrupt. Because of the war, critical logistics operations stopped, the revenue dramatically declined, and some warehouses were completely destroyed. Not to mention the fleeing of employees and clients. My friend mentioned that she thought the CEO of this company did not show up as a good leader. He didn’t make any timely statement about the situation, he practically disappeared, and in her opinion, this was not proper leadership behavior. Normally, we often think similar and I value her views very much. But here I realized how my perception is different. I noticed that I stopped considering the situation from the conceptual side (while I always shared the Leadership concept before). My reflection on this was that this person is a human being first of all. Remembering my own shock and fear I could just imagine how huge his shock might be, from realizing the scale of destruction of his business of life. I even could assume that the fact of a huge responsibility over thousands of people in his team might have played out controversially - falling into even more trouble instead of acting rationally. With time the situation with that company was evolving. . But in that particular episode we discussed with my friend that my evaluation of the Leader's behavior was completely different. And this is what came from going through my actual experience. My level of empathy and humanity changed, now I wouldn’t be so quick to judge a situation.
Niamh: I love that example. It shows how you’re evolving with your thought process, and even having the ability to have more empathy in these kinds of situations.
Eugenia: Yes, exactly. This example is about feeling the complexity and the depth of such a tragic situation in which this person found himself in it.
Niamh: Yes, it’s important to remember the complexity and many layers to consider, it’s not just a black and white situation.
Eugenia: Yes, of course.
Niamh: Another question I wanted to ask you was in relation to coaching ethics. What ethical considerations should we make in order to judge whether we can coach in a professional way when going through hardships? How can one compartmentalize trauma to show up and coach others?
Eugenia: You know, I am still fluid in discovering this. I will go through a journey that I’ve been on in relation to this question. In accordance with the ICF, it’s important for each coach to stay really in tune with Ethical Code, and within Core Competencies. I’ve had some experiences which have really triggered the question of ethical concerns. The first competency is presence, which is required to be able to coach. This is what was hugely impacted by the situation because especially in the early stages of war I physically felt how it was difficult to concentrate, to keep focus, to stay relaxed yet attentive. Second competency is about the distinction between coaching, psychotherapy, counseling, and so on, which every coach should be mindful about. I was questioning myself about coaching and psychotherapy boundaries when I imagined coaching a Ukrainian client who is also experiencing a traumatic situation - is it appropriate to offer support in this way, when my job is to offer coaching and not therapy. Ultimately, coaching is about some horizon and perspective, when we connect changes with the future. Is it relevant when a conversation about perspective hurts? The third competency is about managing strong emotions. Hate, fear, anxiety, and so on are all strong emotions experienced by both coach and client. Is it possible to cope when both are in that?
Thanks to that reflection I eventually have found some foundation where I can still stand, and while it’s not 100% clear, I at least know how I can stabilize myself as a coach.
This war highlighted our value system very much, and I think that it’s very important for everyone to reassess, to rethink their value system. For example, for me it was the decision whether to stay or leave the country and my city; stay with my husband who was not allowed to leave the country, or leave to join my son in Europe. That was unfamiliar before the level of choice between risk and safety. Many questions triggered our very intrinsic motivations and values. Someone even discovered something even deeper than values... Not just in coaching, but also in life, your values can bring you more awareness, and a deeper understanding of yourself. For me personally, once I re-figured what was important to me, it didn't make me happy, but I at least felt calmer, more grounded.
Secondly, reflection itself has been so important. As we know, reflection is an inward-looking skill. .. In my case, it really helped my ability to structure my thoughts around fear. Putting different aspects of fear into different so-called boxes made the feelings more manageable, the understanding of own boundaries of compromise more clear, and the adaptability more accessible. So I think that everyone would benefit from keeping and stimulating reflection even in hardship to protect from falling into super-reacting mode.
Niamh: Yes, and I love how you mentioned how getting clear on your values, and what’s important to you was helpful. It’s not going to make everything magically better, but at the least, it’s helping you to feel calmer.
Eugenia: Yes, and it helps when you can’t understand quite what to do. Once you get clear on these things, they can help to navigate your actions too. And once you realize what is a navigator for you, you are far more aware of what concrete actions to take.
Niamh: Yes, that’s so true. You’ve been handling this situation with such courage and wisdom, so I’m wondering what advice would you give to other coaches who find themselves in similar hardships? And secondly, what advice would you give to people in general who find themselves in difficult situations?
Eugenia: That’s a great question. Now I have a feeling like I am a coachee and you’re my coach!
In the initial stages when I was questioning my coaching as a profession, it is important to understand that it was driven by a specific context. At that moment I was assuming everything - loss of country, loss of housing, many other losses which are even scary to pronounce, and overall the loss of perspective. The loss of my profession was sitting in my mind as an idea of total disillusionment in its nature in connection with the fact that such a war happened at all. One day I realized that my profession is what I can control the most in that row from the point of view of saving and managing my state (as the main instrument of my work). This awareness happened to be what we call a shift in coaching. I made a choice to be double-mindful of my state for the sake of avoiding disillusionment and saving my ability for the future. My advice for coaches in hardship is to fight for their professional identity, because it’s what you have, regardless of your situation, this is your asset. For me, it was important not to include my profession in the list of losses, and thus to fight for re-inventing my professional perceptions.
Niamh: I love that advice, to keep fighting for your profession.
Eugenia: Yes, and also finding new ideas within coaching, and yes, just keep going with it. As for my advice for people in general who are going through hard times, before I say this, I just want to specify that now I am not in the worst situation, as I am staying in Kyiv, the capital, and with all the danger here, it anyway seems safer than in some other parts of Ukraine. Unfortunately, there are people in Ukraine who are in much, much, much worse situations, and I can only imagine all the horror of their hardship. The sad lesson of this war is also in the idea that now it is worth accurately distinguishing the extent of hardship in order to be adequate and sensitive to real people's feelings.
In general, I would say that in the beginning, we do what we can. But with time, we already have to do what we must. We can't predict when that will end and what the price will be. It requires stamina. So I would suggest using all that you have. Don’t underestimate the simplest things, like having a routine. Waking up, going to bed, eating, exercising…so everything that can structure your day creates a sense that you can manage your life at least to some extent. And once you can control it, you are not weak. I think everyone can build on these kinds of ideas.
Niamh: Yes, I agree. I think sometimes the simplest things are the most effective, whether it’s trying to get your sleep under control, what you eat, exercising - all of those basic things that we need as humans, the obvious ones - are so important.
Eugenia: Yes, exactly.
Niamh: Eugenia, that brings me to the end of my questions for you. Do you have any questions for me or anything else that you’d like to discuss?
Eugenia: I’m fine, and I’d like to say that I felt like I was a coachee - it’s a pleasant feeling! It provoked some thinking in me and looking at things from a different point of view. So thank you.
Niamh: Eugenia, thank you so much for this conversation, you are an inspiration and have taught us so much.