Elizabeth's story: Coaching and neurodiversity

When I was asked to write on an article about my experience with coaching and being dyslexic I was delighted. I was interviewed for the article and then given a copy for my comments. Then reality hit. I knew what I wanted to say but felt I hadn't expressed myself very well and I needed to make some amendments. Over the next a couple of weeks I spent several 20 minute sessions staring at a draft on the computer screen but not sure where to even start. With a deadline approaching I sat down, put an hour timer on my phone and wrote what you are now reading.

For me this is what dyslexia is like. I can express myself verbally in the moment but when I need to organise my thoughts in a written format, that will engage others, I find it incredibly challenging and time consuming. Over the years I've recognised that when I need to write there is a period of time between initial ideas and thoughts to getting something in writing. I think this is probably when my brain processes things unconsciously. With experience, and developing strategies, I have got better at managing this process but I have to allow for ‘fallow time’ where I sit with confusion and uncertainty before my thoughts start to crystallise. I am fortunate that my form of dyslexia does has a minimum impact my ability to read. However, I do read for concepts rather than content and while my comprehension is excellent my memory for detail is non-existent.

Over the years I become more comfortable talking about my own particular challenges and this often invites others to share their own challenges. I have worked with a number of dyslexic clients, in some cases the organisation has suggested they work with me because I understand, that being said in most situations I find this out in our first session when I briefly share the fact that I am dyslexic and have dyspraxia as part of a contracting conversation, as this has some implications for the way we came to work. This seems to give clients permission to talk about their own challenges often sharing they've not shared this with anybody else in the business.

When I went through the education system there was very little recognition or acknowledgement of neurodiversity. I was often seen as a bad speller, a messy worker and badly organised. My early career was in teaching and it was in the mid 80s, when I was on an in service training day about dealing with children that had learning difficulties, that I suddenly realised they were talking about me. However it was not until much later in my career, when I'd gone back to doing academic research, that I was formally diagnosed.

I was surprised at how emotional I felt, but mainly it was one of relief – so much made sense. This included understanding why I hate overtaking (I am poor at judging distances) having a filing system which is based on putting everything into a draw, and why I spend so long staring at blank sheets of paper wondering where I need to start. It also helped me understand, and make better use of, the gifts that neurodiversity brings. I'm very creative and able to synthesise large amounts of information quickly to offer different perspectives. I'm also good at pattern spotting, noticing things and able to ‘see’ different ways things may play out in the future.

For me, coaching is about working in partnership through a relationship to facilitate the insights and learning that enable the client to achieve their goals and aspirations. Each client is an individual and the way we create that relationship will be tailored to their unique needs – in that respect there is not a lot of difference when we are working with neuro diverse clients. Rather than give any top tips I would like to offer the following three questions, these are probably questions you ask yourself with any client, but offer the potential for a deeper reflection when considering working with a client who has a different way of operating in the world

  • What am I assuming?

A condition like dyspraxia can manifest in many different ways. There are spectrums. You can read up about a condition online, but really seek to understand what your client’s unique experience of it is and how this plays out in their lives.

  • Am I really listening?

There’s no one right way to coach and certainly no one right way to coach those with a neurodiverse condition. When we really listen, we ‘hear’ what the client is telling us about how they make sense of their world. This lets us partner with them to find the best way working together.

  • Where can I be flexible?

In coaching we respond to who the client is and what they want to accomplish. Where may you need more flexibility in your approach to work with neuro diverse clients? This may be ways in which you manage the process, for example following up with a brief audio recording rather than an email. This may be customising any tools and techniques you use to best meet their needs