The emotionally healthy childhood

Photo by  Annie Spratt

Photo by Annie Spratt


An emotionally healthy childhood can’t be idiosyncratic, dependent on a particular environment, or come down to good luck. There are distinct themes to identify. With optimal development in mind we can start to form a map. From there, we can see with greater clarity where we are taking a left turn, what we have to be grateful for, and where we feel our greatest shame. At a societal level, this map might serve as general direction toward what there is to achieve in order to create a more emotionally stable and therefore slightly saner world.

An emotionally healthy childhood could give us the following:

A lifelong advocate. Someone will put themselves profoundly at our service. If as adults we have even a measure of mental health, it is undoubtedly because, when we were small and dependent, there was a person (to whom we essentially owe our lives) who pushed their needs aside for a time to focus wholly on our own. They understood our babble and heard us into speech; they gave us their best guesses on treatment when we were sick; they calmed our fears, consoled us in our insecurities, and protected us from harm. They provided a protective barrier from the chaos of the world, showing us just enough of it—carving up our experiences for us in manageable pieces. Without thanks or sympathy, they didn’t expect us to ask how their day went or how well they slept. They catered to our needs, so that we would later on be able to submit to the rigors and slights of daily life. This lop-sided relationship was temporary, but by modeling with consistency, made certain our ability to form a healthy one.

We generally think of egocentricity a quality resulting from too much love or attention. But it’s actually the opposite. An adult who is ego-centric never got their fill as a child. Self-centeredness has to have a clean run in the early years if it isn’t to haunt and ruin the later ones. Those we regard as narcissists are simply unfortunate people who never got the chance to be exceedingly admired at the start.

In an emotionally healthy childhood, our advocate is there to give us the benefit of the doubt. They offer us a positive spin on our behavior. We are assessed by what we might be one day, not by what we are right now. From this we learn kindness and charity.

If our advocate is a harsh critic, for example, they might say that we were ‘attention-seeking’. They imagine that what we most need is a hug and some encouraging words. We might have acted meanly. Our advocate adds that we must have been feeling threatened. If we dropped something accidentally or were negligent; our advocate remembers that tiredness could have explained it, or they were distracted by a new visitor.

Our advocate constantly searches for the story behind the story. They look under the surface for more compassionate explanations. They help us to be on our own side, to like ourselves. If we actually like ourselves, we learn not to be too defensive about our flaws. We learn there is always something to work on, constructively, and we learn to accept ourselves as we are.

In a healthy childhood, the relationship with our advocate is stable, dependable and long-term. We have faith they will be there tomorrow and the day after. They aren’t explosive or fragile. They are almost boringly predictable—so much so, we might start to take them for granted. As a result, we project this trust on to other relationships we develop throughout our life. We are able to believe that what has gone well once can go well again. This belief influences our choice of friends, adult partners, bosses—everyone. We aren’t fascinated by people who are abrupt with us or unreliable; we don’t relish being punished, judged, or mistreated. We can pick out influences who are kind and nurturing, and don’t view them as weak or deficient for being so.

If trouble strikes with our kindly partners, we don’t go into an instant panic. We don’t immediately try to defend ourselves by turning away, avoiding or cutting them off. We can confidently set about trying to repair a love we know we deserve.

In a healthy childhood, we aren’t always required to be wholly good. We are allowed our emotions. We can get angry and sometimes be disgusting. We can say ‘no more, absolutely not, no way’ when we disagree, or settle a dispute with ‘because I feel like it’. Our advocates are adults and know we all, no matter what our age, have our own flaws. As a result, they do not expect a child to be fundamentally better than they are. We do not have to comply at every turn to be merely tolerated. We can let others see our see our shadow sides.

This kind of freedom within our family systems prepares us one day to submit to the demands of society without having to rebel in unproductive, self-defeating ways (rebels being, at their core, people who have had to obey too much too early). We can tow the line when it’s in our long-term interest to do so. At the same time, we’re not overly cowed or indiscriminately obedient either. We learn to find a sound middle point between being completely submissive and self-destructive defiance.

In a healthy childhood, our advocate isn’t jealous or competitive with us. They can allow themselves to be overtaken and superseded. They have had their moment in the spotlight, or else are having it elsewhere beyond the family. They can be proud rather than resentful of the achievements of the (usually same-sex) child. It doesn’t need to be all about them.

The good advocate doesn’t live through the child’s accomplishments. They want them to do well, but for their own sake, and in their own way. There is no particular script that the child has to follow to be loved. For instance, the child doesn’t need to become a doctor or a famous soccer player because that is the path their parent chose. The child isn’t required to support their advocate’s self-doubt or pump them up to others.

In healthy childhood, the child learns that things that break can be fixed. Things that spill can easily be picked up. Plans can go awry, but new ones can be made. The advocate models for the child how to self-soothe, calm down, keep going, and remain hopeful. A voice of resilience, originally external, becomes the way the child learns to speak to themselves. There are alternatives to panic.

Notably, even emotionally healthy childhoods suffer from thins going awry. No one has hung their reputation on the notion that anyone’s childhood could ever be perfect. The advocate does not see it as their role to remove every frustration, pad every sharp corner, or remove every obstacle. They sense that a lot of good can come from having the right, manageable kind of friction through which the child develops their own resources and individuality. Having contact with bearable disappointment, the child is prompted to create their own internal world, in which they can dream, generate new plans, learn to self-soothe and build up their own resources.

Even emotionally healthy childhoods suffer from things going awry.

The child can see that the advocate is neither entirely good nor wholly bad, and therefore is worthy of neither idealizing on a pedestal nor casting out in disparagement. Just as the adult accepts the child with its faults, the child learns to accept the adult with theirs with a blend of melancholy, maturity and gratitude. They learn that, like their advocate, they need to accept that everyone they come into contact with will be a mixture of positive and negative, and that the presence of negativity or flaw is not cause for banishment. As adults, they won’t fall deeply in love and them (becoming fast friends or quick lovers), nor will they become furious at the first moment of let-down (by ghosting or giving off a vibe of being cast out). They have a realistic sense of what can be expected of life alongside another human who is, like them, good enough.

Unfortunately, despite all our advances in technology, education, and material resources, we are not much more advanced in the art of delivering emotionally healthy childhoods than previous generations. The number of breakdowns, inauthentic lives keeping up with some external image of success shows no marked signs of decline. We are failing to offer one another tolerable childhoods not because we are malicious, apathic or uncaring but because we still have so far to go before we know how to do that most apparently simple yet infinitely complicated of things for ourselves: emotional intelligence.

One tool that might just get us there is coaching.


This blog post is part of a series related to The Little Book of Coaching pending publication.

Coaching v Therapy

Photo by  Kari Shea

Photo by Kari Shea


Executive coaching is very solution-focused. Some engagements can be as short as 1-3 sessions. Other clients need longer periods, from six months to a year, strategies and tools to interweave results and relationships at the individual, team, and organization level. It sounds like a simple concept, but it is not easy to pull off. A coach’s background varies, accounting for a wide spectrum of talent. A coach can hold a behavioral, social science, or psychology master’s or doctoral degree.  And, there are also coaches practicing with little professional background. Both types of coaches submit to the requirements of a coaching program. Both types of coaches can get certified through an accrediting body by taking a 3-hour open book test. Because the certification body accepts all comers, some choose not to become certified, using their academic degrees and experience as credentials. There are no state licenses for coaching.

Psychotherapy is a long-term process. A patient works with a therapist to diagnose and resolve problematic beliefs, behaviors, relationship issues, feelings and sometimes physical responses generally resulting from past trauma. The therapist holds a clinical master’s or doctoral degree and submits to state licensing requirements. In general, states license two specific types of roles—mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists. 

In choosing a practitioner with coaching or therapy, the client needs to decide what level of rigor they are looking to engage with and distinguish for themselves the difference between wise counsel versus friendly advice.

Dipping v Dwelling

Both therapy and coaching are collaborative processes based on the relationship between an individual and a practitioner. Both are grounded in dialogue, provide a supportive environment allowing clients to talk openly with someone who’s objective, neutral and nonjudgmental. Both practitioners use a client’s past as a tool for understanding present behaviors. It is here a therapist will dwell to heal and a coach will dip to frame understanding of how the past influences the present. Coaching can be therapeutic, but it is not therapy. Together with the client, both practitioners will work to identify and change the thought and behavior patterns that are keeping clients from feeling and performing their best.

While there is a shared understanding and rigor between trained therapists and coaches educated on behavioral theory, the fundamentals of coaching are what distinguish it from therapy. Therapy dwells in the past and attempts to heal an individual’s emotional pain by reversing the suppression of memories and emotions. Coaching dips into the past and attempts to help an individual frame painful experiences to increase awareness of past patterns and understanding of their impact in present situations. In this way, coaching is not therapy, but it can be therapeutic.


Coaching is focused on helping leaders work through their dilemmas so they can truly learn on the job (in front of others, under pressure) and directly translate that knowledge into results for their teams and ultimately the organization.


Coaches use diagnostics to asses individual and organizational effectiveness and performance. They do not diagnose mental illness. A coach with a background in behavioral science, psychology, or related field has an understanding of the fundamentals of human behavior from a theoretical perspective (how family systems work, human development, adult learning, our lopsided natures, and the impact of denial—to list a few things). Therapists apply a similar lens and use it to determine illnesses and pathologies so their patients can be clinically treated.

 The coach’s focus is typically present-forward compared to the retrospective lens of the therapist. The coach is not focused on healing the past, but rather taking note of how it influences the present and what strategies can help the client increase their effectiveness. Coaching never requires medication, micro-dosing, coordination or services, or adjunct therapies though the client might opt for any those experiences separately with a therapist.


This blog post is part of a series related to The Little Book of Coaching pending publication.

Thought Series: 5 Practices for driving trust


Thought Series provides actionable ideas and anchors for reflection on your life or your work.


Marketing is becoming a more resource-rich function of business. Marketing is the function that creates and sustains long-lasting relationships with the most important assets of any business—the employees, customers, suppliers, and partners. Led by the guiding principles of the organization, marketing matters in every relationship. To some degree, everyone must be a marketer.

Data, digital, social, mobile, analytics, real-time agility—are all common vocabulary and the subject of numerous business articles and conversation. Thus marketers need to shift their focus from pushing messages at people to engaging them in an ongoing conversation and relationship. The speeddirection, and magnitude of the changes in marketing have been widely discussed. But no one has the answer locked up on where connection, collaboration, sharing, gifting are headed—as a means for building trust.

Leaders of values-based organizations offer a path forward since connection and quality of their relationships is how they operate.


You establish and build a community using both content and social media marketing. It can be difficult. You’re interacting with your audience constantly: fostering new relationships, nurturing existing ones, and listening/responding to feedback. You’re building trust and rapport and your social reach is growing.

These things are great for building awareness. You’re putting yourself out there and joining in the conversation. You may not think people are interested in your business and what you have to say, but guess what, they are.

All of that is important. But there is one thing to remember: Our emotions are the primary driver of our on- and offline actions.

Put It Into Practice

One way to measure healthy relationships with other people, is to think about:

  • Do you look forward to seeing that person?

  • Do you care about them?

  • Do they share your values?

  • Do you speak well of them to others?

…because these questions apply to companies as well. See more about the science of emotions in marketing.


Collaboration is one of those words, like innovation or execution, that sometimes loses its meaning in a management context because it is overused. We know we need to work together better. We know we can all get along, and that more heads on an issue make for better solutions. Yet it’s also one of those behaviors that many companies hope will just happen. They think, “let’s put a bunch of good, motivated people together and the collaboration will take place, right?” It’s not that easy — leaders must create conditions in which collaboration is inevitable. And everyone in that environment needs to make a conscious choice to learn from others.

Put It Into Practice

  • What should we make?

  • Who should we make it for?

  • How do we make it in such a way that the story of our product is true?


We all want to feel that our lives have meaning. We gravitate towards brands that help us find that meaning. Apple’s “Think different” or Nike’s “Just do it” represent challenges we can bring into our personal lives. It could be an allusion to our common humanity like Skype’s family portrait series, which illustrated the growth of a long-distance friendship between two girls, each missing an arm. Or it could be a global call to action like Wal-Mart’s sustainable supply chain initiative. Each of these companies built an engaged audience by finding a big, ambitious theme and building a long-running campaign around it. Each also experienced sustained growth.

Put It Into Practice

  • How can you improve people’s lives?

  • How can you develop others?

  • How can you invest in your community?


As Bill Gates said, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”

I think the same is true with Agile. Agile was originally promoted as a “movement” over a decade ago.  Like many new ideas, Agile adoption was slow to start and quick to dominate. From the looks of the marketplace, it looks like Agile has finally hit its stride.

As recently as five years ago, most marketing departments were set up only to conduct campaigns and launches. That is changing, especially at larger companies with large numbers of customers. It is not the old mode of planning a campaign, executing it, analyzing the results, learning from them and applying those lessons to next year’s campaign. Marketers are increasingly running a real-time dialogue, constantly listening and instantly connecting in relevant ways. Consumers have an expectation of immediacy.

A 24/7 mentality requires a different way of working. The industrial model assembly line is gone. Now, open space provides a kind of trading room floor, responds to the ebbs and flows of the market as they occur. Although disciplines experience the larger product launches, it is the day-in and day-out efforts of relationship building with employees, customers, suppliers, and partners who in return reward you with a supportive ecosystem of brand loyalty and a steady stream of purchases.

Put It Into Practice

  • Does the experiment have a clear purpose?

  • Have stakeholders made a commitment to abide by the results?

  • Is the experiment doable?

  • How can we ensure reliable results?

  • Have we gotten the most value out of the experiment?

Although those questions seem obvious, many companies begin conducting tests without fully addressing them.


Unilever Senior Vice-president of Marketing Marc Mathieu likes to say that marketing “used to be about creating a myth and selling it and is now about finding a truth and sharing it.” It is difficult to sustain myths these days; with a few clicks of the mouse, anyone can discover almost anything and instantly circulate it to an audience of millions. Companies confident enough to share the truth are choosing to participate in a web-enabled show and tell— and consumers, employees, suppliers, and partners appreciate it.

Transparency is appealing because you can’t really connect with someone unless there’s some level of transparency. We seek transparency from organizations because we do business in a culture that is characterized by social transparency. Yet, we do business in a culture that has experienced the erosion of privacy.

Put It Into Practice

  • What do you see as the relationship between transparency and generosity?

  • Can you point to examples where transparency made a difference?

  • What steps do you feel you can take to increase transparency? (about what you do, what your group does, what your organization does)

Thought Series: The Value of Coaching


Thought Series provides actionable ideas and anchors for reflection on your life or your work.


The International Coach Federation made a client study of what was gained from coaching

Professional coaching brings many wonderful benefits: fresh perspectives on personal challenges, enhanced decision-making skills, greater interpersonal effectiveness, and increased confidence. And, the list does not end there. Those who undertake coaching also can expect appreciable improvement in productivity, satisfaction with life and work, and the attainment of relevant goals.


Professional coaching maximizes potential and, therefore, unlocks latent sources of productivity. At the heart of coaching is a creative and thought-provoking process that supports individuals to confidently pursue new ideas and alternative solutions with greater resilience in the face of growing complexity.



Building the self-confidence of employees to face challenges is critical in meeting organizational demands. In the face of uncertainty caused by workforce reductions and other factors, expectations of the remaining workforce in a suffering company are very high. Restoring self-confidence to face the challenges is critical to meet organizational demands.



Coaching generates learning and clarity for forward action with a commitment to measurable outcomes. The vast majority of companies (86%) say they at least made their investment back.




Virtually all companies and individuals who hire a coach are satisfied. If your company is not thriving, coaching is an effective catalyst for change.


Source: ICF Global Coaching Client Study (2009) was commissioned by the ICF but conducted independently by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Thought Series: Coaching


Thought Series provides actionable ideas and anchors for reflection on your life or your work.


Executive Coaching applies to a wide range of leaders and up-and-coming leaders: C-suite executives, leadership teams, managers, entrepreneurs and business owners, and up-and-coming talent. Executive coaching is an efficient, high-impact process that helps high-performing people in leadership roles improve results in ways that are sustained over time.

It is efficient because, unlike traditional consulting assignments, it does not require invasive processes, large outside teams, and lengthy reports and analyses to get results.

It is a high-impact process because Executive Coaches typically work with clients in short meetings (i.e., 30 minutes per session). During this time, we will work together to generate important insights, gain clarity, focus, and make decisions to improve performance.

Executive coaching works with high-performing people in leadership roles. It is not therapy, meant to “fix” a person. However, it helpful to have support from time to time in order to perform better. Finally, my goal as an Executive Coach is to improve results in ways that are sustainable over time.

My clients want some sort of outcome, usually related to improved profits, career success, organizational effectiveness, or career and personal satisfaction. At the same time, coaching is about helping people improve their own capabilities and effectiveness, so that the results and performance improvements last.


Not therapy
As noted earlier, executive coaching is not therapy. I am not here to fix you. However, I do ask powerful questions that inquire about why you behave the way they do, or inquire about your beliefs and values that might be causing you to behave the way you do, etc. The questions are about understanding how you can embrace more empowering beliefs and values to get the results they want to get?

Not interim management
Likewise, executive coaching is not the same thing as interim management. I am not stepping in to do the job for you. Instead, I am a “shadow leader” working behind the scenes to help you succeed and improve in lasting ways.

Not consulting
Consultants tend to conduct analysis and make recommendations to clients. Coaches are more non-directive, relying on clients to come up with the answer. If the client needs data or an analysis, the coach holds the client accountable for doing that work. Receiving coaching is not the same as outsourcing your brain.

Not a crystal ball
Finally, my job as an executive coach is not to be a “crystal ball” that magically provides an answer. As a coach, I will intervene and provide advice when appropriate. But I’ll engage in dialogue with you, and then customize a tool or solution that works for your unique solution. Sometimes there is no easy answer, and my value will be to support you in making decisions with incomplete information.


My clients are mid to senior level leaders, spanning multiple sectors. They are values-driven, and focus on work that has meaning.

When these leaders understand what drives their best thinking, they can show up every day and consistently lead from that place. That’s when great things happen. Employees play how they are coached – they follow your lead on what is permissible. If standards rise, expectations increase and performance takes off.

Leaders at all levels of organizations increasingly seek coaching to complement training and other development tools for employees because the return on investment is convincing (see What is the value of coaching?).

The impact can be enormous, and my clients find they benefit most from working with me to:

  • Establish executive presence both internally and externally through thought leadership

  • Solidify equal footing with board members, investors, industry thought leaders and all stakeholders

  • Activate their power-base to leverage and maximize their influence

What does a typical 6-month coaching engagement look like?

  • Discovery Session

  • Leadership 360 Report

  • 1:1 Coaching — up to 20 hours

  • Action planning for goals

  • Observation as needed (up to 6 hours)

  • Critical Coaching — (Limited access for brief calls/emails.)

  • Thought Leadership & Strategic Operational Support (i.e., management of monthly business reviews, annual strategic calendar)

  • Strategic Introductions (client dependent)

Thought Series: Coaching, the map is not the territory


Thought Series are deeper pieces than to reflect on than daily thoughts from short blog posts. They provide actionable ideas and anchors for reflection on your life or your work. 

Many think coaching is about finding a map. But the map is not the territory.


There are many kinds of coaches out there today (Sports Coaches, Trainers, Life Coaches, Mental Health Professionals, etc.) Most engagements emphasize one of three domains: content, process, and context. While every engagement includes some combination of all three, the most powerful coaching gets into what we call context.

Content is the “what.” With content-style engagements, clients asks to share particular
knowledge about specific areas of business. Examples might include:

  • Marketing

  • Business planning

  • Financial management

  • Productivity benchmarks

  • Competitive and strategic insights

  • Legal issues

  • Productivity improvements

  • Technology strategies

  • Legal issues

  • Recruiting, retaining, and developing people

  • Human Resources systems

  • Risk management

The “content engagement” is the safest, easiest type of engagement for clients to request. Content is generally intellectual, and doesn’t require much risk or even action. However, most content-style engagements require process and context in order to get measurable results.

The other challenge with content coaching is that – if you already have the answer – it is very challenging to stay in coaching mode, vs. shifting to the role of a consultant.

Process refers to the “how.” Process-focused coaching helps the client lay out a structure and an action plan to get things done. Typically process engagements are large initiatives that the client is undertaking. Examples include:

  • Transform the culture

  • Develop leaders through an internal Leadership University

  • Improve productivity by 12%

  • Complete a strategic planning exercise

  • Improve the board’s effectiveness.

  • Turn around profitability

  • Develop a plan to increase sales at a large client

  • Restructure the organization

  • Implement a mentoring program

For the most part, you will have an idea already about how to get it done – but for some reason, nothing moves forward. This is why coaches have to move to a deeper level of facilitation, what we call the context level.

Context engagements are engagements in which coaches help clients improve their behavior, attitude, and effectiveness as a manager. Context is about who you are as a leader, the tone you set, the messages you convey, the relationships you build, and what you do and don’t tolerate. Examples include:

  • Influence colleagues and managers without using formal authority

  • Get a better response from employees

  • Eliminate behavioral “blind spots” that are hurting performance

  • Build on talents

  • Be more assertive

  • Collaborate more effectively

  • Handle conflict appropriately

  • Improve relationships with superiors

  • Be more politically astute when recommending ideas

  • Transition to a new, unfamiliar role

Context is often the missing piece that prevents process- and content-related engagements from succeeding. That’s because sustainable results require all three domains: sound decisions based on good knowledge/content, a sound process to get results, and effective interactions and behaviors. In fact, the most effective and satisfying engagements involve content, process, and context.