Last week I had one of those moments which make my job as a business coach and leadership skills trainer so completely satisfying.

sunbeam  There are plenty of them anyway, but this one was like a beam of light shining through a cloudy sky.  It really knocked me out.

I was coaching someone for the first time.  Priscilla is a mature student studying mental health at University, and she wants to apply her knowledge and personal experience when she graduates by running workshops in mental health in the workplace.  These will be designed to help people to recognise symptoms of mental disorder at work, so that support can be provided earlier.

At the start of our coaching session she was quite nervous, and we spent some time talking about the content for the workshop, how people learn and one or two other relevant topics, with me on my feet showing how I go about handling questions and so on.  But in the back of my mind I knew that at some point I needed to pass the ball to Priscilla and observe her style and approach so we could work out how she can improve.

We swapped seats:  she became the trainer and I the participant in an imaginary room of 10 people.  I turned on the video camera so she could see for herself how she came across and work out the areas she wants to work on.  I gave her no input into how to structure her personal introduction:  this came from the heart, from someone who was very nervous and had never run a training session before.

There were two things she said which knocked me sideways.  I can still remember them (that’s how powerful it was) one week later.

“I came to the UK 10 years ago to develop myself and to be able to support my daughter who is 15 and still lives in South Africa, so that she can have the education I did not have myself.” 

Read that one again if you will, and pause to reflect on the courage and commitment this modest and self effacing lady has demonstrated.

I already had a lump in my thoat, but then she went on:

“I’m interested in mental health because of the issues I experienced myself when I was in Africa.  I was not supported, and at one time was taken to a traditional healer, which stressed me further and made things far worse……Seeing my colleagues struggling with the stigma of mental health and lack of support has motivated me to help people at work to be more aware of mental health issues.”

Gulp.  I was almost speechless.  I could find nothing to say to Priscilla by way of suggested improvement.  She could have run a workshop there and then as far as I was concerned.  She had said enough to convince me of the relevance of her personal experience and the motivation she had for running the workshop.  I cannot think how anyone could have said anything more convincing and compelling, and she had engaged me in a way I have rarely seen others achieve.

In this world where there are hoards of pseudo-trainers who get their “experiences” and their content second hand from books, the internet, and other trainers, and who run a course by being ahead of their participants by one page (that’s all you need), Priscilla is already standing head and shoulders above the bulk of them.  She has something which is very hard to replicate:  authenticity and empathy which comes from having been through it herself.

It reminded me more widely of why some people are so powerful when they communicate.  When they are speaking from personal experience, you can tell.  It somehow leaks.  This is why we pay good money to after dinner speakers who have proven they have experience, whether as explorers, athletes or as business leaders.  It’s also, conversely, why we don’t buy so much of what our politicians tell us:  many of them have little or no real world experiece to draw on, and it comes across as fake or disingenuous.

I have a feeling this is going to be one of those coaching relationships where the coach learns as much as the coachee (awful word, I know).  I’ve always thought that you don’t have to be an expert to coach someone, or indeed to train others in it.  But it sure helps when you have had that personal experience to draw on, particularly in something as complex and profound as mental health.

I can’t wait to see the finished workshop, not only to see Priscilla achieving her full potential as a facilitator, but also because the topic seems so relevant to today’s increasingly dysfunctional and stressful workplace.  I think it has potential to make a real difference.

Speaking for myself, it already has.