I went there thinking I had so much to give them. I came away humbled and grateful because they had given me so much more.

Like most everyone else, I was moved to action by the harrowing impact of Typhoon Yolanda in Tacloban City, and other hard-hit areas in the Philippines. My company, Benchmark Consulting, donated money and goods, some family members volunteered in the repacking operations of the Social Welfare, etc. But in the aftermath, I wanted to be able to help another way. So I offered my services as a coach and one client bank took up the offer, flying our team to Leyte starting January 9 to coach their Tacloban branch staff, pro-bono.

Reality check was, as expected, distressing. The trauma they experienced remained immediate and threatened to impede their ability to move forward, even as they articulated the desire to pick up their lives. Most have grown reflective about what they went through, but some still can’t talk about it without constantly breaking into tears. One described the experience as “like being inside a gigantic washing machine” where everything tumbled from the churning and pounding and lashing that seemed to last forever. After that, the stench of death, hunger, homes lost, relatives missing, property gone to waste, a sense of having been punished, shock, disbelief, anger and pain. It was a challenge to keep my focus while inundated with stories of loss and grief. It was very tempting to follow through and dwell on the details of every account because they were just so compelling. It was an ultimate test of self-management to stop myself from being “hooked” into their emotional outpouring while maintaining a heart-to-heart connection with them.

I have always known that curiosity is a quality that every coach should possess. But this experience highlighted the fact that a coach also needs to manage such curiosity. Otherwise, he can be easily swept away by his coachee’s long, descriptive stories such that before he knows it, he may be too absorbed and intent on satisfying his own curiosity instead of helping the coachee get unstuck.

We brought up some framework to help them make sense of their feelings and see that there is a path to moving forward. At first, I was hesitating to shift their perspective, thinking they may not even be ready to see what’s beautiful and what’s ahead of them. They may not be able to recognize any positive side to an overwhelmingly negative situation. But ultimately, I had to do it. A coach takes risks, and must not even predict a possible reaction or response. I must come from a space of not knowing what’s in their minds, instead of prejudging. And so, with my best intentions to help these people see bright opportunities and get them excited again about their future, I asked them these questions when I found the opportunity: What value can you see in the wreckage of what you used to know as your life? What lessons did you learn from this experience? How did this experience make you a better person? How does one rise above these and get on with living? The answers came, slowly at first after some silence, and then it was so edifying just listening to them and seeing their faces light up with optimism. Indeed, complete trust is key in coaching – trust your coachee and trust your process.

“After it was over,” one said, “ I hugged anyone I knew who also survived, including one I badly resented before. Whatever we quarreled about was no longer important. I was just glad to know he survived too.”

“It is true, we should not postpone forgiveness,” said another participant. “ When I realized I could die, I thought I should have asked for the forgiveness of this and that person, and I should have told this and that person that I have forgiven him. It felt very urgent.”

One recalled sitting somewhere in the dark in the days that followed, and looking up to the sky in the midst of the smell of decaying bodies, he couldn’t help thinking how beautiful the stars were. He said he’d never seen them as bright before, and somehow he knew things will still work out.

Another participant remembered that people were saying “I love you” to each other while holding on for dear life in the roof of their house. “We have always known that family is important. Family is why you work. And you also expect your family to know that,” he mused. “But when things are really bad, you cannot take for granted that they know. You really want to tell them. I think we should just keep telling them.”

“A very clear sense of what’s truly important – that’s what I got,” one said. “Houses, cars and all other material things can go. But not the people you love. While you have them, life is good.”

“I discovered new things about myself,” volunteered another. “I realized I am actually more capable and more resourceful than I thought.”

Everyone agreed that as you do what it takes to survive, you uncover an inner toughness you never knew you had. One took off his clothes so as not to be carried away by the flood. One managed to take his cancer-stricken wife to the roof and save her against all odds; she passed away weeks later in relative comfort. One learned how to sleep sitting up, surrounded by dead bodies. Most learned to rely on their ingenuity, stamina and discernment to get by. Practically everyone begged for food and was moved to share whatever little they got.

As the participants trained their thoughts beyond the loss and pain to focus on empowering insights into their experience, the realizations were many. Right on top was finding more value in life. They expressed a deeper appreciation of family and friends, of time, of opportunities to do others good, and of joy even in such simple privileges as a board to sleep on, or a bottle of Coke. They also recognized the need to be prepared not only in terms of anticipating disasters but also in terms of paying attention to what is truly important, nurturing their relationships, and striving always to live a meaningful life, transient as it is. Equally inspiring was their articulation of a newfound fortitude. Everyone felt he or she was stronger. Having gone through the worst, they now believe they are better equipped to face up to whatever else they will encounter.

It was from this frame of mind that they proceeded to think about goals and what they intend to do to achieve them – some over the next few weeks, some over the year. From this point on, the coaching process just flowed.

The Yolanda experience was undoubtedly heartbreaking. But as this group shows, heartbreaks also have a very powerful way of opening new and rare levels of understanding that inform one’s view of life and subsequent actions. I went to Leyte thinking how I can help revive their passion for life. I hope I have helped. But what I know for sure is that I came away feeling privileged by what they shared. Infinitely inspired. Definitely a better coach.