After her tenure as the visionary leader of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Chris Watney moved to counseling and coaching full-time with People and Possibilities. It’s clear from Chris’s career that she lives by her values, and in this Q+A, she shares how she coaches others to do the same. Besides offering a couple practical tips on how to develop your own roadmap, Chris shares stories of her early professional life when she, among other things, witnessed the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Simply put, Chris is an inspiration.
What is your philosophy of coaching and counseling?
What has worked well for my clients is to identify your values and use them as your life’s compass. Then, it’s addressing the things that get in your way. When people think about values, they quickly go to work and family, but the deeper you dig, the better they can serve as a roadmap. It might really be about connection. It might be, instead of just about a close relationship, about honesty. Then when you get excited about that as a roadmap, it’s a lot easier to tolerate some of the hard things that get in your way because you know where you’re going.
How long have you had a counseling practice?
I realized I wanted to do therapy when I was the spokesperson for the Department of Justice during the Oklahoma City bombing trials. I was working with the media, and I realized during the trial that I really didn’t love that element of the job. I loved getting to know the families who were impacted by the bombing. And this sounds sort of strange when people hear it, but I also was interested in what made Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols tick. These were two individuals who had served their country, and something went wrong. From that, I got really interested in what takes people down certain paths.
After those trials, I pretty quickly decided I wanted to go back to grad school. I started attending the University of Northern Colorado, got my license and all of my hours towards licensure while working at the Children’s Campaign. That was about 13 years ago, and throughout that time, I always had a small private practice. People think that’s a little crazy because at one point I was running the Children’s Campaign and also had a small private therapy practice, which seemed so disconnected. But to me, it gave me a chance to connect one-on-one with people who were struggling, which brought a different perspective to my systems-level work.
You were at Timothy McVeigh’s execution. Did that have a large influence on your life?
That was a real turning point for me in my career. While it was this massive incident, it all boiled down to people. The reason it was a tragedy was the impact on so many individuals. Also, its perpetrators were two people who were not born sociopaths, if you spend the time to figure out their stories. These were two people who believed they were doing something important. So where along the way did individuals miss opportunities to identify that and help them? It’s not very popular to want to help Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, but it’s very real to say this was a tragedy for many people, including a tragedy of two individuals who really could’ve taken different paths had someone intervened earlier. It changed the way I thought of things.
There’s a lot in the news right now about execution, and I can’t imagine what it’s like to be there for one.
It was the first federal execution in 37 years. The Justice Department had to come up with protocols. There was a lot of the “how do we do this?” and not just the execution itself but all of the different elements surrounding it. I was a part of that team.
There were hundreds of reporters, international reporters, covering this story — and we had to figure out how to pick a representative sample to witness it. It’s very important. That’s how the public gets information about what we’re doing. We had some slots designated for news outlets close to the scenario, so reporters from Oklahoma City, the Associated Press, others. For the additional slots, we decided to do a drawing, almost a lottery. The morning of the execution, which was scheduled at 7 a.m., we met in an auditorium at 4 a.m., and we literally handed out lottery tickets. The reporter would keep one number and put one in the bucket. I drew five numbers and said, raise your hand if this is your number, and you’ll be included in the pool. I kept calling numbers and nobody was raising their hand. I was like, are there missing tickets? Why are these not matching up? Several reporters had pretended they weren’t picked. I remember realizing at that moment that, even though we were all professionals and we had a job to do, it also went beyond that. It’s a very tricky moral situation. It’s a tricky thing to witness. It has long-term ramifications.
You have a degree in journalism. What did you think you were going to do after graduation?
My emphasis in journalism school at the University of Kansas was in business communications. I thought I might do corporate work or corporate PR. My first job was with the Justice Department, at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Kansas. What I fell in love with at that job was the concept of having a client who I felt really strongly about and that I felt really aligned with ideologically. It was my first exposure to public service, and by that I don’t just mean government, I mean working for people, and most often, to me, that’s meant vulnerable people.
I stuck with the Justice Department for eight years, the Colorado Children’s Campaign for 13. It ties back to how I think about my therapy practice. If your life is values-driven, then it’s really quite clear. It provides this direction. There are so many messy things in the world. If you use values and the things you care about to actually decide how you spend the hours in your day, it really helps simplify things.
Are there practical ways you’d suggest people channel their values into their work?
I don’t do a lot of separating between work and life. The exact same values that most people come up with for their relationships and personal lives are often the drivers of their professional work as well, if they really think about it. Part of it is spending time to think about what those values are, writing that down, and having it documented somewhere. But if you write these things down, you give them thought, you meditate on them, you adjust them when you need to, if they’re living values to you, you can use them in every part of your life.
One of mine is around honesty and integrity. “Lying” is one of my favorite essays, by Sam Harris. I would encourage anyone to read it. It’s about how there is never, ever a good use for lying. People will say, well, you can’t always tell the whole truth. And his premise is, no. Never. That was one of the things at the Children’s Campaign that I tried to do. I always decided it was going to be easier to go with my values. That’s the kind of leader I wanted to be.
I associate you with having an adventurous spirit. Is that accurate? And how do you connect to the world outside of work?
Outdoor adventure is the way I connect to the world outside of work the most. My spirit of adventure is a way of managing my own anxiety. I took on this adventure part of my life to compensate for some of my fears. I love backpacking. I backpack every summer. I do it alone. I do it with friends. I think there is always a certain level of adventure to that and being alone in the wilderness. There’s certainly the fun and the adrenaline, but more than that, it’s a way to tell that part of me that’s anxious, “I recognize you’re there, and I’m still going to do this.”
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