Empathy and the difference it can make to your coaching

Written by Matt Somers on . Posted in Coaching Skills for Managers

Coaching Skills Series

This is one of many articles I intend to post this year considering the range of principles, skills and experiences you’ll need to be an effective coaching manager for the people in your team.

This post considers empathy one of many coaching qualities of which more will be examined next time.

empathyNever forget that your coachees will not be passive during coaching. They will be noticing what we say and how we say it and monitoring our body language in much the same way as we’ll monitor theirs. I would contend that what the coachee hears is more important than what the coach says and there is often a big difference between the two. Once again, working with the coachee’s reality will lead to a greater level of trust and a more insightful conversation for both parties.

To do so requires us to use empathy. Within the context of coaching empathy refers to better anticipating how the coachee will respond to a message or to an invitation to think in answer to a coaching question. This ability to appreciate the thoughts, feelings and intentions of another person is sometimes known as transposing or more colloquially as ‘walking a mile in another man’s shoes’.

We can see how this would be particularly useful in thinking through how we might introduce coaching or in preparing to coach an individual for the first time. Put yourself in the position of a person being coached for the first time and ask yourself, ‘What am I thinking? What am I feeling? And what do I want? Given the misinformation that abounds regarding coaching and the unhelpful and misguided connotations with things like counselling and psychotherapy we might assume that I thinking what have I done wrong? Why me? What am I poor at? Is everyone getting this or am I being singled out? I’m likely to be feeling anxious, defensive, guarded and wary.

In the presence of these thoughts and feelings I think I’d want to get through this session or conversation as quickly as possible and with my dignity intact. We could accurately label all of this mental activity as interference and it would take a miraculous bit of coaching to get past it all and find a more useful and appropriate focus.

I realise that I’ve painted a very bleak picture and that in reality reactions to the prospect of being coached will vary a lot and could include thinking ‘great’ feeling ‘excited’ and wanting to get on with it. The point is we can see the value of appreciating things from another’s standpoint and in the example above how important it would be to acknowledge the thoughts and feelings and to take the time to position coaching properly before we could expect it to do any good. Of course in the end it is just educated guesswork and we need to keep an open mind.

I also like the idea that ‘empathy is sympathy in action’ which means that when someone describes a problem it is much more useful for us to ask, ‘what do you intend to do and when do you intend to do it than just say Oh isn’t that awful for you.

I said, are you a good listener?

Written by Matt Somers on . Posted in Coaching Skills for Managers

Coaching Skills Series

This is one of many articles I intend to post this year considering the range of principles, skills and experiences you’ll need to be an effective coaching manager for the people in your team.

In this post we return to the matter of listening; a most vital coaching tool. It helps to create a climate of empathy which we’ll consider more generally in two week’s time

listeningI’ve explored the importance of listening many times, but it is such a vital component of effective coaching and such a key skill for the effective coach that I want to offer some more guidance here. We spend roughly 70% of our waking hours in some form of verbal communication but few of us have ever had any formal training in the art of listening. We need to be open to any suggestions that might help us improve. So here goes.

Never rule out any topic of discussion as uninteresting. As a coach always be on the lookout for new information. While the content of the conversation may be dull (to you) there is always something to be learned, especially about the art of communication.

Accept the coachee’s reality. This is not an exhortation to believe almost anything anyone tells you. The point is to suspend judgment during the immediate experience of listening. In initially accepting what the coachee says you’re not confirming things as ‘true’, you’re simply acknowledging exactly what the speaker is saying – right or wrong, good or bad, true or false. This capacity for total acceptance frees the mind to listen for other clues.

Listen for the whole message. One estimate has it that 75% of all communication is non-verbal. Beyond the words themselves is a host of clues as to what the speaker is communicating. What do you notice about the posture the coachee has adopted? Is it rigid or relaxed, ‘closed or open’? When the coachee answers your coaching questions what can you tell from their facial expression? Specifically, does it support the words? What about their hands? Are they clenched, open, relaxed, tense? Does the coachee maintain eye contact? Does the tone of voice match the words? What do you notice about the coachee’s movements? Are they intense or relaxed, congruent – in keeping with the content of what’s being said – or conflicting? Do all three things combined – the body language – suggest that the whole speech is “staged”? What you’re looking for here are inconsistencies between with is said and what is really meant, clues that tell you the spoken message isn’t really genuine.

Don’t get hung up on the coachee’s delivery style. Above and beyond what was outlined above, there are also factors that simply reveal unease in delivery rather than any attempt to mislead. The key is being able to distinguish between the two. It’s easy to get turned off when someone speaks haltingly, has an irritating voice, or just doesn’t come across well. The key to good listening, however, is to get beyond the manner of delivery to the underlying message. In order for this to happen, you have to resolve not to judge the message by the delivery style. It’s amazing how much more clearly you can “hear” once you’ve made the decision to really listen rather than to criticise.

Avoid structured listening. Structured listening refers to the idea of adopting a format for listening, either in the form of posing mental questions e.g. “What is the coachee’s main point? What are they really saying? or by monitoring for key words, e.g. problem, solution, future, past. The problem with this approach is that it creates a dialogue in the listener’s mind which we can recognise as internal interference. I think it’s better to keep an open mind and receive the information just as it comes, without any attempt to structure or judge it.

Tune out distractions. Replace them with a focus on the speaker. Poor listeners are distracted by interruptions; good listeners tune them out and focus on the speaker and the message. This is easier said than done of course and we know from looking at focus earlier on that even when it’s achieved it’s easily lost. Try to maintain eye contact with the coachee; lean forward in your chair; let their words settle in your ears; and turn in your chair, if necessary, to block out unwanted distractions. Put your mobile in a drawer, pull the blinds, do whatever you need to do to focus on your coachee.

Be alert to your own prejudices. We all have them and we need to think specifically about the impact of our prejudices on our ability to really hear what’s being communicated. Often, we are unaware how strongly our prejudices influence our willingness and ability to hear. The fact is: any prejudice, valid or not, tends to obscure the message.

Resist the temptation to argue. Why is it that, when we hear someone saying something with which we strongly disagree, we immediately begin mentally formulating a counter argument? There are many reasons of course, but one of the most common is our natural tendency to resist any new information that conflicts with what we believe. Bear in mind that you can always put forward an argument later, when you’ve heard the whole message and had time to think about it.

Take notes but…..only if it helps. There’s a scale of opinion when it comes to the place of note taking in effective coaching. At one end, is the argument that coaching is about thinking and note taking simply creates interference. Others contend that copious notes and detailed action plans are an absolute necessity. I’m personally ambivalent about note taking. If you can listen and take notes at the same time, great. If you can’t, do without note taking or record key words only (or even key images/doodles) or pause every now and then for summary notes. Experiment and find what suits you best. One strong feeling I do have is that we should not ask the coachee to take notes during the session – they should be free to think – but that it’s ok to ask them to record a summary afterwards.


How well do you know yourself?

Written by Matt Somers on . Posted in Coaching Skills for Managers

Coaching Skills Series

This is one of many articles I intend to post this year considering the range of principles, skills and experiences you’ll need to be an effective coaching manager for the people in your team.

This post is about the importance of self-awareness for the coach. Check back in about a fortnight for a further look at effective listening.

JohariIn an earlier post we examined the principle of awareness and saw that before anything can improve we must first increase our awareness of how it is now. This applies to us as coaching managers as much as anything else. We too must increase of awareness of how we are; how we are coaching now, and the effects of our own behaviour alongside raising awareness of these things in those whom we coach to move forward.

The Johari window (see the diagram above) is a very useful model for developing self awareness. It was conceived by Joe Luft and Harry Ingram (hence the name) as a means of identifying interpersonal communication style. It suggests there are two sources from which we learn about our impact and communication style: ourselves and others.

The open/free area includes behaviour thoughts and feelings that both we and others know. The fact that we and others hold similar information creates more effective personal communication. In fact, the underlying assumption of the whole model is that the effectiveness of our personal communication increases the larger this window becomes.

The blind area represents aspects not known to ourselves but readily apparent to others. The red faced, scowling manager claiming, “I’m not angry” and the customer saying, “Yes, I understand” whilst frowning and looking puzzled are classic examples.

The secret area represents the thoughts and feelings we keep to ourselves. The secret area represents a large part of our behaviour when amongst strangers – where not a lot is known about each other and trust is low.

The unknown area represents the most deeply rooted aspects of our personality which are not apparent to ourselves or others around us. It is really the realm of highly trained psychologists and of less importance in everyday coaching although we may conclude that our untapped potential lies in this area.

If we agree that larger open windows lead to greater self awareness and more effective communication then the question becomes how do we enlarge the open window?

To widen the open window, that is to have less ‘secrets’; fewer things ‘not known to others’, requires us to disclose. As managers who coach we need to be prepared to take a lead on this and be willing to share things with our coachee that may initially feel uncomfortable. This can include revealing that you are new to coaching and anxious about ‘getting it right’ or doing it well’. This can also act as a powerful way of building trust and demonstrating the value of not holding things back.

To deepen the open window, that is to have fewer ‘blind spots’; fewer things ‘not known to ourselves’ requires effective feedback. This means as coaches we need to be open to feedback and encourage our coachees to tell us what they valued about our coaching, what they would have liked more of or less of, etc.