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.

About 

Matt Somers is the UK’s leading trainer of managers as coaches. His coaching skills training programmes, books, articles and seminars have helped thousands of managers achieve outstanding results through their people.

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