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Empathy in Coaching

Empathy is a quality particularly crucial in a coach. Clients, as a rule, start out as strangers―they come to you looking for help and guidance with issues that may seem entirely professional, but invariably have personal aspects. That means they need to trust you―and they will be more inclined to do that if they feel you empathise with them.

Empathy is not the same thing as sympathy. Dr Nicola Davies differentiates the two nicely:

“To express sympathy is to make it known that you are aware of another’s distress and that you have compassion for them. To express empathy takes things a step further by not only expressing compassion but also showing a deeper level of understanding by entering into the other person’s experience.”

Obviously, sympathy is also essential, especially in dealing with clients who may be facing particularly stubborn obstacles. However, empathising with them― trying to stand beside them and help them over that obstacle―is empathy, and no good coach can work without it.

How, as a coach, can you best demonstrate empathy? Dr Thea Lobell has some solid advice on this, outlined below.

First, create a safe and nurturing environment for the client. This is both literal and figurative. Your coaching area, if you are meeting a client on your premises, should be uncluttered and private; if you’re meeting elsewhere, try to be mindful of the need to meet in a place that is as free as possible of distractions. Then, use encouraging behaviours to prompt the client to share more information about his/her life circumstance. If you are coaching face-to-face, these include non-verbal cues such as open body posture and verbal cues such as “um,” “I see,” and “tell me more.” Finally, truly listen to the client’s words and observe non-verbal cues. Every single ounce of attention needs to be focused on the client. Try to see where the client is coming from and what s/he is experiencing.

Once you’ve created a safe and nurturing environment and the client has opened up about what is going on in his or her life, you can accurately reflect the client’s feelings. Identify the client’s underlying emotions, and restate those emotions back to him or her to clarify and focus attention on the client’s feelings. The basic formula for displaying empathy:

You feel . . . (name the emotion expressed by the client)
because . . . (name the thoughts, experiences, and behaviours the client has mentioned).

You may want to include a disclaimer beforehand such as “let me see if I have this right” or “please tell me if this is accurate.”

This approach will help the client feel at ease with you and help to nurture trust. It will also ensure that you truly understand what it is your client is going through―which, in turn, will give you more of a sense of how the client may be approaching goals. When it comes to empathy, everyone wins.