A Coaching Power Tool Created by George Goh
(Career Coach, SINGAPORE)
Coaches are expected to show empathy to their clients in the course of their coaching sessions. ICF Competency No. 4, Coaching Presence, states that a coach must be observant, emphatic and responsive. The coach must also demonstrate confidence in working with strong emotions and can self-manage and not be overpowered or enmeshed by the client’s emotions. However, in reality, coaches get to hear many deeply personal and professional issues, problems and situations in the course of coaching clients. The coach may personally identify with some of the issues himself. He may, on the other hand, not have experienced it himself nor imagine it can happen in real life.
There will be days when the coach goes home, after a day’s work, filled with the burdens of his clients. Some coaches may feel the deep issues personally and, in so doing, carry their clients’ burdens on their own shoulders when they come home. There may also be occasions when, for example, the coach gets so caught up in the personal situation of the client that they end up displaying their own emotions or even break down in front of the client. Coaches are, in reality, as human as their clients, with their own mental and emotional frailties. This may happen when the coach over-empathies with the client.
Real-life Case Study
I once coached a female middle-aged client, who, in the first session, spoke at length about the struggles that her daughter, Sandra, and her family went through over 12 years before she finally succumbed to her illness in early 2019. Sandra was 14 years old when she enrolled in The School of Arts (SOTA) in Singapore to study Visual Arts. The budding artist’s happiness was short-lived when, 2 weeks after enrollment, she was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer, leaving her wheelchair-bound and fighting for her life. She had to go through 5 surgeries and 21 cycles of chemotherapy. Despite this, Sandra was determined to fight her illness.
She then put in her whole being, despite the pain, in her artwork. After graduation, she went on to hold several art exhibitions to showcase her works and won many awards. Sandra showed no self-pity but managed to emit strength and positivity. The pain helped her to grow and she was a great inspiration to those suffering from cancer. But alas, despite her exemplary and gallant efforts through the years, Sandra finally succumbed to her illness after a 12-year struggle.
After hearing this highly inspirational personal journey of this young woman, who despite her illness, never failed to display so much courage and optimism in her life, I was moved to tears in front of the client. I experienced this personal kind of connection with the client as I too lose my young niece to cancer just a few months back. It sat really heavily with me. Having broken down, I excused myself to the restroom to let my emotions flow freely. After I managed to compose myself, I went back to the coaching room, apologised, asked to stop the session and arranged another session on another day.
Coaches have to learn how to handle the depth and enormity of their clients’ situations without shouldering the burdens themselves. Every coach knows that empathy is vital in the practice of coaching as it involves understanding a client’s condition from their perspective. However, empathy lies on a spectrum, with ‘detached concern’ at one end, and ‘over-empathy’ at the other.
What Is Empathy?
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the thoughts or feelings of another. To feel and display empathy, it’s not necessary to share the same experiences or circumstances as others. Rather, empathy is an attempt to better understand the other person by getting to know their perspective. We empathise with the full range of the other person’s experience: the sensations, emotions, thoughts, and desires, and the joys and the sorrows. Unlike sympathy, empathy is not just for the painful side of life. You can feel empathy when you see someone happy, too.
Empathy is often confused with pity, sympathy and compassion, which are reactions to the plight of others. While these words are close cousins, they are not synonymous with one another. Pity is a feeling of discomfort at the distress of others and often has paternalistic overtones. Pity is less engaged than empathy, sympathy, or compassion, amounting to little more than a conscious acknowledgement of the plight of others. Empathy means that you feel what a person is feeling. Sympathy means you can understand what the person is feeling.
Compassion is the willingness to relieve the suffering of another. It takes empathy and sympathy a step further. When you are compassionate, you feel the pain of another (ie. empathy) or you recognise that the person is in pain (ie. sympathy), and then you do your best to alleviate the person’s suffering from that situation.
Empathy, however, does not mean waiving your own rights or interests. Knowing this can free us to be more empathic. By feeling strong in ourselves, like a big tree with deep roots, we can let the other person’s situation flow through our awareness like the wind through our leaves, knowing that we can let it in and still remain standing, intact and whole.
Expressing empathy shows an awareness of how it is for the other person and is communicated, often non-verbally, through subtle facial expressions or postures that mirror the other person’s. This expression of empathy gives the other person the sense of “feeling felt.” Often, the expression of empathy is all the interaction needs. It conveys the vital signal in any communication – “Message received.” That alone often calms the other person and helps them feel better.
Empathy is not the act of getting lost in the client’s state. If this happens, the coach will be pulled down with the client, if he is drowning, and will not be able to his job properly. Empathy is the ability to see the perspective of the client, staying out of judgement, recognising emotions and communicating it with the client. It is the coach’s ability to accurately put himself “in the client’s shoes” – to understand their situation, perceptions and feelings from their point of view – and to be able to communicate that understanding back to the client.
Empathy is a critical skill for a coach. It contributes toward an accurate understanding of his clients, their perceptions and concerns. It also enhances his communication skills, being able to sense what his client wants to know and if they are getting it from the coach or not. From the perspective of coaching, it is also important for coaches to distinguish the difference between sympathy and empathy.
Sympathy is often confused with empathy as both are viewed as passing on a sense of caring or compassion. In coaching, however, there are clear differences between these aspects that can either potentially delay or increase the coaching process. The objective of empathy is to understand the client and the focus of sympathy is the well-being of the client. Sympathy may involve actually being affected by the client’s person’s perceptions, opinions and feelings.
In practice, if a client expresses emotional distress, a coach employing an empathic stance tries to understand the individual’s functioning and convey a sense of the experience back to the client. If a coach sympathetically responds to a client’s distress, he may attempt to alleviate the client’s plight and will find it much harder to be objective. Unlike sympathy, empathy allows a sense of detachment and separateness from the client’s identity. The coach is also able to direct attention to the issues of the client and maintain a focus on his perspectives.
To foster empathy, the coach can practice the following:
How often does the coach sustain focused attention on the client? And they can sense it quickly if your attention wanders.
Try to get a sense of the being behind the eyes of the client
Imagine the other person as a child. This is especially useful for clients who are irritating or threatening.
Find an interest in yourself for the client
Ask questions like “What was that like?”, “How did you feel?”, etc.
Look beneath the surface
What does the client most deeply want?
Regularly ask clients for their perspectives and/or feelings
Coaches should also consider any feedback that their clients provide (written, verbal, body language) to help them better understand their clients and their personalities and how they perceive the coach’s thoughts and communication style.
What can block or inhibit empathetic engagement?
What makes being empathetic so difficult? Being empathetic can be challenging for some coaches, all of the time, and for all coaches, at least some of the time. These may be due to the following factors:
Bad listening habits
Empathetic listening is about tuning in to what the client is thinking, wanting, feeling, as well as saying. Empathy requires presence and attendance to the whole of the other person. When we do not listen fully, we do not connect.
Being uncomfortable with emotions
Being present and fully empathetic, without trying to fix a situation, can be uncomfortable for some coaches. Being empathetic means being with the feelings of the client without trying to change the person, their feelings, or the situation.
Having a conflicting agenda
A coach must follow the client’s agenda and not lead the client to his own agenda. Sometimes it can feel like empathy and moving the agenda forward are in opposition, if the coach and client have a conflict of agendas.
Over-empathy can happen with coaches who may be naturally very empathic, especially with clients who may have similar experiences as himself. It may happen when the coach loses distance in the coaching relationship and becomes overly engaged in the client’s material, to the detriment of his individuality or objectivity.
With empathy, the coach will feel the client’s stress, anxiety and anger in his body. He may feel the pain emotionally and physically with clients who have experienced similar thoughts, feelings, or events as himself. However, a coach needs to know how to turn it on and off. Ideally, he wants to be able to use it at will and then turn it off when necessary.
When empathy is activated, a coach becomes a ‘porous’ being, where his energy goes out to others so he can put himself in their shoes. That energy also goes into him as he soaks up what is going on around him, from his clients and their problems. When a coach is well balanced, empathy allows him to see things clearly from the perspective of his clients so it makes for good coach-client relationships.
But what if the coach wants to help them so much, that he starts taking on their emotions and problems? What if the boundaries become blurry and the coach take on responsibilities that are not his? What if he stops allowing his clients the responsibility and the opportunity to create change and want to create it for them, directly or indirectly?
This is when the negative effects of over-empathy kicks in. If a coach does not know how to turn his empathy off, even after the day’s work, that is when it may affect his quality of life. The impact of having over-empathy, when he does not know how to turn it off, lies in a spectrum – ranging from being a nuisance to actually being quite debilitating. The coach may take on his client’s physical and emotional pain and be crippled temporarily by it.
If the coach let these emotions sit in his body, his body and mind can be emotionally hijacked. Unchecked over-empathy can lead to concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, making it difficult to release the emotions. Taking on the client’s feelings so that you live their experience can make you susceptible to feelings of depression or hopelessness. This is the extreme effects of over-empathy, a situation when too much empathy becomes bad.
Not only will this lead to burnout, but the coach can also break the bond of trust he is hoping to strengthen. When he embodies his client’s emotions, he may feel responsible for relieving their pain, fix their problems and makes them feel better. However, any intrusive reaction may push his client away no matter the value of his intention. They might feel less understood, disrespected and undermined when the coach interrupts to render aid. The client may no longer feel they can fully express themselves to the coach.
Over-empathy is linked to co-dependence and poor boundaries in general. Self-awareness can help guide the coach on maintaining appropriate boundaries to prevent over-empathy. Where boundaries might seem to be less clear, the coach can ask themselves:
- Is this in the client’s best interest?
- Is this part of the client’s agenda or the coach’s agenda?
- Whose needs are being met?
In order to maintain appropriate boundaries, the coaching relationship should always focus on the client and there should be a clear understanding of the ethics and values inherent in client-centred coaching.
Strategy for coaches to prevent over-empathy
To prevent over-empathy, the coach must also have an open, non-judgmental sense of awareness. He must have the capacity to remain receptive to whatever might pass into his thoughts, views, hearing or feeling and to do so in a non-critical way. When he notices any emotions rising in his body, he should just name the emotion and offer what he senses to the client to help the client better understand the experience. Then he should relax his body and let the emotion subside.
Other actions include the following:
Boundaries are the relational framework within which the coach and client work together. It is these boundaries that make it transparent to the client the limitations of the coach and the coaching process, while also distinguishing the self of the client from the self of the coach.
Understand and know that every client has a journey and an experience that he has to have.
It is theirs to have and there is nothing the coach can do to stop or change these journeys. Nor, should they. The coach can only support their journey through the coaching process, moving forward.
Treat all clients with respect.
The coach providing even the smallest sampling of the good that is out there is part of the client’s experience and learning.
Don’t assume that any client will do poorly based on their circumstances or lack of opportunity.
In reality, the client has a higher power within him that will help him to figure out his own solutions in order to move forward.
Expressing the emotions that the client’s situation brought up in the coaching session to someone else is important for the coach to process these difficulties successfully. The coach should seek therapy to get those feelings out in an honest and practical way. If therapy is not an option, peer support and getting coaching is important.
Know that your clients are empowered and strong in their own ways.
Even if their current situation is hiding it temporarily from themselves and the coach. The stronger the coach believes they are, the more empowered the client will become.
Reflective practice, peer support, writing (journaling) and trying to relax (relaxation techniques and meditation).
The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence, by Justin Bariso
Can You Have Too Much Empathy?, by Dr Marcia Reynolds
The Empath’s Toolkit: A Guide to Recovery for the Overwhelmed Empath, by Anna Sayce
Can You Coach Empathy?, by ‘Learning in Action Technologies’
Empathy Vs Sympathy, by ‘Psychology Today’