A Coaching Power Tool Created by Haseena Mohd. Sham
(Executive Coach, SINGAPORE)
Empathy is a choice. It’s a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.– Brene Brown
Human connection is a fascinating thing. In our everyday lives, we all have our story and we know that deep in our hearts no matter how small that story is, it matters. It matters simply because it is part of us, it is our journey, it is our experiences and our lives situations. So, what makes our story connects with others? And why on the other hand that story seems to disconnect with others? In this volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (V.U.C.A) world, society is plagued with various challenges which affect our personal, professional and social issues. Some of the most common stories we hear are prejudice, social injustice, violations of human rights, oppression, discrimination, depression, bullying, domestic abuse, suicidal and many others that threaten our daily existence. If you examine these challenging situations, it is not surprising to know that every problem arises from a lack of empathy. Given that every one of these stories involves multitudes of feelings and emotions that may affect changes in personality and in behaviour, how much of importance and consideration do we place upon the understanding of the human emotions called, Empathy?
Humans are more than simply social beings, we are pro social beings with pro social behaviours and we are wired to connect. In other words, we derive happiness not just from doing things with others, but from doing things both with and for others. We experience empathy unconsciously when we see someone who reminds us of ourselves. One example is perhaps when we choked up watching a highly emotional movie, having a character depicting loss and abandonment. For some of us, that very moment invokes certain emotions that allow us to step into that world and for that very moment that world becomes our reality. By watching that character or the role of that movie, it allows us to step imaginatively into that reality, heightening our empathy. Our brains have the capacity and the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Lisa Cron, a story coach, who uses the science of brain to hook readers in her writings, mentioned, “You can’t change how someone thinks about something without first changing how they feel about it.” Hence for centuries the movie makers and the storytellers leverage on the science of the emotional brain to capture audience’s attention. Our feeling region part of the brain reacts faster than our thinking region of the brain – we feel first and think second. According to Neurologist Dr. Antonio Damasio, “We are not necessarily thinking machines, we are feeling machines that think.” Our emotional brain delivers us vital clues about our surroundings, and our knowledge, logic, and reasoning allow us to modify the responses of our emotions on the actions we need to take. Emotions are an integral part of our survival as they are the driving force behind many of our behaviours.
Neuroscience has confirmed that there is a region in our brain that is responsible for empathy and compassion, our brain is known to be hard-wired for empathy. According to Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran, a group of researchers in Italy led by Giacoma Rizzolatti found that the subset of our mirror neurons are capable of imitation and replication. So whenever you hear someone saying “I feel your pain,” that is emphatic mirroring, firing the neurons making us feel empathy for others. Interestingly, the way we interact with others when bonding or socialising produces a certain ‘feel good’ chemical called the oxytocin. Remember the time when you were in love, when you went out of your way doing something out-of-this-world for the person that you truly cared for? Now, that is oxytocin in action as it compels you to be more loving, trusting, generous and it is a “feel good” hormone that promotes connection and empathy. An expert on love and an Anthropologist, Helen Fisher said, “Oxytocin is one of the chemicals that drives attachment.”
So if empathy is in inherent in us, why is it that we sometimes struggle to exhibit the behaviour? Why are there moments that we can exemplify empathy at ease and identify with the feelings and emotions of one person better than another? One may argue that if empathy is within us then there would be no limitations in how we demonstrate empathy to one or the other. This brings us back to Professor Brene Brown’s amazing work that provides us with further clarity on how empathy is demonstrated. She mentioned, “Empathy is a choice, it’s a vulnerable choice…,” therefore as coaches how aware are we of making or limiting that choice?
There is nothing harder than the softness of indifference.– Juan Montalvo
Apathy, on the other hand, is quite the opposite of empathy as discussed earlier. It is the lack of concern, interest or emotion that leads to inaction or emotional detachment in understanding one’s pain or suffering. Obviously the phrase “I feel your pain” is almost foreign to those who are apathetic. However, several studies have shown that the inability to care or the lack of desire to understand the feelings of others that caused the state of inaction or indifference may sometimes be due to a clinical condition or a cognitive impairment. Having said that, it can be frightening to know that it does not discount the fact that apathy can surface in our lives from time to time without us being conscious of it. Think about the last time when you were facing difficulties of your own, for example when you had a bad day at work. You came back home feeling all dejected and disappointed and in your mind, you were playing the scenario at work over and over again analysing what went wrong. Suddenly, since you’re back home, your little 4year old ran up to you with excitement, screamed with joy, bounced up and down right in front of you, tugged your shirt and pulled you up from your sit, forcing you to come and play. You then frowned and said, “Keep quiet and go play over there!” The expression of disinterest and indifference at that moment is situational apathy that can happen to any one of us. Or more commonly in a coaching situation, how many of us get truly frustrated with our clients for being unable to do what they were committed to doing? Under these stressful conditions, your body is elevating Cortisol that is known as the ‘stress hormone’ and the effects of Cortisol are running all over the entire body and it can affect our ability to be motivated to engage in several activities that may require our attention. Cortisol is the opposite of Oxytocin –the ‘stress hormone’ versus the ‘feel good’ hormone. Since our emotions might have an impact on our biochemistry, how then do we master these emotions so that they can serve us better in a coaching space? And as we interact with our clients do we even consider what impact we may be having on their brains?
Seek opportunities to show you care. The smallest gestures often make the biggest difference.―John Wooden
We naturally are more inclined to trust and connect with people who show genuine care and empathy and when you think about a successful coaching engagement, often the connection between the coach and the client become an important factor. Especially when empathy is a concern, perhaps the best coaching tool isn’t just about questions but more of a genuine desire to connect. However, the ability to connect don’t just happen. It requires certain qualities and part of those qualities are to demonstrate the essence of empathy because without it as coaches we may grapple in our responses as we fail to listen with real understanding. Perspective taking of someone else’s truth can only happen if we take time to develop our empathetic mindset. Though we now know that empathy is at the core of human nature but it does require us to switch on the empathetic brain and exercise genuine desire to connect with our clients. Here are just a few ways on how we can foster meaningful connection with our clients, expanding and powering up our capacity for empathy.
Power of Alliance
Our interpersonal strengths in relating to our clients can create meaningful connections right from the start. Often our clients’ stories are filled with heavy emotions and unsettled feelings and they may seek a coach who can provide them with a safe space to explore these challenges. Setting the intent of how our role as a coach would be in respecting, honouring and being non-judgemental about our client’s experience can create positive coaching alliance. By setting up the intent right from the start demonstrates our sincerity in relating to our clients’ needs and feelings. It is also important that as coaches we share a little background about ourselves, this helps our clients to connect with us as an ally and not just a professional who is just here to do a job. In building such alliance we are promoting a more side-by-side approach in our partnership reinforcing that we are going through this learning journey together rather than a top-down approach of a coach-coachee relationship.
Power of Empathetic Listening
We have multiple thoughts running through our minds and it is vital that we clear our minds from these background noises before entering the coaching session. Clearing the space in our minds allows us to listen with interest and when we are not distracted by our own emotions, we are fully present in the moment and this allows us to stay attuned to the emotions behind the words expressed by the client. Just like watching a good movie, you want to know what’s happening next because you have an appreciation for the movie that is why you gave your full attention. Empathetic listening creates real understanding allowing us to be fully present into the world of the other person and the good news is, we won’t be so absorbed on what question to ask next because we are focused on the client’s story and we are truly curious about what this story could be about.
Power of Presence
As coaches, we sometimes are so caught up in the coaching process that we forgot that we are dealing with humans with diverse needs and expectations. We may be providing transactional coaching and be happy with the fact that we have done our job but in the midst of achieving the results we are hired for, we may lose the opportunity to connect and create the trust for the conversation to go places, creating transformational results. ‘Empathy is a vulnerable choice,’ you can’t demonstrate empathy if you can’t be authentic in dealing with people. Bring our human side into the coaching session and create a ‘spontaneous relationships’ that will deepen trust and intimacy for an impactful Coaching Presence.
Power of Engagement
Have you ever been so fascinated by a conversation that you wish it never ends? Best Selling Author of Fascinate Inc., Sally Hogshed mentioned that “Fascination is a neurological state of intense focus, one that creates an irresistible feeling of engagement… when you are fascinated, you are in the moment. You are in the flow.” Leverage the power of neuroscience to enliven coaching conversations and partnership. Engage the hearts and minds by tapping on our ‘feel-good’ hormone, oxytocin. To create a trusting space for full engagement, demonstrate warmth in our approach and stay intensely focus on the client as this will elevate the ‘feel good’ hormone to further promote connection and empathy. Every emotion triggers our biochemistry and as a result of that triggers, it produces certain physical attributes. By being in the moment, it will heighten our own awareness to detect emotional cues giving us the opportunity to understand and appreciate what our client is saying and how they are saying it. The expressions of words and physiology demonstrated by our clients give us great insights for us to exercise our intuition. Our intuition gives us the opportunity to engage our clients using different perspectives by facilitating new ways of thinking, enhancing the coaching engagement.
Power of Validation, Acknowledgement, and Affirmation
As mentioned earlier, we all have our stories and we all have gone through heartaches, disappointments, conflicts and other painful events that may have left most of us feeling shattered by those experiences. When it comes to demonstrating empathy, as coaches we need to establish the message that we are interested in our client as a human first and everything else is secondary. During Oprah Winfrey’s powerful speech at Harvard University, she mentioned, “There is a common denominator in our human experience…we want to be validated. We want to be understood.” A research study done in University College London revealed that when others reinforce and are in agreement with our opinions, the area of our brain which is associated with reward becomes more active. It seems that as human we do care about what others think about us.
As our client share their feelings and predicaments in the coaching session they want to know that it is ok to be vulnerable, it is ok to be sad and they are looking for some form of validation and acknowledgment to justify the way they feel. Switch on our empathetic brain to support, to listen and to understand our client and their feelings. Validation, Acknowledgement and Affirmation are necessary to the brain reward system as it lightens up our clients’ emotional state and this promotes a shift on their energy. When this energy is demonstrated, we then can gently approach the situation and help them explore their experience by inviting new possibilities.
Honing our empathy skills is not only necessary, it’s mandatory as it provides us with the ability to engage our clients, build deep connections, foster strong partnerships as well as create insightful moments that lead to growth and sustainable change.
As coaches, we are commissioned in an environment and put in a condition where our empathetic minds, hearts, and souls are activated and aroused all the time by all the beautiful stories as well as having the privileged to be part of our clients’ world. Hence as we go through this path to make a difference and transform lives, may we continue to thrive in our journey to champion the human emotions called, Empathy.
Stay curious, keep learning and keep growing. And always strive to be more interested than interesting.— Jane Fonda