A Research Paper By Lydia Cloos, Life Coach, COSTA RICA
The Underdogs of Coaching: Empathy and Acknowledgement
Why They Matter So Much and How They Can Level up Our Coaching Game
When we ponder about successful coaching what comes to mind first for many is the ‘aha-moment’. That momentum when our clients have a realization unraveled something that matters for their progress or removed a blockage. To be a good coach for our (potential) clients, we all strive to “evoke a thought-provoking process”, to “create awareness” and “to explore beyond the client’s current thinking about the objective”, all while being present, creating trust and safety, listening actively and following a good protocol about a proper coaching agreement, learnings and their impact for the client and his/her life, action steps, etc. It’s a LOT and it can be hard at times to not get lost within the process.
As we go through different stages in our own coaching experience, we will face different challenges. While as a rookie we must pay a lot of energy and attention to the process itself (challenge), as we become more experienced, this is usually not as exhausting anymore. From there, another challenge may come into existence: parts of the coaching process become more automated, and we can easier get lost or become stuck in the same patterns. What all stages of being a coach have in common is, that reflection is key. Reflecting on my coaching practice led me to understand, how intricate and delicate coaching is. The internalization of the process, the agreement, all the success markers, and detailed requirements often caused me stress. This stress was fueled by the different personalities that I encountered while coaching:
Client A is a slow processor and needs long silence, Client B won the Olympics in fast-talking and needs little to no breaks, Client C blocks all questions that are challenging and lead to further thinking, Client D booked a session to find out more about the coaching career and Client E just wants someone to talk to. Does that sound familiar? Good, you are not alone. Being a coach requires a ton of flexibility, empathy, and compassion – with your clients and Yourself!
This paper is dedicated to two underdogs of coaching: Empathy and Acknowledgement. We all know that they are covered in the PCC Markers of the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and that they therefore must be meaningful – why focus on something that we know to be important already? The answer is as simple as it gets: My own experience has shown me how often empathy and acknowledgment get abandoned on the coaching journey. And maybe you’ll be able to relate as you follow along.
An underdog as per the Cambridge dictionary definition is “the weaker of two competitors, or anyone not expected to win a competition”. In the context of this paper, Empathy and Acknowledgement are titled underdogs, because compared to many other coaching competencies like “creating awareness” or “powerful questioning”, they may not seem as success relevant to many.
Empathy is “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation”. This is also called ‘cognitive empathy’ (or perspective-taking). In recent years, researchers started to differentiate between cognitive empathy as described above, and affective empathy, which is understood as the following: “Affective empathy refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety.”
Acknowledgment for this paper can be understood as the “act or fact of accepting the truth or recognizing the existence of something”.
Underdogs of Coaching: Acknowledgment and Empathy
Within the coaching process we can find acknowledgment and empathy manifested in the competencies of the International Coaching Federation (ICF):
- “Coach acknowledges and respects the client’s unique talents, insights, and work in the coaching process.”
- “Coach shows support, empathy or concern for the client.”
- “Coach acknowledges and supports the client’s expression of feelings, perceptions, concerns, beliefs or suggestions”
- “Coach inquiries about or explores the client’s emotions.”
- “Coach explores the client’s energy shifts, nonverbal cues, or other behaviors.”
This showcases the importance of empathy and acknowledgment already. If we now move away from theory into the active coaching process, let’s imagine the following scenario:
Leslie just started coaching. She is a shy person and easily gets intimidated by strong personalities. Her main objective is to build up more self-esteem and to focus on her strengths. When she enters the coaching space, she shares a story on why this topic matters to her. She feels emotional and vulnerable. The coach actively listens and immediately moves to the coaching agreement, without acknowledging what Leslie shared, nor being empathic about how that makes her feel.
I have been Leslie uncountable times. I also have been on the other side, the coach, that was too busy in her head or too focused on the process or the outcome.
If you have been Leslie, too, you will most likely know how awful it feels to open up to someone and they just continue asking you questions as if you didn’t just share a story or made yourself vulnerable. If you have never experienced this, congratulations. You will still be able to expand your horizon if you continue reading.
As Dr. LePera in her highly recommendable book “How to do the work” (2020) says, “our souls have three basic needs:
- To be seen
- To be heard
- To uniquely express our most authentic selves.”
Coaching is a fantastic platform, to support the basic needs of our clients. To be seen and heard requires us as coaches to be present, empathic, acknowledge our clients, and pay attention to what they are telling us. Don’t miss this precious opportunity. When we build a safety zone of comfort and trust (by being present, holding the space, and seeing and hearing our clients), we will (slowly) create a relationship that allows clients to express their authentic selves. This is powerful! And in many cases a beautiful foundation to go beyond the surface, explore new depths, and build sustainable growth and long-lasting change.
This approach is based on positive psychology, “a call for psychological science and practice to be as concerned with strength as with weakness; as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst; and as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling as with healing pathology,”Even though we are not therapists or psychologists, we can cooperate elements of positive psychology into our coaching to improve our clients lives – such as “acknowledging and respecting the client’s unique talents, insights and work in the coaching process.” Encouragement goes hand in hand with empathy, acknowledgment, and positive challenges and change.
The Underdogs Empathy and Acknowledgement Positive Impact on Our Coaching
So how do empathy and acknowledgment change our coaching? And why are they so important? Because we shift our focus away from the outcome, away from bringing our client from A to B, away from being a ‘successful’ coach. We shift our focus onto the human in front of us, their needs, their story, their presence. By being empathic (“sharing someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation”) and acknowledging our clients in where they are at (and where they want to be), we do not only build the very foundation for our clients to feel seen, heard and accepted, it’s also clearing up the space for where change is happening.
To truly challenge clients, we need a genuine connection with them, otherwise, we run the risk of asking great questions and having a sophisticated conversation (from the outside), but the results won’t enable our clients for long-lasting change. A genuine connection can only be built by establishing trust and creating a safety zone, through acknowledgment and empathy. In this, we meet our clients’ basic spiritual needs of being seen, heard, and fully expressing their authentic selves. From there we can move on to focus on strengths, and unique talents, and work with encouragement, and through that, we are preparing our clients and clearing the space for change and challenges, that will make a difference in our client’s life.
Another beautiful aspect that evolves out of this is that – as we are shifting our focus completely on the client, out of our head, imagining what their feelings are/were like – our ego and mind are put on hold. We get a break from our inner world, from our problems, worries, joys, and perception. The world is not just spinning around us. If we genuinely embrace this opportunity, we will be able to appreciate this pause, whilst creating an empowering experience for our client. Is that what they call a win: win?
Cambridge Dictionary: Empathy Definition
Cambridge Dictionary: Underdog Definition
Greatergood.berkeley.edu Empathy Definition
International Coaching Federation (ICF) PCC markers
LePera Dr., Nichol How to Do the Work: Recognize Your Patterns, Heal from Your Past, and Create Your Self.
Positive Psychology Definition