Empathy matters - in coaching and in leadership

 Posted by Jean      

The ability to sit with another individual is core to coaching. Often people are coming to coaching with challenges or concerns. They may be seeking help to move on from things that have happened in their career, or help to deal with broken workplace relationships. When the coach is being empathic she is placing herself in the client’s shoes and seeing it through their eyes.

Being empathic doesn’t require us to ‘fix’. It requires us to sit with. It demands we don’t hurry or rush to anyone’s rescue. Instead, we just listen and let the other person’s words fill us and stay with us. When we teach this in coaching skills workshops, people first find it disturbing – to not talk and just listen. It seems counterproductive, especially for managers who claim to be professional and “know”. But when managers learn to wait and not rush to the rescue, this is when the real change happens.

A few years ago I was working with a coaching client who had suffered a series of careers setbacks. He came to me to try to make sense of them and to find a way to put them behind him. Neither of us could ‘fix’ the situation. It had happened. However, as his coach, I sat with him, empathised, helped him mourn the losses. And then, when he was ready, we explored what he could do differently in the future to stop the same situation happening again.

Empathy is the ability to share or recognise the emotions and experience of others. Without empathy we have no compassion and less connection.

As a coach, being empathic does not mean I have to collude with a person. It’s is not passive, it is active listening. It means I sit with them in their pain, help them to see it and understand it and, when they are ready, to move on, to let it go, and to begin the next stages of learning and growth.

The author Nancy Kline even goes one step further – when we are listened to, we change the quality of our own thinking. Just by experiencing being truly listened to, we suddenly feel that something inside us changed, and that is the first step to thinking together about a solution.

Brené Brown’s short video talks about the 4 qualities of empathy as identified by Theresa Wiseman: the ability to take another’s perspective, to stay out of judgement, recognising emotion in other people and the ability to feel with other people.

As leaders, our ability to empathise also opens up opportunities to learn from others, to see things from another’s perspective and to help our people to feel included and able to be themselves in the workplace.


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