Empathy is Your Superpower as a Coach
Empathy is a skill we can cultivate, and one that is crucial to a thriving life coaching practice. Learn how to expand your capacity to relate with these tips!
The Everything Life Coaching Podcast, featuring Lumia Coaching founders John Kim and Noelle Cordeaux, is a deep dive into the experience and business of being a life coach. Subscribe to get new episodes weekly!
NOTE: This podcast originally aired in April 2019. The accompanying blog was updated in November 2022 to include additional resources and information.
How Empathy Makes Us Better Coaches
If you're drawn to the coaching profession, you're probably a naturally empathetic person to begin with. But empathy itself is more than a personal virtue. It’s a tool, and a critical coaching skillset! And best of all? It is also something that can be learned.
The first step to cultivating greater empathy is taking time to understand somebody else’s perspective from a 360º view. This involves a compassionate investigation of the world as they see it, and how their point of view impacts what they might think, say, or do.
But before we dive into how to do that, let's say a few things about what empathy is NOT!
The Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy
Sympathy involves showing or telling people you understand how they feel, but you’re not actually feeling the same emotion with them. You might think of sympathy as a more surface-level acknowledgement of suffering. You see and acknowledge it, but remain at emotional remove.
Empathy is more of a full bodied experience. It's not just feeling for someone, it's feeling WITH them. To really illustrate what this entails, check out this animated short narrated by researcher and bestselling author Brené Brown.
Why Is Empathy A Superpower?
It makes the invisible visible
The more empathetic you become, the more in-tune you'll be with others. And the more you strive to understand and synchronize with those feelings, the more you can "see" people for who they really are. That's what every single person you work with wants - to be SEEN.
It expands your capacity to understand people
Humans have such a wide variety of lived experiences, and you won't have personal knowledge of every scenario your clients bring to the table. Empathy is a coaching skill that allows you to get where they are coming from, whether you've personally "been there" or not.
It’s that indescribable force that will move your business forward
Facilitating true human connection is difficult. And here's the truth: empathy is something many people do not regularly receive in their everyday lives. When you deliver the experience of being truly seen, heard, and understood... that's memorable! And when people have memorable experiences, they usually tell other people about it. Your presence - perhaps even more than the specific coaching techniques you use - is what helps to build a word of mouth coaching practice!
How To Cultivate Empathy As A Coach
1. Connect with yourself first
Fact: You will not connect equally with every client that you serve. Each person is different, and as a coach you'll have to tap into various aspects of your inner experience in order to effectively "feel with" your clients.
Connecting with yourself can look a number of different ways, but a good place to begin is with the practice of self-compassion. To do this, it can be useful to explore the work of Dr. Kristin Neff.
Neff says when you experience moments of suffering, that is the time to start looking beyond ourselves. And yes - it can feel counter-intuitive to turn our gaze outward right when we're feeling bad! But here's the thing: everybody experiences difficulties, and connecting to your own suffering in this way really does help us to feel less alone. In this way, self compassion reduces isolation and reconnects you to the broader human experience.
Regularly practicing self compassion using the tools Neff has developed will help you better relate to others. It can also protect you from the harmful effects of negativity and ego threats!
2. Go deeper into negative emotions
When a client brings difficult feelings into the coaching space, your natural impulse might be to soothe or to immediate begin searching for a solution. However, there can be a lot of important information contained in emotions such as anger, grief, or hopelessness. Brushing "negative" emotions aside or jumping to a reframe too quickly can result in the opposite of what your client may need most from you in that moment.
As a coach, it’s your job to help clients explore their negative emotions in a useful way.
According to Margaret Moore with Harvard Medical School’s Institute of Coaching, the two main sources of negative emotion for us to take into account when coaching our clients are the internal and external.
We all have our own triggers and responses to outside sources – other people, traffic, noise, clutter, and so on. We also each have our own “setpoint” along the spectrum, with some people naturally more prone to optimism (or pessimism) than others.
One of the most important things you can do for your clients is to help them understand what pushes their buttons and brings on a negative cloud. This is an area in which you can really drill down and help your clients to see what affects them and why.
Explore with your client:
- Whatever it is that’s triggering them, ask: will this matter in one year from now?
- How much energy do you want to give that thought or emotion in this moment?
- What feeling or thought would you like to replace the negative emotion with?
One of the largest sources of negative emotion is a person’s own inner critic. This is the voice of the pseudo self. Getting your client to notice what that voice sounds like is essential to gaining control over negative emotions.
Explore with your client:
- Are all thoughts equal?
- How might you tell the difference between a helpful and unhelpful thought?
- What familiar words, phrases or ideas can you identify as coming from your inner critic?
3. Understand and cultivate the "qualities of empathy"
In her TedTalk The Power of Vulnerability, Brené Brown cites scholar Theresa Wiseman, who came up with the 4 qualities of empathy. They are:
Perspective-taking. As she says, perspective-taking is “the ability to take the perspective of another person and recognize their perspective is their truth.” And clearly, this is one of the qualities of empathy. If you know how to see a situation through someone else's eyes then you’re on the right track!
Be non-judgmental. We all form judgements, it's human. And as a coach, it is critical that you cultivate the skills to recognize your own judgements and biases when they arise. This is a practice, and we won't be perfect in every moment! Maintaining awareness of your own thoughts and agendas is key to holding your clients with unconditional positive regard.
Recognizing and understanding emotions. As easy as this sounds, this quality of empathy is actually one of the hardest. It requires you with connect with your own emotions, which in turn supports you in better recognizing (and separating yourself from) the emotions of your clients.
Communicating those emotions. Effective communication is fundamental coaching skill, and we get better at it with practice. Acknowledging feelings as they arise, and asking permission from the client before digging into them are two coaching best practices that you'll want to have in your back pocket.
Want To Be A Coach?
A lot of talented people like you dream of having a coaching business, but aren’t quite sure how to get there. We train and certify adventurous coaches, making sure you’ve got all you need to build a business you love and transform lives, on your terms. If you're ready to learn more, come check out Lumia Life Coach Training!