Being An Empathetic Coach
June 28, 2016
Coaching is an essential skill for any manager. It is also a weighty responsibility for anyone to carry. No two people are the same and therefore no approach to coaching can be the same. This is where coaching often becomes challenging for the majority of leaders. As managers we are comfortable with process and procedures; we are at ease with a formula or a 'how to' guide. Sadly with coaching, you can't force someone to want to develop their skills. Those typical management approaches are fruitless in the coaching environment. Managers often try to handle people in the way they would like to be handled, making the wrong assumption that because they prefer a certain approach those whom they coach will want the same. The secret to coaching is connection. You need to be able to connect with other people. It is through this connection that you can start to inspire them to want to do better. Connection is what allows you the 'in' to help others grow. Connection grows through empathy and that is a prevalent trait for any coach.
What is empathy? It is the ability to not only understand another person's point of view but to also experience their emotions. Empathy is the ability to 'put yourself in someone else's shoes.' Without empathy other people remain distant and disconnected from us; the other person remains a kind of blurry image, and we're not really sure what to make of it. Now it is important that we distinguish between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is good in coaching, sympathy is not. Sympathy involves you actually being affected by the other person's experience and feelings. The presence of sympathy in coaching can result in you being influenced by the client's emotions, removing all objectivity from the prevailing conversation. Empathy, however, allows a coach to stand in the shoes of those they are coaching and see the coachee's reality with understanding, but without being influenced by what they observe. Empathy allows us to get close, but not too close.
To be a better coach we need to be more empathetic!
As a coach, you need to develop a willingness to accept the differences in people. The world would be a boring place if we all thought and behaved in the same way. It would be dull and monotone if we all looked the same and if we had all done the same things. It is our differences that make us so interesting to one another. We, as coaches, have to acknowledge that differences exist within each of us. We have to be willing to accept that everyone's experience is true. True to them. We can all experience the same event, but we may all interpret it differently. No one is wrong. It's like taking a picture of the same mountain from different positions - it's not going to be the same picture - maybe similar but not the same. We have to be ready and willing to accept that it's ok for people to see things differently.
You need to regularly ask others for their perspectives and/or feelings about a situation. Ask them how they see the world. What is the truth they see or feel from that experience? Accepting that others may see and experience the world differently is just one step. The next step is to encourage them to share what they observed or felt. Explore - with them - what it was that resonated for them around a situation. Seek to understand what they saw and/or felt. Take a journey through the world as they see it. Probe that experience to develop clarity around what they see.
Being more empathetic requires you to be careful not to invalidate their feelings and experiences by diminishing or ignoring them. We may not share the same views or opinions but it doesn't make another person's views or opinions any less valid. To them it is their reality and therefore it can't be wrong. It may be wrong to us because of how we experienced the situation or maybe we have more information available to us to help see a different picture, but it isn't wrong to them. If you dismiss their thoughts or views because they don't reflect yours, you're not coaching, you're managing (and maybe not even managing that well). Your coaching conversations must build from the coachee's reality, not your own. Your role as an empathetic coach is to be curious and to ask questions that seek deeper meaning. Prod around their story. Turn over some stones with them. What are you interested in learning about from their description of the event? Be childlike in your curiosity. When we act as an empathetic coach we can help someone explore and advance their current reality through questioning. We first build connection and then - through curiosity - enable them to dream about what a different, more effective future may look like.
Coaching is far from an exact science. To be an effective coach you don't need to be the expert. You're not consulting or mentoring; it is not your responsibility to tell the coachee what to do, so you needn't stress about having the answer. You are not there to give advice; how could you anyway... your perspective is influenced by your experiences, which aren't the same as theirs anyway. You don't have to be the smartest person in the room. But, what you do need is to be able to connect with people. To be open to the possibilities that others may see. You need to inspire others through listening to their stories through their ears. You need to encourage them to want to do more; to find their own answers, by not imposing yours upon them.
To be an empathetic coach you need to be interested in people. You need to be fully present when you are with them. Show them that you care and be genuinely curious about the stories they have to share. Ask questions. Lots of questions. Forget being a guide and instead be an explorer, and go wherever they want to go. And share your smile; nothing says you are interested and care like an authentic smile.