How to Practice Empathy in Coaching [For New Coaches]

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. In coaching, there is an added, integral element: the ability to demonstrate empathy through words. In this post, I share a model that new coaches can use to practice empathy with their clients.

The P.L.A.E. Model of Empathy in Coaching 

If empathizing does not come naturally to you and you don’t see this as your key strength, I invite you to P.L.A.E.© (play) with this model and see what outcomes it helps you create. Not just for your coaching client but for you and the key stakeholders in your life. Empathy isn’t integral in coaching alone. It is a life skill to build deeper engagements in all of your relationships. The model stands for: Pause. Listen. Acknowledge. and Empathize.© Let me outline the model further.

Pause.

One of the most beautiful exercises I learned in coaching is called “clearing the space”. This exercise requires both coach and client to clear things on the board and make space for the new. It doesn’t mean you dismiss or deny what is. It simply means you push the ‘pause’ button on that ticker tape for the duration of the coaching conversation. For this, you do three things:

  1. Share in one sentence, what’s in the background for you.
  2. Label the emotion you’re feeling.
  3. Commit to keep that aside for the duration of the coaching.

You may be thinking about that meeting you just got out of. Perhaps, you’re thinking about that red-eye flight later tonight. You may be worried about a family member. The credit card company overcharged you and you’re seething. This may be your first client and you could be anxious. These are real feelings and real concerns. But you can consciously choose to pause this inner chatter.

Listen.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the power of deep listening, love, and silence in coaching. You can listen only when you press the ‘pause’ button! This morning, my dear friend and fellow coach called me. She was upset. She asked for permission to continue because she knew I was hurting from a tragic loss and bereavement in the family. As soon as she asked, my pain was no longer center stage. Hers was. It was her time to share and my time to listen.

Even though I made the switch immediately, it wasn’t easy to quiet the inner chatter. I worried about what I could offer her, how I could help etc. I also worried that I may not be able to help given my current state of grief. But I consciously chose to focus on what she was saying. As she sobbed on the phone, I held that sacred space of silence and simply listened. I didn’t offer advice or solutions. Instead, I had to access my own intuitions and go with my gut. I didn’t know the outcome of this conversation. But I had to stay on course with involvement, not attachment. Before she hung up, she said: “Thank you for listening. I really needed this.”

Acknowledge.

An Executive Coach and Global Facilitator, Jeanne Smith is one of the best coaches I ever had. She continuously teaches me about the power of acknowledgement, especially in coaching. When I think of acknowledgement, I pause to remember what it is NOT. Here’s a great example: In the now famous scene from the movie, “As Good as it Gets”. Jack Nicholson’s character tells the woman he’s dating (Helen Hunt): “You make me want to be a better man.” Any acknowledgement that places you on center stage is acknowledgement of yourself. Not the other person!

In coaching, when you acknowledge, you recognize the gifts of your client. The strengths they bring. How courageously they take risks to overcome insurmountable odds. Acknowledgement is also recognizing the small things the client continues to do, to move forward. After all, what is a great vision without perseverance and tangible progress? Acknowledge the baby steps your client takes everyday to honor the goals they have set for themselves.

Empathize. 

When you consciously choose to pause, listen, and acknowledge, you create an environment that is conducive to express empathy, genuinely. Among new coaches, what I often hear is: “I can imagine what you’re going through.”

When we say that, I find that it takes us to dangerous territory. How can we possibly imagine? We’re not in the same circumstances. We’re not feeling the same intensity of grief, loss, or distress. Our brains are not alike and we process things differently. I’m extremely wary of saying this. So, what can you say instead? I have found these helpful:

  1. I can’t imagine what you’re going through. I’m sorry you’re hurting. Where would you like to take this conversation?
  2. I see that you’re hurting.
  3. I know this is difficult. How can I help?
  4. I know this is very uncomfortable. But I’m here for you for the next 60 minutes. What would be the best use of our time today?
  5. I’m here to listen and be with you in this moment. What can I do to serve you better?

If you’re a new coach and working hard on practicing empathy in your coaching conversations, I invite you to consider playing with P.L.A.E. 🙂 and let me know how it goes for you!


Anitha Aswath | Coach, Consultant, BloggerAnitha Aswath is a Senior Leadership Coach, Team Consultant, and Global Facilitator. She has a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology and is trained by The Marcus Buckingham Company in StandOut and Strengths Coaching for Business Leaders. She is currently pursuing Brain-Based Coaching Certification from the NeuroLeadership Institute. An avid photographer, blogger, aviation enthusiast, Anitha is also a student of Indian Classical Music of the Hindustani style.

In an illustrious career spanning 20 years, she has served organizations like General Electric, IBM, Goldman Sachs, Target, and Cisco in regional and global capacities. As a Leadership Coach, she works with clients from all over the world to serve, teach, and enable the success of leaders and their teams.

THIS IS A PERSONAL BLOG AND VIEWS DON’T REPRESENT ORGANIZATION STRATEGIES OR OPINIONS.

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