Bill thinks he’s empathetic. He doesn’t show up to coaching sessions asking for coaching on empathy. Lack of empathy didn’t show up in Bill’s 360. Awesome, right? Not if you talk to his direct reports.
Bill’s direct reports frequently describe in their coaching sessions with me how they go to Bill with concerns (too much work, not enough authority, not enough resources) or possibilities (a desire for more professional development, more staff, new title) and Bill responds with, “Do your job. Do it better. Figure it out. We don’t have more resources.” His direct reports leave the meeting – which was for them, a tough conversation with their boss – feeling deflated.
So this raises two questions – at least two. “Can you coach empathy?” And, if so, “Can you coach empathy in someone who isn’t asking for it?” In this blog post, and in the next one, I hope to answer these questions. The short answers are “Yes” and “Yes.”
Empathy is defined in different ways by different people. We at Learning in Action disaggregate empathy into its component parts, differentiate it from sympathy, and define it this way:
In short, empathy (accuracy + compassion) is what allows us humans to communicate, connect and relate with other humans. We humans have been neurobiologically designed to connect with each other through empathy.
Why should Bill care about whether he’s empathetic or not? Why is coaching Bill to be more empathetic implied in our coaching plan? Because empathy positively impacts outcomes.
The research on empathy and its impact on performance and outcomes are compelling:
The impact of empathy on performance is staggering. But why? How does someone like Bill make sense of that?
Simply put, a leader is only a leader if people follow. And people want to follow someone whom they feel understands them, cares about them, and connects with them.
To move an agenda, a plan, a business, forward, Bill can choose to transact with his employees or he can choose to relate to them. The leaders who get the best outcomes choose to relate – using empathy.
When a leader chooses to transact (engage with others without feeling, without caring), he/she may get the task done, but that’s all. And the next day, they are back where they started. Or if they ticked off the people they rely on to get things done, the next day, they start behind the eight ball with a tougher task ahead.
When a leader chooses to relate with others they work with, he/she does that through empathy, through shared thinking and feeling. They still get the task done, and yes, it might take slightly longer. But with that, they’ll have built a joint empathetic bank account with the people they work with, that can make everything that comes after, easier.
Empathy has the effect of greasing the skids, making future engagement with others more frictionless, enjoyable, comfortable. As the research proves, empathy can actually allow us to get more done faster!
As you can see, the business case for empathy (backed by research) is pretty dang convincing, no matter how you look at it. So, if being empathetic is so obviously correlated with strong performance and outcomes of all kinds, what keeps leaders from being empathetic?
Being empathetic can be challenging for some people, all of the time, and for all people, at least some of the time. Here are a few examples of what can block or inhibit empathetic engagement:
All of these situations can create inner conflicts that make feeling empathetic a choice between the other person and yourself.
If you have a client who wants to be a better leader, wants better relationships with peers, subordinates, their boss, or wants to perform better, consider sharing this article as a conversation starter. Ask them about their understanding of what empathy is and how it can be used in the workplace. Then ask them what could get in the way of their being as empathetic as they might like. Last, watch for part two of this blog for Exercises to Increase Empathy.
Whether our clients say it or not, how they feel about what they bring to us for coaching plays an essential role in the coaching itself.
That said, it isn’t always straightforward as to how to coach our clients around their feelings. Some clients discount the importance of their feelings, some clients don’t have ready access to their feelings, and others simply don’t have a language for what they feel.
By request, we created this primer for you to facilitate coaching your clients around emotions. Share the context below and the downloadable emotions guide with your clients to help them understand the role emotions play in their lives, the importance of accessing them, and a language to use to identify and talk about them.
Emotions provide us with access to information that no other dimension of our experience provides. If we ignore or deny our emotions, we lose vital information that is essential for understanding and making meaning of our lives. Additionally, each emotion comes with a gift that provides us with what we need to maintain a healthy life and quality relationships.
Naming our emotions while we are experiencing them allows us to shift from processing our experience through our ‘reptile brain’ to our ‘rational brain,’ providing us a greater degree of control. Neuroscientists like to say about emotions, “Name it to tame it!” Being conscious of, and naming, our emotions can move us from being at the mercy of our emotions, to being in control of ourselves and our impact on others.
The emotions we each experience are unique to us and are shaped by our DNA, as well as our past relationships and experiences. The same exact situation will provoke different emotions in different people. As a result, our emotions provide us with insight into how we are making meaning of a situation. When examined, our emotions can create awareness of what is our interpretation versus what is.
Helping your clients understand how their emotions provide a key to insights into what motivates them, triggers them and holds them back has the potential to shift every conversation you have into more meaningful territory.
While there are hundreds of shades of emotions, we at Learning in Action have identified seven categories of emotions (five distressing and two positive emotions) that provide distinctly unique information.
Within each category of emotion exists a range of emotional intensity, from high intensity to low, all in the same emotional family (e.g. Anger Family of Emotion: High Intensity = Outrage; Low Intensity = Annoyed). Each emotion is placed in the context of relationships: with co-workers, with neighbors, with family, with friends.
Use this tool to help identify and name emotions (particularly those experienced in relationship) and to understand the information and gift of each emotion. It handily complements our EQ Profile, and it equally stands on its own.
We hope you find this to be a helpful tool for you and your clients.
We’ve all read a lot about what to do when a client gets stuck and how to get them unstuck. (I’ve written/spoken on the topic myself.) But I haven’t read much, anything actually, on what to do when the coach gets stuck.
Just as when the client gets stuck, it’s about the client, so, too, when the coach gets stuck, it’s about the coach. I get that. And it doesn’t necessarily keep me from getting stuck sometimes.
Do you get stuck? If so, read on. I hope reading about some of the ways that I get stuck will help you to reflect on your own work.
If not, consider the possibility that believing you don’t get stuck is how you might be stuck.
What?! No way! Coaching is about the client, the client’s agenda, the coaching process. What’s there for the coach to get stuck on?
I’d be right there with you…. if we coaches weren’t human. But we are. As long as we are, we will impact the coaching in ways we are aware, and in ways we are not.
And that’s simply another way of saying that we all get stuck, knowingly or not, because we are all human. So, read on, if you will, and consider what comes up for you.
I worked with Ginny for three years. She wanted a business coach to help her think through some of the issues and opportunities presented by her business. (Just like most coaches who make a living coaching people who aren’t coaches, I employ a blend of both coaching and consulting.)
I would regularly provide Ginny with strategic models and frameworks as a means to inspire exploration of a clear strategy for her business. She wasn’t interested. I would mirror that and ask what was important. She’d agree that strategy was important, and then she’d take the conversation to something else. (Of course, I’d mirror that and so on.)
Ends up, she was more interested in talking about people issues, business development challenges and culture issues than about strategy. So that’s what we worked on. And I felt stuck.
I felt like I was failing Ginny. I believe fervently that the single most important aspect of any single business is that it embodies a clear compelling strategy. Why couldn’t I help her understand how important strategy is?
Then, upon reflection, I realized that I had to meet Ginny where she was and accept her and work with her from there. Strategy was my agenda and not hers. Ginny never really did increase her interest in strategy, but I stopped feeling like I was letting her down.
My not accepting Ginny where she was, was a proxy for my not accepting myself where I was. I’m still working on that one. It’s a work in progress.
Bill and I have worked together for about four years. Many of our coaching conversations have a circular feel to them. We’ll start out talking about something he wants for his business. By the end of most sessions, he’s talked himself out of every possibility we’ve explored.
And yes, I’ve mirrored that to him, and yes, he knows he’s pessimistic. He can tell me the 37 reasons why he is, and why he prefers to stay that way. (By the way, his natural pessimism serves him quite well in his risk management business).
Further, Bill spends an extraordinary amount of time in our sessions venting about what’s stressing him about his business. And he’s extremely stressed. I mirror that, explore his stress, what he can do to de-stress, and redirect back to what he wants to accomplish for the session.
At the end of most sessions, I’ll ask him what he’s taking away or what value he got from the session. Usually, he can’t name much. Ugh.
I have left most sessions with him feeling stuck. And again, feeling like a complete failure as a coach. (Detecting a theme yet? 😅)
I recently addressed all of this with Bill by saying, “I get the sense that you aren’t getting much value from our work together. I don’t want to be wasting your time and your money anymore.”
Bill said, “Alison, there’s really no one else I can talk to about this stuff. My wife is tired of it, and I can’t talk with my team about it. It’s too sensitive. I realize that it seems like I’m not making progress. But sometimes progress is slow. Hearing myself talk about this stuff and having the chance to vent helps keep me sane, and begin to move through it. I really need that!”
I realized that I had a judgment about the value a client “should” get from coaching: deepening their learning, forwarding their action. That’s what a client “should” get, right? If that’s not happening, we assume the client isn’t getting value. Or, even more ominously, what we are doing isn’t coaching.
I now know that the value every client gets from the work we do is different. And it’s not for me to judge.
Sure, some people may say what I’m doing isn’t coaching. That’s ok with me. As long as I’m helping, easing the pain, relieving the very real sense of loneliness and hopelessness that sometimes accompanies entrepreneurship (and for that matter, humanship), that’s enough for me.
Occasionally, I coach my client’s direct reports. If you’ve done it, you know it comes with its own unique set of challenges.
I worked with Debbie about six months. Most every coaching session centered on her relationship with her boss, Jim, who is also my client.
Debbie was in a constant state of overwhelm, working long hours, juggling a multitude of projects, saying yes to everything Jim asked of her. She felt overworked, unappreciated and intermittently micromanaged.
Over those six months, our coaching sessions focused on the choices Debbie was making, how her choices were serving her, her fear of addressing the issue with Jim, what was under that fear, and, of course, what she wanted and what she was going to do.
During the six months, buoyed by our work, she’d had small conversations on tactical topics with Jim that she’d never had before. But she kept postponing the larger conversation about boundaries, role definition, scope and authority.
She was still too afraid and too certain that it wouldn’t go well. So it stayed front and center in our work.
Then, during a coaching session with Jim, he started talking about how Debbie wasn’t getting things done on time, how she didn’t know how to prioritize, and how she was such a disappointment. I could feel myself getting angry. I was feeling protective of Debbie. And I felt stuck. But not for long.
Within hours, I determined that I was not going to continue to put myself in that position. I wasn’t serving either client well. I had to be honest with myself about what I could bracket* and what I couldn’t. My belief in and support of my clients, all of them, is not something I can easily turn on and off.
For better or worse, right or wrong, in my next coaching session with Debbie, I said, “We’ve been working for months now on what you want from your job and from Jim, and you haven’t had that conversation yet. That unspoken conversation is affecting my relationship with Jim, and I don’t want to be in that position any more. I’ve enjoyed working with you and want to continue. And I don’t feel I can if you don’t have that conversation with Jim.” She said she understood. We talked about next steps and how I could support her.
I’m still not sure I did the right thing. Some would say the right thing is not to have put myself in that situation. Maybe so. My clients and I have had different, equally challenging experiences when a different coach works with their direct reports. The right thing to do in situations like this isn’t always clear, at least not to me.
Yes, coaching comes with a rule book (if you subscribe to ICF principles), but when nearly every coach I know and trust doesn’t follow the book, what are the rules? Maybe if I followed all the rules in the book, I wouldn’t be stuck. But, I don’t believe everything in the book, so how can I follow it scrupulously?
I don’t know that I’ve handled these situations rightly or well. I simply know I was stuck and needed to get unstuck. Because as long as I’m stuck, I’m not helping my client.
Do you get stuck? Have you gotten stuck and then gotten unstuck? What rules do you follow? Share with us the what and the how of your experiences.
Join the conversation in our private Facebook Group.
Note: So as to maintain a safe environment, you’ll be asked to be approved first. We’ll try to get to you right away so you can quickly join in the conversation.
President | Learning In Action
* Bracketing refers to the coach’s ability to detach from their thinking, feeling, wanting about anything not germane to coaching the client in front of them.
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Okay, so if the title of this article makes you uncomfortable, me too! If you have some judgments about ‘the world’s oldest profession,’ you’re not alone. And if you are willing to be uncomfortable and will consider dropping your judgments for a bit, read on.
I grew up in the Bible Belt (TX, LA, OK) and was taken to church (Southern Baptist) pretty much every time the door opened. I must admit that a puritanical residue from that experience persists within me.
So when I got the email from Tim Ferriss, host of my all-time favorite podcast, with the title “The Erotic Playbook of a Top-Earning Sex Worker,” I was immediately anxious. Should I listen? What if someone knew I was listening? Is it okay to listen? What would that say about me?
Then I decided to get over myself, suspend my judgment and give it a listen. And I’m glad I did.
I was struck by the similarities between coaching and (I’ll call it) sex work. You may find that offensive, and if so, feel free to stop reading. If you are willing to consider how understanding the similarities between the two professions can make you a better coach, read on.
Because I work with CEO / owners, I have the opportunity to work with my clients over a long period of time. My relationships with my clients go beyond coaching to improve performance. We connect over what matters most to them.
It’s common for my clients to share things with me that they’ve never told anyone, including their spouses. We connect over their anxieties, frustrations, exasperations about their business, their confidence as a leader, their hopes for the future. It frees them to confide in someone who has no skin in their game, no agenda.
They share more and more deeply with someone who knows them, their company, their family, their history. Someone who listens and remembers and cares.
We develop a meaningful, personal and intimate relationship that’s unlike what they can get from a spouse, relative, friend, or co-worker.
Alice Little is one of the US’s top earning sex workers. She works legally at Nevada’s Moonlite BunnyRanch and is a dedicated sex educator and advocate. One of her most requested offerings is the Girlfriend Experience.
For clients requesting the Girlfriend Experience, Alice performs the role of a girlfriend; going on dates, accompanying the client to parties, communicating and connecting, just as a girlfriend would, over an extended period of time.
Alice attends to the needs of her clients in personalized, precise and intentional ways. She develops a meaningful, personal and intimate relationship with her clients that is unlike what they can get from a spouse, a hook-up, a tinder match, or a friend with benefits.
Both professions fulfill a need for connection and intimacy without attachment in a way that clients can’t get elsewhere.
Both professions are focused on helping the client connect not only with the coach / sex-worker, but also with themselves.
As coaches, the first thing we do is establish the agreement with our clients. We figure out what the client wants, for themselves, their lives, their futures, and what they are hoping to get from our work together.
For years, I’ve asked clients to complete a discovery questionnaire designed to reveal their strengths, values, and principles, and to flesh out their goals for themselves and our work together.
Frequently, I feel I have to keep after my clients to get them to complete the discovery document so we can start our work. (I think, “Good grief, they just agreed to work together. Can’t they find the time to complete the paperwork to get started?!”)
Alice begins each client engagement with a discovery session, too. It’s intended to explore the client’s desires, hopes, dreams, and what they want to do together. She gets a clear sense of the experience they want to have and how they want to experience it.
She attends not just to goals, desires and outcomes, but also to the person and their deeper yearnings, what’s underneath their desires. Only then can she truly know what the client wants to experience, and to create it.
Both professions rely on agreed upon outcomes, but focus on something deeper; something within the client that yearns to be met and satisfied.
When we don’t attend to our clients’ deepest yearnings (instead, staying at the surface, at the level of the goal, the outcome), we miss the opportunity to help our clients truly create themselves and their lives. (Note to self: Do something to make my client discovery process more exciting!)
Having long term relationships with clients means that strong, clear boundaries are a necessity.
Without boundaries, it would be easy for coaching conversations to become like any casual conversation. I’ve had colleagues who socialize with their clients regularly. I’ve never wanted to or been able to do that. For me, it blurs the boundaries too much.
I want to have one kind of conversation with my clients, a coaching conversation.
Otherwise, I blur into the kinds of conversational experiences that they can get anywhere. (I’ve found that the more social I am with a client, the less boundaried I am, and the easier it is for our coaching conversation to devolve into a conversation they could have with anyone.)
If you listen to Tim Ferriss’ interview with Alice Little, you’ll hear how clearly differentiated she is from her clients.
While she doesn’t speak to it directly (because she wasn’t asked*), it was clear to me from her crisp articulation of the process and her distinct description of her responsibilities, that she is able to clearly delineate where she stops and her clients start.
This delineation allows her to dance in the space of being both connected and separate.
Healthy boundaries are essential to both professional coaches and to…well…professionals.
Paradoxically, the only way we are able to create the connection and intimacy that allows our clients’ deepest desires to surface is by being both connected with and separate from them, knowing where we end and they start, and what are our responsibilities and what are theirs.
At Learning in Action, we call this Self / Other orientation.
We’ve learned that we humans tend to lean toward either blurred boundaries or boundaries too thick. (If you’re interested in a little primer on Self / Other Orientation, give this video a look).
What’s the point in identifying the similarities between coaching and sex work?
Two things: 1) I believe that understanding the similarities illustrates how important it is that we coaches deliver something our clients can’t get elsewhere – healthy, boundaried connection and intimacy that provides a foundation for helping them achieve their deepest desires; 2) like sex, coaching satisfies a basic human need. Everyone needs to be heard, seen, acknowledged, empathized with, connected with. And all of that is in all too short supply.
What about you? Do you know which way you lean? Boundaries blurred or boundaries too thick?
Connected and separate, dancing in that space of clients’ desires.
We’d love to hear how you do it.
Share your thoughts in the comment section below.
*As I was listening to this episode from Tim Ferriss, I wanted to shout into my headset, “Tim, ask her about boundaries. Ask her about her relationships. Stop being such a guy and ask her about something besides sex.” (Okay, my judgments were coming out.)
I must confess, I am (occasionally☺) guilty of filtering my life through my lens as a coach. While that’s not always healthy, recently it resulted in an idea that I plan to use for myself and my clients.
My husband, son, and I have a tradition of spending the weekend before Thanksgiving with my family in Tulsa, OK; spending Thanksgiving day, just the three of us, in Duck, NC; and then flying to Seattle, WA, for our third Thanksgiving for the year. (We stay home for Christmas. Whew!)
At our last Thanksgiving of this year, a couple of the young men in the family who work for tech companies got to talking about what’s new. That’s when what3words came up.
what3words.com is a wayfinding platform that has mapped and named every location on the planet in three square meter chunks. Why do this? Because 75% of the world’s countries lack a reliable addressing system. And in highly developed countries, like the U.S., addresses don’t exist within parks, rural areas and rapidly developing areas.
what3words names every three square meters on the planet using three words. For instance, my home office in Seattle is located at joke.lonely.jungle. My home in Bethesda is located at friday.scan.bother.
That’s right – every three square meter location everywhere in the world is named using a unique three-word combination. So cool, right? This is where my coach lens kicked in.
Discover your unique three-word address on what3words here.
As a coach, you know that coaching is, in essence, facilitated wayfinding. We help our clients see clearly where they are, identify where they want to go, and help them find their way there. Sounds simple, right? Only, where our clients are and where they truly want to go is often times unmapped territory, unaddressed, and perhaps, out of conscious sight.
Often times, using devices like metaphor, we can help our clients to step out of their day-to-day linear, logical, analytical patterns and access more of themselves. We can provoke lateral thinking and use creative exercises to help our clients tap into dimensions of their experience they would not otherwise access. It occurred to me that what3words might be a device for inspiring deeper exploration.
When I heard about what3words and saw it as a metaphor for coaching, I immediately wanted to use it with my clients. I LOVED the idea of asking my client to use three words to describe their current location and three words to describe their desired location. (I plan to start using it in my Client Discovery process.)
I’ve learned that for me to truly connect with and help my clients, I have to go first. I have to do the work I’m asking my clients to do.
I can’t take my client anywhere I have not gone.
I was noodling how I might introduce what3words in a coaching context as I drove to meet my long-time client this week for breakfast. When he asked me how I was doing, I asked him if he was up for trying something new.
I described what3words and suggested that we each use it to describe our present location – where we were in relationship to our life. I told him that I would tell him my three words, and when I was done, I would ask him for his. He was game for it.
I told him my What 3 Words: trying.seed.simmering. I explained what that meant. (If you are curious about what those words meant to me, you can go here.)
And then I asked him his three words. (As you can imagine, that was a challenge. It’s a challenge that wouldn’t work with everyone all of the time.) He said, “I can’t come up with the words, but I have an image.
“I am standing at the edge of a big lake, with a long swim ahead. I think I can make it across, but I’ve never done it before.” Such a rich metaphor. With a little bit more exploration, he came up with his three-word location: “ready.daunted.excited.” Wow!
From this simple metaphorical exercise, I learned so much, so fast, about my client and his relationship to his life and the challenges facing him.
The entire coaching conversation that followed stemmed from his response. To be clear, it wasn’t about the exercise or the exact words. The exercise was simply the tool that gave him access to a dimension of his experience that had been previously unmapped.
The What 3 Words exercise gave him access to a part of himself that he didn’t have access to before.
Perhaps even more important than our role in helping our clients improve is the opportunity we have to help our clients make meaning of their lives.
No matter what we do or what happens to us, what we take with us is the meaning we make from it.
If we can bring out our clients’ own resourcefulness, creativity, wholeness to their meaning-making, we can bring them into the fullness of themselves. We can help them build a foundation from which to thrive.
Will it take a bit of courage to invite your clients to do this exercise? Yes, and it’s such a good thing that you are a coach! ‘Cause courage is part of the job description!
To encourage you to take that courageous leap, I’ve provided you with everything you need for using this What 3 Words exercise with a client. You can find it all here. Give it a shot and let us know how it goes. We’d love to hear.
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Sometimes we can see truth in the random (Or is it random?) nature of things. One of the three square meters at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington DC, has these three words as its location name: many.appear.windy. ☺ So tweetable too!
President | Learning In Action
P.S. Our 2018 EQ Profile Certification course calendar is now set! Check out the entire course catalog or click on the link below.