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The Power of Acknowledgment (Part 2)

February 23, 2018

In our last post, we talked about what an acknowledgement is, why it’s important, and what makes it hard. If you missed our last post, you can find it here.

Part of what’s made acknowledging someone difficult for me in the past has been knowing what to say. I’d be able to notice the opportunity to acknowledge, and then I’d get all stuck in my head about what to say and how to say it.

That’s why we created this quick and easy ‘how to acknowledge primer’ for anyone who wants to build better relationships and get better at acknowledging, but isn’t sure how.

First, a bit of clarification.

What’s the difference between an Acknowledgement, a Compliment and Positive Feedback?

Good question. All of these terms can sound the same, and the nuanced differences between them are important. A compliment, while positive, is often nonspecific, and can easily contain an implicit judgment.

For example, if I say, “You did that well,” I’m making a nonspecific comment and a subtle judgment. I’m judging that you did something well. And while a compliment is better than a sharp stick in the eye (😊), it falls short of acknowledgement.

Positive feedback is a step above a compliment because of its specificity. In some instances, it has been found to help people perform better. Positive feedback tends to be mainly focused on performance (what someone is doing) and usually comes with an agenda (to improve performance).

For example, if Ben works for me, and I say, “Ben, that spreadsheet you put together was so detailed, it helped bring to light several issues we were unaware of. Great work!” My praise of Ben is focused on my judgement of what was good about his performance that I want more of. Ben probably will focus on being detailed now.

Don’t get me wrong. A compliment and positive feedback, typically, are better than criticism, finding fault or saying nothing at all. They may be a place to start for someone whose natural tendency is to focus more on what’s not working than on what is.

An acknowledgement is different.

An acknowledgement recognizes the whole of the person, both who they are being and what they are doing.

It does so in specific and evocative language that feels true to both the giver and receiver. An acknowledgement is more a statement of a shared reality than a judgement. It focuses slightly more on who the person is being than on what they are doing.

An acknowledgement is a powerful way of saying “I see you. I see you being who you are proud to be.”

Making Challenging Relationships Better Through Acknowledgement

Acknowledging people we are in conflict with or have a challenging relationship with may not come naturally. When we are in conflict, we may tend to look for what’s wrong versus what’s good, and that has the impact of worsening the relationship.

 Consider this approach for improving an important and challenging work relationship:

  • Identify someone with whom you’d like to have a better relationship. (A client, a coworker, a subordinate, a peer, your boss.) Get clear within yourself why you want a better relationship and what’s important about it. What would having a better relationship give you? Hold on tight to your answer.Example: Maybe you want a better working relationship with your peer. You can’t fire your peer (although you might like to). Your peer makes you crazy in twenty-seven different ways. If you did have a better working relationship with your peer, you’d get more done together, be more successful, and enjoy your work more. Focus on that! Focus on the possibility that things can change. Your relationship can be better. And know that you changing you can change the whole relationship. Believe it, ‘cause it’s true!
  • In your next interaction with that person, proactively look for qualities and behaviors in them that align with what you value. This ensures that the acknowledgement will feel authentic for both of you. Look for something positive in the other person, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.If it is easier for you to see what’s wrong or what’s not working than what is (and some of us are just like that, and that’s ok), notice those things and then let them go. If your goal is to build a better, more productive, working relationship with someone, I can pretty much guarantee you it’s not going to get there by being critical. Let go of the criticism and focus on what you want, a better relationship, and look for the good. Once you have a better relationship, maybe you can make some headway on what’s not working. First things first. Makes sense, right?!Example: You are working together on a big project with your peer. It’s important to both of your careers. You need your peer and their contribution for you to be successful. Your peer has been behind on their part of the project, slow to answer your questions, and presenting little detail when they do answer, which leaves that many more questions. You’re frustrated. You’ve scheduled a meeting with your peer and they are late (“as always,” you might be thinking).Your peer appears a bit flustered. You lay out the agenda for the meeting and you launch into the first agenda item: obtaining answers to your questions about their design. They pull out a flowchart and start talking through it. You listen explicitly for the purpose of finding something to acknowledge. The flowchart and their explanation of the design doesn’t answer all of your questions, but it’s a start.You put aside the fact that they were late, that it’s taken what seems like forever to get to this point, and all of the many questions that are still unanswered. Instead, you focus on what you value that your peer is demonstrating.”You’ve created something very clarifying with this flowchart. It answers many of my questions. I can tell that you really attended to my concerns when creating it. And your explanations are detailed and thorough. This is progress!”

    Wouldn’t that be a decent start to improving your relationship? It’s a kind of positive feedback / acknowledgement combo meal.

    You acknowledged who your peer is being, attentive to your concerns, as well as what they are doing, creating a clarifying flowchart and providing detailed and thorough explanations. Those things are valuable to you.

    Now, in that same 45 minute meeting, you may find seven more things that are totally not what you wanted or expected. I’m not suggesting that you should ignore them. But, dwelling on what’s wrong and being passively (or actively) critical about it, isn’t getting you anywhere. You can still focus on what’s right, and ensure what’s important stays on track. How about this as a way to finish off the meeting?

    “Since we’ve gotten off our original timeline, we need a new project timeline, and I have a bunch more questions. If the new timeline and your answers to my questions are as clear, detailed and thorough as the flowchart you did, we’ll be off to a great start. When do you think we could get a new timeline and have those questions answered? Oh, and what could I do to make it easier for you?”

    You may feel like you are just pandering at this point. But focus on what you want! You want a better relationship with your peer, so that you can get what you need from them, so you can get the project done and be successful in your career. Keep your eyes on the prize.

    If you focus your energy on building a better relationship through acknowledgement so that you can be more successful yourself, that may help you move past what’s not serving you in that relationship (focusing on the negative, being critical, finding fault), and get you more of what you want.

Making Good Relationships Better Through Acknowledgement

While acknowledging someone you already have a good relationship with may be more natural, it can still be challenging to find the right words. Consider this approach for improving important relationships, such as those with parents, children, friends, close work relationships, or your spouse:

  • Identify someone important to you with whom you want to have a better relationship. Tune into what makes that important to you. What will be the impact on your life of having a better relationship? Focus on your answer to that question. (Recognize how critically important close relationships are to our health and happiness.)
  • In your next interaction, focus on who the person is being and not so much on what they are doing. Attend to the ways they are being that they value.Such as, they are being generous, kind, courageous, attentive, independent, resourceful, thoughtful, helpful, caring, strong, supportive, observant, loving, warm, considerate. These are qualities more of being than of doing. These qualities recognize who the person is.
  • State your experience of the other person in the present moment. Blurt it out, don’t think too much about exactly how to say it. It doesn’t matter.Example: You have a young son with learning differences. His brain is wired differently, and it makes it harder for him to understand things that are easier for other people. He has a hard time remembering things. He’s challenged to follow directions with more than one step. You want to help him feel more confident, but have a hard time finding something concretely positive to acknowledge in him.Your son has gotten up early one Saturday morning, he didn’t wake you, and he got himself some cereal for breakfast. (And he made a mess.) Ignore the mess.”Good morning, son…. Goodness! You are so resourceful! You got your own breakfast. You are being so independent!”You may not see the impact of your acknowledgements immediately. Over time, you’ll see how much your acknowledging who that person is being gives them confidence and pride and improves your relationship with them.Another example: Your spouse has been away all week, leaving the work of maintaining the household to you. After coming home and relaxing a bit, your spouse does a small task that is normally yours to do.

    “Honey, you must have read my mind. I’m so beat from this week. You are so considerate and helpful to empty out the garbage for me. I know it’s a small thing, but it’s a surprisingly big help. Thank you.”

    Over the top? Maybe. (It has to be sincere.) But don’t you want to have a great relationship with your spouse? Sure, you could focus on all that your spouse is NOT doing, but what would that help? Could it hurt to focus on what you value about how they are being and what they are doing?

    A final example: Your sister, who you hardly ever hear from, calls. You talk about your aging parents. You don’t realize how much you needed to talk with someone about how you are feeling.

    “Sis, I’m so glad you called. You are calm and comforting and easy to talk to. And I really needed to talk, more than I realized.”

Take it For a Test Drive

Try out these acknowledgements and let us know how they work. And share how they can be improved. We love feedback (positive or negative) – AND acknowledgment. 😊 Do you have an approach of your own? We’d love to hear about it.


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Feb 21st Podinar – Must I Ask and Never Tell.

February 14, 2018

What’s a podinar?
 A podinar combines the best parts of a podcast and a webinar. You’ll listen in on a fascinating interview of Master Certified Coaches and be able to interact, asking questions of panelists and engaging with the audience.

Join us for this 90-minute podinar, and hear our panel of expert executive coaches debate questions on topics like these:

  • Where did the idea that “the client has all the answers” come from?
  • Is there a “right” way to give advice? If so, what is it?
  • What does it mean to partner with your client?
  • What makes getting an MCC so hard? Why are there so few of them?
  • Do you ever get to a place in coaching where you don’t know what to do?
  • And, of course, answer your own questions.

Why this podinar? Because no one talks about these topics. And because of the flood of animated responses to our “Must I Ask and Never Tell” blog.


We want to support coaches in providing the best coaching possible for their clients, and so they can make a thriving, successful living as professional coaches.

Join our moderator and a panel of four expert MCC coaches, including some who helped shape ICF:

Alison Whitmire, president, Learning in Action

Amy Ruppert, MCC, The Integreship Group
Pamela Richarde, MCC, InnerVision Enterprises
Peter Reding, MCC, Coach For Life
Terrie Upshur-Lupberger, MCC, Altus Growth Partners

Have a question you’d like our panelists to answer during the podinar? Ask in the space provided when you register, or you can ask during the live podinar.

All registrants receive a link to the recording after the event!

Hope to see you there, 
– Team Learning in Action



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The Power of Acknowledgment (Part 1)

February 8, 2018

You work so hard for your clients. You generously share yourself with them. You deeply and genuinely care for them. And you courageously and exhaustively work on developing yourself so you can be better for them.

That was an acknowledgement. It’s powerful stuff, right? It feels amazing. And it feels amazing because it feels true. Acknowledgement is a potent ally in coaching.

What is an Acknowledgement?

An acknowledgement is an affirming statement of who the client is being and/or what they are doing in that moment. It notices, mirrors and anchors the best in the client, reinforcing who and how the client wants to be. The acknowledgement feels true both to the giver and to the receiver.  And it’s delivered as a statement of fact.

An acknowledgement isn’t the same as positive feedback. Positive feedback is an evaluation of one’s performance, with an agenda to improve it. And while that has a place in the working world, acknowledgement is a better coaching tool because it takes the coach’s judgment out of it. The coach isn’t evaluating who or how the client is being.  They are simply seeing the client being their best and saying what they see.

For a coach, an acknowledgement is a way of saying to the client “I see you.  I see you being who you want to be. You are doing it now!  Look at you!”  (In the Zulu tribe, this is the way they greet each other – “Sawubona” – translated, “we see you”.  It’s a form of deep witnessing and presence.)

What Makes Acknowledgement Important?

Acknowledgement of the client is every bit as important (maybe more so) as asking powerful questions, active listening or planning and goal setting. Acknowledgement is a foundational element of the coach/client relationship that builds the trust and intimacy needed to do the rest of the work.

In her book, The Power of Acknowledgement, Judith W. Umlas writes about the seven principles of acknowledgement. While you can read all seven here, they boil down to the potent effect that acknowledgement can have on both the person being acknowledged and the relationship between the giver and receiver.
When the relationship between coach and client is an intimate one, the coach’s acknowledgement can act like a kind of self-affirmation for the client, because it feels so real, present and true. Studies on self- affirmation have been shown to improve health, education and relationships. Also, acknowledgement of who the client is being (separate from what they are doing), in my experience, has led consistently to deeper relationships that have allowed for deeper work.

Clearly, acknowledgement is an essential aspect of developing the coach/client relationship and anchoring the essence of the client.  So why don’t we coaches acknowledge more?

What’s Hard About Acknowledging?

I’ve been actively engaged in coach training (involved in one coaching program or another) for the last 5 years. I’ve had the opportunity to observe dozens of coaches at all levels – from MCC to no CC, ICF and non-ICF type coaches – and I’ve witnessed surprisingly little acknowledgment.  Not that there aren’t ample opportunities. The opportunities for acknowledgement are abundant.  It’s caused me to be curious about why we coaches don’t acknowledge more.

My hunches about why we don’t acknowledge our clients more include:

• We don’t acknowledge ourselves enough.
OK, here we go again, it’s back to us. Yes, it is. We can’t give to our clients what we don’t give to ourselves. (A lesson I just keep learning!)

• We consider it unimportant or that they know already.
This is actually just another way of saying we don’t consider it important for ourselves and we already know (clearly a theme here).

• Our wants/action orientation.
At Learning in Action, our deep experience with the EQ Profile has helped us understand how everyone has a preferred method of self-soothing.  And we coaches can, if we are not fully conscious and aware of our internal experience, project our own self- soothing onto our clients.  Those of us who self- soothe by acting, doing something, fixing the problem, can insert that bias into our coaching and we can tend to miss the opportunity to simply observe, witness and be present with our clients. And we can coach right past the opportunity for acknowledgment.

• Our thoughts orientation or being too much in our heads.
Some of us self-soothe by thinking more and  turning our focus inward as we coach, searching for that next, awesome, powerful question that will lead to a breakthrough for the client.  When we are turned inward, focusing on our thoughts, looking for that next question, figuring the way forward, we can overlook the opportunity for acknowledgement of our client.

• Can’t figure out what to say or how to say it.
This was definitely me for a very long time and sometimes is even now.  I can recognize the opportunity for acknowledgement and somehow just can’t figure out what to say to acknowledge the client in a way that feels natural and authentic.  It has taken lots of practice and I’ve gotten better.   That said, even now, when I feel like I’m stumbling over an acknowledgement of my client, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who notices.  My client almost always, beams afterward, even if it felt awkward to me.

Overcoming the Obstacles to Acknowledgement

We can all get better at acknowledging our clients if we want to.  And it’s definitely worth the effort as it’s one thing that can change everything about the quality of our coaching.  

Here’s where to start:

1. Acknowledge yourself 
Take time every day to acknowledge yourself. Who were you or what did you do for your clients, your friends, your family, that was of service to them? Acknowledge that.  (I use the 
Five Minute Journal for acknowledging myself).

2. Learn your biases
We have a responsibility to our clients to be aware of our biases. When we don’t (and sometimes even when we do), they can show up in our coaching in ways that don’t serve us or the client. We, of course, recommend the EQ Profile for helping us to understand our biases.  There are many, many ways we can deepen our understanding of our own biases, including developing an understanding of biases that affect coaching in general.

3. Develop your skill for acknowledgement 
Acknowledgement is a coaching skill, like any other, than gets better with time and practice. 

In part 2 of this blog (stay tuned), I’ll be sharing a coaching tool for developing acknowledgement.  And it’ll do double duty for you. It can help you to develop your own ability to acknowledge your client.  You can use it as a tool for your clients who are not so good at acknowledging their co-workers or team.

What about you? 
What’s been your experience of acknowledging your clients? What works for you?  What’s the impact it has on your coaching?  We look forward to hearing about it!

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Posted in: Learning in Action

5 Sojourners

February 2, 2018

I’m a novice meditator.  For years, I dallied with meditation, starting and stopping many times, struggling to build a habit.  At one point, I even tried Meditation Teacher Training to kick-start my practice.  But, for a variety of reasons, that was a bust too.

Then last year, I set a goal to develop a consistent meditation practice, with more determination than before, and with a little help from a device called Muse.  Muse is a brain-sensing headband, designed to provide biofeedback to the meditator about their brain activity.   When the brain is calm, the meditator is rewarded with the chirp of a bird, letting the meditator know, whatever they are doing (or not doing) is working and the brain is getting calmer.  When the brain is active, background sounds selected in advance get louder and louder, letting the meditator know that are headed off track.  (I like the beach background and the rainforest backgrounds best).

The feedback provided by Muse made me curious about what was occurring within me during meditation and how that was affecting my brain.  I started journaling after each meditative session, indulging my curiosity, hypothesizing about what aspects of my internal experience were arising to impact my brain activity.   That’s when I began to discern distinct parts of me.

Over time, I noticed that five unique aspects of myself were showing up consistently on my meditation journey and they each had a different impact on my brain activity.  I began to refer to them as the Five Sojourners.  

Five Sojourners of Meditation

A sojourner is someone who resides temporarily in one place. Which feels appropriate as one of the things I’m learning through meditation is how very temporary my experience is…and all things are.

The Five Sojourners who accompany me on my meditation journeys are: 
1) The Drifter, 2) The Narrator, 3) The Doer 4) The Feeler, and 5) The Observer.

The Drifter

The Drifter is the sojourner I experienced most often early in my meditation practice. The Drifter is off somewhere else, thinking about the days ahead or the days behind, chiding, fretting, planning, wondering, worrying.

Wait, who’s picking Cole up from the bus today? Am I?

Oh, yeah, Nicole’s birthday is coming up.  I wonder what she wants.  I’ll ask Mona, Mark won’t know”.

Alex seems quite unhappy with me.  I must have really messed up”.

“When I’m done here, I’ve got to focus on that retreat coming up.  I have so much to do.”

“I’m exhausted.  I need to plan a vacation.  But, when?”The Drifter lacks intention, aimlessly drifting between past and present, riding a wave of thoughts.   He is a passenger in a driverless car.

When the Drifter shows up, the background noise grows and grows until another Sojourner shows up to calm things down.  While the Drifter dominated early in my meditation experience, his dominance was soon replaced by another, more attentive and well-meaning sojourner, The Narrator.  

The Narrator

When the Narrator comes along on my meditation journey, she is conducting a play by play of what’s going on in the moment and preparing to report out about the results.  The Narrator is ….well, narrating,  saying things like:

“I’m sitting up straight. I’m breathing in and out.”

“I’m closing my eyes and clearing my mind.” (Yeah, right)

“Where are those damn birds? I’m pretty sure I’m doing this right, so why is the background noise so loud?!”  

“I’m going to try ujjayi breathing.  It works in yoga, maybe it’ll work here.”  

“I like ujjayi breathing.  I think I’ll write about that.”  

When the Narrator shows up, the Muse device detects her, turning up the volume on the background noise, providing me with evidence that my Narrator is creating noise in my brain.   But, damn that Narrator!!!  The Narrator is WAY more pernicious than the Drifter.    My Narrator is like the wallpaper of my experience.   Most of the time, I don’t even notice the Narrator because she is so ubiquitous. 


The Doer

The Doer wants to change things to make me more comfortable.  The Doer doesn’t think, it just does.  The Doer has me sit up straighter, move my feet because they hurt, roll my neck because that would be good for me.  The Doer adjusts, moves, and tweaks to change my experience of the situation to be more in line with what I want it to be, think it should be or feels better to me.

Interestingly, to me at least, when the Doer shows up, my brain goes calm.  If I want to attract the birds, I know all I need to do is put Doer in charge.  This finding has been both surprising and unsurprising to me.  I’ve done some form of work out very nearly every day for 35 years, moving my body, putting my Doer in charge, to provide me some relief from my Drifter and my Narrator.  But engaging the Doer is not the purpose of meditation.

The Feeler

The Feeler feels what it feels.  The Feeler feels tired, bored, sad, defeated, hopeful, encouraged, light, hurt, suspicious, tender, guilty, overwhelmed, engulfed, overcommitted, grateful.   The Feeler sits in its feeling.  The Feeler is enmeshed with its feeling, without separation or boundary.

The Feeler shows up very, very rarely.   Really only making an appearance when all of the other Sojourners are asleep or have passed out.  (This realization has made me aware of just how little attention I pay and space I give to my feelings.)   My brain is calm to neutral when the Feeler is in charge.    

The Observer

The Observer witnesses it all.  The Observer witnesses the Drifter drifting, the Narrator narrating, the Doer doing and the Feeler feeling.  The Observer doesn’t try to change things.  The Observer accepts all as it is. The Observer doesn’t think. The Observer doesn’t want.  The Observer doesn’t feel.  The Observer is merely present with what is.   The Observer listens, looks, perceives, observes.

When the Observer arrives, the birds come.  They chirp joyfully and easily.  My brain is quiet, calm, still.  And the Observer is the Sojourner who makes the fewest appearances, unfortunately.   As I reflect upon why that is, what comes up for me is that my inattention, my efforting, my pursuit of comfort, my loss of boundary, block me from simply being…and letting the Observer emerge.  And that’s my work as a meditator.

So What Does This Have To Do With Coaching (Or Anything Else)?

As I started to right this blog to share my meditation experience, I asked myself, “Why should anyone care?  Why would a coach be interested in a dissection of my meditation journey?”  Then, I realized, that the Sojourners who accompany me in my meditation journey, also accompany me in my coaching.  Uh oh.

Yeah, this hit me like static electricity.  The Drifter, The Narrator, The Doer, The Feeler and The Observer all show up when I coach.  

Five Sojourners of Coaching

It’s true.  The Sojourners that accompany me on my meditator journey also accompany me as I coach. 

The Drifter

While the Drifter doesn’t dominate my coaching and it still appears more often than I’d like.  His experience is something like: 

“What do I have after this? I forget what’s on my calendar.”

“Did I remember to pay for parking?”

Or if it’s late on a Friday “Oh boy, I’m so ready for a break. I’m going to relax after this.  Netflix, here I come!”  

The Drifter disconnects me from my client, myself and the coaching space.  The Drifter is a cheat.  I allow him show up when I haven’t sufficiently prepared and created the space for coaching or haven’t tended to my self-care enough to be fully present and energetic for my client. 


The Narrator

The Narrator is awake and active during most of my coaching sessions. (Not saying that’s good, it’s just true).  The Narrator is narrating what’s going on with the client, within me, with the connection between us.

 “She’s acting like she’s fine, but she just told me this gut-wrenching story.  Is she fine?”

“Where is he going with this?   I thought I knew what we were talking about and now I have no idea.”

“How do I figure out how to get this guy to see himself?”

The Narrator is over-trying.  The Narrator is at once both reporting and figuring.  I’ve been coaching 15 years now.  And the Narrator STILL doesn’t trust me, the coach and the process.  Heavy sigh…

The Doer

The Doer still shows up more often than I’d like during coaching.  The Doer wants to DO something and wants the client to DO something because doing something makes everything better.  Right?  No, of course not and it can give me that illusion. My Doer can get triggered by strong feelings in my client and circumstances that seem hopeless (to my client and to me if I’ve lost my boundary).

I try to catch the Doer before they start doing.   I’m successful more of the time now that I know their tendencies.  And I’ve learned to keep a watchful eye out for them.

The Feeler

Just as in my meditation, I fear I don’t give my Feeler nearly enough space in my coaching.  It’s easy for me to be empathetic with clients, except when it’s not.  It’s not so easy for me to be empathetic and feel with them when they aren’t feeling either.  Or when they dismiss the acknowledgement of what they might be feeling.   And it can be dicey for me to be empathetic when I buy in too fully to how my client is feeling and why they are feeling that way.  That’s when the Feeler is a betrayer, causing me to lose my boundary.  Maybe that’s why I don’t give my Feeler more space.  Definitely something I’m going to work on.

The Observer

Engaging the Observer is what coaching invites us to do. Engaging my Observer requires me to trust and let go.  She requires me to trust myself, my client and the process.  To trust my training, my experience, my ability, my enoughness as a coach.  The Observer asks a lot and nothing at all.

It has been easy for me to believe that there is one more training, one more certification, one more coach-approach that I need before I can trust.   I need an MCC.   I need to know the best, most powerful questions to ask.    I need to be creating value for my clients in every coaching session.  And it’s just not true.  The vast majority of the time, what my clients can best be served by is my engaged Observer. 

One of my goals in the year ahead is to trust that I can trust.  And allow the Observer the space to be present in my coaching


The Path to Self-as-Coach

If this blog isn’t an advertisement for meditation, I don’t know what is.  We coaches have a responsibility to observe and be present with our internal experience.  Because, whether we know it or not, it IS showing up in our coaching.  And better we know what it is and how it shows up than not.

We have a responsibility to our clients to be aware of how our sojourners might be impacting not only our experience, but theirs.  We have enormous influence over our clients, whether we want to, or feel we should.   We do.  If we have created the level of trust and intimacy needed to do deep work, then we have a great deal of influence over them.

It’s essential that we know what we are bringing to our work.  We can learn what we bring through meditation, through assessments like the EQ Profile (which reveals your unconscious internal experience), through journaling, through self-as-coach exercises, through being coached.    We coaches can really never stop observing and learning about ourselves if we are going to do our best work.

What about you? What do you do to observe yourself?  What has been your most powerful learning about yourself and how has it changed your coaching?  Join the conversation and let us know.

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Can You Coach Empathy? (Part 2)

January 26, 2018

Bill showed up to our coaching session saying that he’d like to talk about a conversation he’d had with his business partner, Ted. He was uncomfortable with the implications of what Ted had said and wanted to process it with me. And it turned into a fortuitous opportunity to coach Bill on empathy. 

If you recall from Part 1 of this two-part blog, Bill thought was he empathetic. He wasn’t asking for coaching on empathy, didn’t bring relationship challenges to coaching, and lack of empathy didn’t show up in his 360. However, his direct reports would describe to me conversations with Bill that demonstrated a lack of empathy. So the presenting coaching challenge for me was, “How do I coach someone to be more empathetic who isn’t asking to be more empathetic, isn’t demonstrating lack of empathy in our coaching sessions, and believes he is quite empathetic, with no evidence to the contrary?” Bill had unknowingly given me my opening.

Empathy in the Workplace

Empathy is given a bad wrap – though maybe not like you think. In writing this blog, I performed some fairly extensive research on empathy and how to increase it. I found that, paradoxically, while numerous studies refer to how much more effective empathetic leaders are than their unempathetic counterparts, few of the practices for increasing empathy were presented in a work context, and little consideration was given to what makes being empathetic in a work environment difficult. 

Most of what’s written about increasing empathy is presented in generalities and without context. As if empathy is something you use only in your free time and in your non-work relationships. Or as if you can do empathy on your own, like exercise, without involving anyone else. As if it’s a mindset that you develop without an application to people you know and work with.

Empathy is best practiced with people we know and work with. Wait, what?! Yes, I believe that it’s when we are employed in a joint activity with a common goal that we learn what it means to be empathetic and connected in relationship. Not in a romantic sense. (Why is it whenever you use the word ‘relationship,’ it’s assumed to be romantic?!) Work provides us the opportunity to learn about ourselves, connect with and grow in relationship with others. Work is an ideal space in which to practice empathy, not just when it’s easy, with our friends and family and when everything’s going great, but with our co-workers (relationships we may not have chosen) and in challenging situations.

Feeling Instead of Fixing

Bill was definitely presented with a challenging situation during his conversation with Ted. Ted had told Bill that he was uncomfortable with how his compensation was turning out. He had expected to be making more, but the company’s performance wasn’t supporting it. Ted wasn’t complaining or making an issue of it or asking for anything. He was simply sharing his experience of his situation.

After Bill shared with me his conversation with Ted, I jumped on the opportunity to coach him on his empathy and asked, “Would you be open to exploring the role that empathy might play in this?” and like all coachable clients, he said, “Yes.” YAY!

I asked Bill, “What was your experience of that conversation?” (At this point in our relationship, Bill knows I’m asking what the conversation triggered within him regarding thinking, feeling and wanting. Check out the EQ Profile instrument for more on these triggers and how they show up for you.) Bill replied, “I felt sad and worried and responsible. And then I wanted to fix it. Maybe I should offer him more money.”

Bill’s response is common. It’s a work situation. A problem was presented. And problems are situations to be fixed, right? Not always. And not nearly as often as you might think. Sometimes just empathizing – and empathizing alone – provides what’s needed in these situations. Regardless, empathizing has the effect of moving the situation / conversation forward.

Sometimes people present a situation (like Ted did), not for it to be solved, but to feel less alone with it. To share it. To connect with someone else over it. Leaders need to know that not every situation presented to them (at work or at home) needs fixing. Sometimes it simply needs feeling. Feeling with the other person.

When Empathy is Obstructed

It’s easy to be empathetic with coworkers when say they have been passed over for a promotion, or they are sick, or they are feeling overwhelmed by their workload. We’ve all been in those situations; we can relate. We can feel with them. We can be empathetic.

But everything changes when the person who’s been passed over for promotion is your direct report – and you promoted her peer, or when the person who is sick leaves you with double the workload, or when the person overwhelmed by their workload is your direct report and there is no one else to do the work. What is to be empathized with hasn’t changed in this situation, but what has changed is your relationship to the person and situation.

When someone else’s challenge has triggered thoughts and feelings within us, we can be blinded to the experience of the other person by our own experience. Our own thoughts and feelings of ourselves can obstruct us from being empathetic with the other person.

Bill’s sadness, worry and feeling of responsibility for the situation with Ted were in conflict with his empathizing with him. Instead of acknowledging how challenging the situation must be for Ted, he focused on his own thoughts and feelings. He didn’t respond much, and he left Ted’s conversation with the sense that he needed to figure out a way to fix the situation.

Knowing When Empathy Is Needed

I asked Bill, “Why do you think Ted told you what he did?” Bill: “I don’t know. I guess just to let me know. I’m not sure what else.” Me: “Just to let you know what?” Bill: “I guess to let me know …..his situation?” Me: “What’s the chance that Ted wanted you to know not only the situation, but also how he felt and thought about it?” Bill: “Yeah, I guess so.” Me: “And do you know how he feels and thinks about it, really?” Bill: “No, not really.”

Bill’s own experience triggered him to focus on his own responsibility for the situation, and to go into fix it mode. He missed the cues that Ted was giving him, no doubt, about how he was feeling and thinking about the situation.

The Secret Weapon of Empathy – Information

Ignore for a moment all that touchy-feely stuff about connecting and all that science behind the effectiveness of empathy. And consider this: Empathy provides you with a source of information about the situation that nothing else does.

There is critical information for Bill in what Ted is feeling and thinking, and that Ted might not be saying. Ted may be feeling skeptical about the future of the company, and he’s signaling to Bill that things had better improve. Ted may be feeling disappointed and regretful that he didn’t negotiate his compensation better. Ted may be angry that he was duped by Bill. And each one of those feelings provides Bill with unique and different information. But Bill didn’t get the message. He didn’t empathize. His mind rushed to fix it.

Demonstrating Empathy

So, how does one demonstrate empathy in the workplace? Funny you should ask. We created the following Practices for Demonstrating Empathy in the Workplace for you to share with your clients, whether they are super empathetic already and want to improve even more, or if they could use an empathy workout. These practices will be beneficial for leaders at all levels, with all degrees of empathy.

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