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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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Can You Coach Empathy? (Part 1)

January 18, 2018

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.”

What is empathy?

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:

  • Empathy Accuracy = Knowing and cognitively understanding what another is thinking, feeling, intending.
  • Empathy Compassion = Caring and sharing in the feeling, thinking, and intending of another.
  • Sympathy = Knowing / Understanding / Caring what someone else is feeling, without joining in it with them. Caring without connecting. Caring, from a distance.

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.

What’s the business case for 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?

What makes being empathetic so hard?

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:

  • Bad Listening Habits – For many, listening is synonymous with preparing to speak. Others listen with their eyes, but their mind is somewhere else. When our listening is more like waiting than attuning, we don’t connect with the other person and what they are saying. Empathetic listening is about tuning into what another is thinking, wanting, feeling, as well as saying. Empathy requires presence and attendance to the whole of the other person. When we don’t listen fully, we don’t connect.

  • Being Uncomfortable with Emotion – Being present and fully empathetic, without trying to fix a situation, can be distressing and uncomfortable for some. Being empathetic means being with the feelings of another without trying to change the person, their feelings, or the situation. That discomfort of being with the person and their feelings can cause some to try to fix the situation or change the feelings of the person. That can lead to saying all kinds of unempathetic things: “It’ll be fine.” “It could be worse.” “What does not kill us makes us stronger.” “Look for the silver lining.” “You should have ____.” “I would have ____”. “You should ____”. “Have you thought about ___?” All of these phrases end up creating distance versus connection.

  • Having a Conflicting Agenda – In a work environment, everyone pretty much has an agenda (not an evil agenda, just an agenda), an agenda set by the company. Sometimes it can feel like empathy and moving the agenda forward are in opposition. Here are examples of cases when empathy can be challenged by an agenda:

    • You are Betty’s boss. Betty’s working on a critical, time-sensitive project, due today, and calls in with a sick child. Part of you wants to support Betty, part of you is terror struck and frustrated about what’s going to happen with the project. It may be hard to be present and empathetic with Betty when your own distressing feelings arise.
    • You are Carl’s boss. Carl says that he doesn’t like the project he’s on, that it sucks his energy, but there’s no one else to do the job. You want Carl to be happy, but what choice is there? You feel stuck. You find it hard to both empathize with Carl and not change anything.
    • You are Jim’s peer. You are on a project with Jim and he’s consistently late delivering his part because he’s secretly working two jobs to make ends meet. His performance is making you look bad. You want Jim to be able to take care of himself, and you don’t want to have his non-performance reflect on you. Empathizing can feel like condoning what he’s doing.

All of these situations can create inner conflicts that make feeling empathetic a choice between     the other person and yourself.

  • Being in Conflict – Many people consider themselves to be empathetic. They may be, except when they are in conflict. It can be hard to be both in conflict with and empathetic toward another. Our instrument, the EQ Profile, measures one’s Empathy Accuracy and Empathy Compassion while in an interpersonal conflict. We’ve learned that one’s ability to empathize with someone in conflict can be challenged by their own distressing feelings, defenses, perspective, and desire to self-sooth. For these reasons, many find it challenging to empathize and connect with others when in conflict with them (which paradoxically, is when it’s needed most!).

  • Conflating Empathy with Agreement – Some leaders don’t want to be empathetic because they believe that empathy will be taken as agreement. As mentioned in Having a Conflicting Agenda (above), they don’t want to lose their position relative to their agenda by seeming to agree with the other person. Empathy is not agreement. Empathy is connecting with the feeling, thinking and wanting of another. When we connect with others through empathy, they drop their resistance. They feel felt, understood, seen. They no longer need to put up a fight. Only when we connect, and others drop their resistance, are we able to begin to move forward, together.
  • Empathetic Distress – Studies have found that professional caregivers can suffer from Empathetic Distress Fatigue, ostensibly as the result of empathetic burnout due to being placed repeatedly in emotionally demanding situations. High stakes, high emotion settings can be emotionally depleting. If we don’t continually refill our joy buckets, we can become empathetically fatigued making it difficult to stay connected with others.

  • Low Joy Bucket – Regardless of our profession, a low joy bucket can make us less empathetic. We at Learning in Action have collected data from thousands of people over the last 15 years and have found a direct and positive correlation between joy and empathy. People with higher levels of joy (and love and positivity and connectedness) experience higher levels of both empathy accuracy and empathy compassion. People with low joy, who are emotionally and relationally depleted, experience lower levels of empathy accuracy and compassion, particularly under stress. When we don’t consistently attend to our own self-care, keeping our joy bucket full, it can be challenging to stay present and connected with others.
  • Social Class – Studies have found that people of a higher social class experience lower levels of empathy. The higher the social class, the more likely an individual is to believe in what’s called the Just World Theory, interpreted loosely to mean ‘people get what they deserve.’ So, under this theory, when something bad happens to someone, it’s because they deserved it. Not much room for empathy there.

  • Pleasantly In the Dark – Just as with Bill, some people simply don’t know they aren’t being empathetic. And they don’t know because they aren’t being told. Am I going to, somehow in a crafty, coachy way, intimate to Bill’s direct reports that they tell him he’s not being empathetic. NO! (For a myriad of reasons.) I will, however, support and encourage them to speak their truth to Bill and tell him what they want from him to be more effective. Not speaking truth to power keeps the powerful blind and disconnected. (See Part 2 for how I plan to coach Bill) 
  • Prejudice / Othering – Numerous studies have examined the impact of racial, and other human differences on empathy. The bottom line of many of these studies is that we tend to be more empathetic with people who are more like us. Prejudice, judgment, bigotry, misogyny, racism, all types of othering, disconnect us from others. They are blockers to empathy.

  • Neurological Differences – Some people with certain neurological differences can have difficulty experiencing empathy. Neurological differences can result in one’s inability to develop what’s called Theory of Mind. In essence, Theory of Mind (ToM) reflects one’s ability to recognize that other people have different feelings and thoughts than you do. Neurotypical children begin demonstrating ToM as toddlers or preschoolers. (There is some evidence to indicate that it can be developed in even younger, pre-verbal children.) Empathy requires an understanding that others are having a different experience than you are. People without a fully developed ToM can find it challenging to connect with others empathetically.

  • Youth / Inexperience – An analysis of our own data measuring empathy indicates that empathy is lower in youth and increases with age. Perhaps as we experience more distress, more loss as we age, we are better able to empathize with others. Relative inexperience with physical, social, emotional pain can make one less empathetic and make it hard to relate to the struggles of others.

  • Not Caring – It’s tough to empathize with someone when we simply don’t care. Typically, if we don’t care, it’s reflective of one or more of the above obstacles.

Where to start?

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.


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The Information and Gifts of Emotions

January 11, 2018

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.

The Information and Gifts of Emotions

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.

7 Categories of Emotions

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.

For each of the seven key emotional categories, the emotions guide provides:

  1.  An image of how the emotion shows up on the face.
  2.  The information the emotion provides us that no other dimension of our experience provides.
  3.  The gift of the emotion and how our lives and relationships are better because of it.
  4.  The risk to ourselves and our relationships of under accessing the emotion (when we don’t feel it or don’t feel it much).
  5.  The risk to ourselves and our relationships of over accessing the emotion (over indulging it, not letting it go, or getting stuck in it).
  6.  A list of feeling words for each emotion’s family of words.
  7.  Notes to add a bit of explanation for each of the seven emotions.

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.

– Alison

Alison Whitmire
President | Learning In Action


P.S. Our 2018 training calendar is now set! Here’s the course catalog.


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When the Coach Gets Stuck

January 4, 2018

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.

Wanting Something Different For My Clients Than They Want For Themselves

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.

Defining the Value I Think My Clients Should Be Getting From the Coaching

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.

In the Middle of The Unspoken Conversation Between Clients

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.


– Alison

Alison Whitmire
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.

P.S. Our 2018 training calendar is now set! Check out the entire course catalog.



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Coaching and the world’s oldest profession…

December 14, 2017

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.

Connection and Intimacy

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.

Establishing the Agreement

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!)

Creating Clear Boundaries

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.)




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