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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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Posted in: Learning in Action

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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Posted in: Learning in Action

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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Posted in: Learning in Action

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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