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“Empathy is really about maintaining a stance of curiosity about another before you move into judgment.” -Helen Riess
What is empathy and how can you cultivate more of it in your coaching relationships? In this session, Alison Whitmire, President of Learning In Action, welcomes guest Helen Riess, M.D., Chief Scientist and Chairman of Empathetics for an in-depth discussion about empathy and how to use it in skillful and healthy ways in your work as a coach.
Dr. Riess is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, and the author of the book, The Empathy Effect: Seven Neuroscience-Based Keys for Transforming the Way We Live, Love, Work, and Connect Across Differences.
To understand empathy, it’s helpful to define a few terms that are commonly used.
Empathic capacity is a term that describes not just the ability to perceive another’s emotions, it also includes the whole spectrum of processing what’s perceived and responding.
Empathic accuracy is understanding another’s emotions correctly. This is done by processing what you are sensing and then checking in with the other person to be sure what you have sensed is correct.
Empathic concern is the motivator that happens when you perceive someone in pain or suffering and you experience discomfort or concern. When you react by actively doing something to help, this is compassion. It can be helpful to know that being empathetic and being compassionate are different.
Compassion involves some kind of action and can be described as is the outward manifestation of empathy, or being moved by somebody else’s plight or suffering.
You are born with empathy. Feeling discomfort when others are being harmed is hard-wired in you as a human. Babies as young as three months old respond to other babies suffering, and toddlers as young as three years old have been known to try to help if their mother is in danger.
While empathy is innate in you, it is also not a fixed quality. Many forces in life can nurture empathy and other forces can also beat it out of people. Your capacity for empathy is dynamic and it depends a lot on your inner resources, external demands, and experiences.
Empathy is a skill you can expand on, nurture, and cultivate in your life and your work as a coach. Learning to be more empathetic can be slow as it’s a practice that takes time. As a coach, before you can have deeper empathy for others, it starts with building your own skills of self-empathy, increasing your self-awareness, and attuning to how you are feeling. It can be helpful to reflect personally on how it felt in the past to be misunderstood, judged or not cared about.
Tuning into yourself leads in a natural way to a better ability to read the emotional cues of others. Tone of voice is one of the most powerful conveyors of emotion. Silences or other ways that your client might disconnect themselves from the present moment are other signals to pay attention to. When you pick up on cues, it’s also important to find skillful and neutral ways to engage the client about their experience. For example, rather than focusing directly on the emotion that seems to be present, you might choose a more general question like “How are you doing energetically today?”. The key is to tune in and respond from your heart space rather than your thinking mind.
As a coach or in any other type of helping profession, it is possible to become overloaded with too much empathy and run out of the capacity to hold it. While it feels good to care for others, there is also a point you will exhaust yourself and your own internal resources and feel emotionally burned out. Professionals who are constantly exposed to the suffering or trauma of others can also experience something known as secondary trauma.
If you are someone who tends to take on other people’s feelings in a profound, deeply felt way, it’s helpful to find ways to create boundaries between yourself and others. This doesn’t mean you don’t feel for your clients, however, you find ways to regulate how you respond. Being self-aware and understanding and tending to your own vulnerabilities, can help you create a safe space for yourself.
Coaches can resource themselves in several ways. Practical things like being mindful of your client load can help you avoid burnout. It is so important to be aware of your own capacity and take care of yourself by finding ways to recharge your battery. Getting help through a professional support group or a coach or therapist can help you release some of your residual emotional build-up.
Empathy shows up most naturally for people who are like you, for those who have suffered in similar ways to you, and for people who share a common goal with you. It’s important to know your natural tendency to feel empathy can get blocked. Conscious or unconscious bias can keep you from feeling empathy — this happens when you don’t get to know people and instead rush to make judgments about them. The antidote to this hurdle to feeling empathy is to make an intentional effort to get to know others, especially people who aren’t like you or who have a different background or life experience.
Your ability to be empathetic is also diminished when you get triggered and go into fight or flight. When someone is upset with you or when you feel criticized or misunderstood, your natural tendency is to close down and turn inward, instead of tuning in to the other person’s experience of the situation. In situations like this, training yourself to pause and get curious about what the other person is experiencing in the moment, is one small way to begin opening yourself back up.
Empathy is something you are born with and you can learn to cultivate even more of it in yourself, helping you connect with clients at an even deeper level. The heart of empathy is truly about being curious about others rather than rushing to judgment. Training yourself to be more empathetic is not something that happens fast — it takes time. The first step is practicing self-empathy: being kind, giving yourself some grace, and getting curious about your own experience, and then bringing these same qualities to the coaching relationship.