October 16, 2019
Great coaching is not easy, because it is always asking people to change. Sometimes people are not ready to change. Even when they are, change is difficult. It requires a rewiring of our brains that can be time-consuming and even painful. Change requires loss, even when it’s good. It can trigger fear about what the future will hold, regret about how we spent our time up until now, or anger. In a great coaching relationship, empathy is the lifeblood that helps us move through all of that.
What is empathy? It is the ability to feel and understand the inner emotional experience of another and have an appropriate emotional response. Empathy is a word we use to represent a complex soup of cognitive, emotional, and physical responses that are a unique part of the human experience. Empathy is not fusion. If someone is down in the dumps and you climb down into the hole and stay there, you will not be much good to that person. Empathy is not manipulation either—merely getting someone to do what you want him to do.
Empathy is generally differentiated into two major components:
Cognitive empathy is a thinking activity. Some people call it imaginative empathy. It occurs in conscious awareness. It is the ability to identify and understand another’s feelings. Sometimes we call this kind of empathy “perspective taking.” Cognitive empathy allows me to know what you are feeling, but it doesn’t mean that I have to share that feeling.
Affective empathy is a feeling activity. It is also called emotional empathy or primitive empathy. It is unconscious and happens automatically, outside of our awareness. It is the ability to share another’s emotions. Affective empathy allows me to feel what you are feeling. We feel it in our bodies before we even recognize it as an emotion.
In the best coaching relationships, the future is co-created between people. The coach brings particular expertise or a process of discovery. The person being coached brings his skills, his emotions, his stories about the past, and his ideas about the future. That future takes shape in the conversation. We often talk about “meeting someone where she’s at.” What that really means is empathizing, both ways.
Great coaches work from the head (cognitive empathy) and the heart/body (affective empathy), imagining the perspective of another from what she says, but also taking in the state of her being as communicated from the body, without words. Great students empathize too. Learning something new is an imaginative activity, starting with understanding what the other person is offering (cognitive empathy). Open students also absorb, for good and bad, the emotional content of the lesson (affective empathy). They know, regardless of the words (such as through tone, facial expressions, the way someone holds his body), whether the interaction inspires joy or fear. They feel whether they are being seen clearly or manipulated.
Great coaching relationships grow the capacity for full, mature empathy in both people. It is a safe space to be open, vulnerable, and empathic. With that current of essential humanity flowing between people, great coaching relationships feel good and deliver the biggest superpower of all: empathy.
There is a good chance that in the future, we will have a new way to work. Different aspects of our networked economy are likely to impact how we allocate time in the future. As more people lean into their superpower of empathy, they will migrate away from jobs that make no space for life outside of work. People will choose empathy. It is only human. Coaches can help people recover their humanity and steward empathy in their organizations.
Empathy is part of the solution too. Empathy collapses time. Think back to your most beautiful coaching relationships, both when you were the coach and when you were coached. In the best times, did it not feel as though you could do anything? Time was not a concern. Maybe time even stood still. That time, our most precious and limited resource, is one of the biggest gifts of a great coach. Time well spent, so you have few regrets. Time well-planned, so you look to the future with calm hope. Time in which empathy flows, so you have the courage to know yourself, change, and grow.