Overstepping Empathy

By Robert Holmes

May 14

Everyone needs to learn to express more empathy. It’s good for business. When clients feel understood they come back, it improves their experience. It builds better relationships and if you’re in the coaching business – it is absolutely central to your survival. The ability to establish rapport with a client very often rests on your ability to empathise with them.

Empathy is the ability to identify with someone, to get their point of view and see it their way. You get a sense of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes they must be having. But you know what… this is a highly flawed and subjective thing because you cannot actually be in their shoes. It’s just not possible.

Before I go any further I think I have to clear something up… empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy means harmonising your feelings with another, coming into agreement with their point of view, sharing their sorrow or trouble. Sympathy is deadly to coaching and, unless you’re throwing a pity party, doesn’t serve relationships particularly well either.

When empathy goes too far

Part of my life and work is having the privilege of listening to other coaches take a crack at doing their best in a recorded coaching session. I was recently listening to a session by a male coach, I’ll call him Malcolm, when he gave a heartfelt response to his client saying, “I really get what you mean.” Harmless enough you say? Sounds empathetic? Well it didn’t have that effect on his client. The guy had been through some major trauma and here was Malcolm saying he understood. The client didn’t buy a bar of it. The truth is, we can’t possibly know what the client is going through, even when we have been through similar circumstances, as I’ll shortly explain.

I guess the reason I’m perhaps more sensitive to the issue than others is that I’ve made this type of mistake plenty of times myself (note, I am not saying I know what Malcolm went through, I am not him, but I have made his category of mistake before). I was down in Melbourne doing clean space coach training and I was taking a crack at my first client, let’s call him Mike. The process asks Mike to create six spaces related to his topic and Mike was exploring each of those spaces with my guidance. I felt like he kept missing space #2, avoiding it, disregarding or dismissing it. When I offered to skip space #2 in the process Mike rightly lost it with me. How dare I think I knew what he was experiencing, or what he thought about it! I should have followed process.

Try this exercise at home

Are you in a comfortable place? Can you focus on a task for a second? I have a word I want to share with you, and I want you to see what turns up when I say it. Ready? What comes to mind when I say “cat”? People all feel differently about that word. For some it’s good, for others it’s bad. Some think of wild animals like a tiger or leopard. Some think of a domesticated animal, and the variety is astonishing – infinite colours, ages and shapes. One guy I did this with even thought of a CAT diesel truck. Now that’s just one word. Our conversations contain hundreds of words!

The problem Malcolm and I had was not just about having a different word in our minds, it was about having a different experience of the word. Everybody’s internal representation of cat is different, and it manifests what philosophers call qualia – the raw “feels” of conscious experience: the coldness of cold, the yellowness of yellow and the sticky feeling of honey. The coach’s job may well be to bring a client to experience their life differently, to alter their internal representation, to change their qualia… but it is certainly not possible for the coach to experience that person’s experience.

So I cringed when Malcolm brought his map of the world into the conversation and, in seeking to establish empathy said, “I know exactly how you feel.” We all know it’s simply rubbish. Nobody has actually has that capacity except God. We cannot know and it is not our job to know.

It is our job to be companion, and guide. Create a space that is safe for the client to experience their qualia, and take their own journey. This is much more desirable than trying to know or understand what they are going through.

Take heart and take heed dear friend, it is enough to listen and be present to them. You can imagine what you imagine, but keep it to yourself. Try to get a sense of where they are at, but only to inform yourself as to your next potential question or whether to simply wait further in silence.

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About the Author

Robert is an expert in the science of human behaviour and performance enhancement with a passion for neurology, leadership and the psychology of potential. He believes it is important to bring hard science to coaching, and that coaching practices be evidence based and research backed. Robert is a founding partner at Frazer, Holmes Coaching and current Director of Brand and Marketing for the International Coach Federation Australasia (ICFA). Robert is a professionally certified coach (PCC) with over 20 years of business experience and an ICF Accredited Mentor Coach. He is an Associate at the National Speaker's Association, a member of the Coaching Psychology interest group at the APS, a certified Action Learning Coach, a Member of the Australian Institute of Management Consultants.