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Coaching textbooks are full of advice for coaches to develop their skills of empathy. It might seem to make common sense, but this advice doesn’t seem to be based on any credible evidence. In fact, the contrary may be true — empathy may be a dangerous and unhealthy addiction for the coach and an unhelpful distraction for the client.

Research into the nature and impact of empathy as recently reported in New Scientist (14 May 2016, pages 33-35) reveals that modern living is causing an “empathy epidemic” and that people in the helping professions, which includes coaching and mentoring, are particular prone to “catching” stress from those they work with. Symptoms recorded for employees in hospitals include desensitisation to others’ feelings, increased anger and anxiety, and greater absenteeism. Other studies relate empathy to burnout.

The problem is much wider, however. Researchers have coined the term “emotional contagion” to describe how distress exhibited by one person — even a stranger or a fictional character in a movie — causes negative emotional and physical reactions in another. Empathetic overload can cause us to avoid helping situations, because we cannot cope with the effects upon ourselves.

Effective coaches and mentors deal with clients’ distress all the time. Indeed, we are often instrumental in bringing these feelings to the surface, so they can be addressed. The greater the emotional arousal that our empathy provokes in us, the harder it becomes to be objective and hence the harder to be genuinely helpful.

What is needed in these situations is not empathy, but compassion. Whereas empathy is about feeling with another person, compassion is about feeling for them. Neurologically, empathy and compassion use different brain resources.

Being compassionate allows us to take a step back in terms of emotional entanglement, focusing on both the person and their situation. Empathy traps us in the mode of “how would I feel and what would I do, if this happened to me?” and pushes us towards solutions that alleviate our own anxiety or distress. Compassion focuses our attention on relieving their suffering.

Compassion leads us towards considerations, such as:

  • What does this person most need right now?
  • What has to change for them to progress out of this situation?
  • What resources do they have within themselves to climb back to normality?
  • What positive change is possible in the client’s context?

So how can you develop compassion? Various approaches to compassion training have emerged in recent years, based on a mixture of perspectives and practice from neuroscience, Buddhist meditation and mindfulness. Central to all these approaches is that compassion is less an emotion than a mindset. The lesson from all of these is that compassion can be learned and enhanced. Experiments with clinicians and students in secondary and tertiary education also point to significant health benefits from becoming more compassionate, ranging from improved cardiovascular function, to enhanced immune systems and reduced inflammation.

We can categorise the process of developing compassion into three elements:

  • Widening the scope of who we are compassionate towards
  • Learning to be more self-compassionate. (Self-compassion gives us emotional strength and resilience, so we recover more quickly from embarrassment and bruised ego. That in turn makes it easier for us to admit and address our failings.
  • Creating the environment, where we can be compassionate towards others and ourselves.

Widening the scope of who we are compassionate towards

In general, the wider the scope of our compassion, the easier it is to adopt a compassionate approach as a coach. Neurological studies suggest that we find it easier to be compassionate to “in-groups” – family, friends, people we perceive to be like us. The more distant or “alien” to us, the less attention we pay to suffering and the more judgemental we tend to be. So sympathy for refugees can be muted by rationalisations such as, “Why can’t they sort the problem themselves?”

We can widen the scope of our compassion by seeking to understand the perspectives of out-groups, who are suffering. The best way to do this is to engage in dialogue with them, showing “empathetic curiosity” about them as individuals and about the situation, in which they find themselves. Listening to their stories has a powerful and durable impact on our emotional memory.

We can also raise our awareness of our own compassion limits. When we find ourselves irritated by a client’s attitudes or behaviours (or those of anyone we encounter), we can ask ourselves: Would I be feeling like this, if I were more compassionate towards them? How might greater compassion on my part help them think and behave differently?

More generally, we can develop wider compassion by reflecting on:

  • What kindness could I offer to someone, towards whom I feel disapproval?
  • How compassionate is my ideal self?
  • What’s the most generous thing I could think or do right now?

Learning to be more self-compassionate

We all tend to beat ourselves up about our weaknesses and mistakes – being “our own worst critic”. Even people, who seem to have high self-esteem, have agonising conversations with their inner critic. Being self-compassionate is not about silencing our inner critic; it evolved as a tool of survival and continues to play a valuable role in our development as individuals. However, like any other organ or system in human beings, the inner critic becomes dysfunctional, if it becomes overactive.

You can enhance self-compassion not by ignoring your inner critic (it will still be hard at work in your sub-conscious!) but changing how you listen to it. Assign it a name and a personality – treat it as if it were a real person. (This is even more powerful if you use an avatar in a virtual world like ProReal.) Approach the conversation with curiosity – “I want to understand what you are telling me and why.” Make it as real a dialogue as you can. Now thank your inner critic for their attempt to be helpful and tell them why you aren’t going to accept their advice or point of view this time. Shift now to a dialogue with your self-compassionate self – the very opposite of your inner critic. Finally, if you still feel anxious, use your coaching skills to facilitate a conversation between your inner critic and your self-compassionate self.

Being self-compassionate isn’t about denying our mistakes, bad thoughts or weaknesses. Rather, it is about coming to terms with them and accepting that we are all “works in progress” – organisms developing through trial and error. If we are not making mistakes, we are not growing. Focusing on how we let ourselves or other people down or didn’t live up to our values doesn’t help us to grow and improve (which is what the inner critic is supposed to support). Much more effective is to do what we would do with a client – focus on what learning can be extracted from the experience.

Useful questions to ask ourselves from time to time, when we reflect on our practice or when we experience a period of self-doubt, include:

  • What can I forgive myself for?
  • What simple kindness can I do for myself today (or in this situation)?
  • What would someone, who deeply loves me, say to me right now?

Creating the environment, where we can be compassionate towards ourselves and others

By environment, I don’t mean here a physical location. You can be compassionate towards other people anywhere. The environment is mainly to do with what is happening, both within you as a coach and immediately around you and the coachee. Compassion flourishes best in a state of calm, so the compassionate coach nurtures calm, even in the midst of chaos.

To provide a place of calm for our client, we have to establish calm within ourselves. Many coaches routinely undertake breathing exercises or brief meditation before a session and this clearly helps. However we do it, we want to bring balance and equanimity. Additionally, we can try to increase the level and quality of our patience, both with the client and ourselves, by aiming to slow down the coaching conversation, to say less and to place less emphasis on our own expectations from the session and from the client.

Within the place of calm, it becomes easier to be fully present with the client. In this moment, we offer two gifts to the client. One is our total attention, which allows them to feel sufficiently supported to attend more mindfully to their own feelings and their internal critic. The other is our wisdom – the knowledge by both coach and client that there is a resource of supportive experience and knowledge to call upon. Together our attention (mindfulness) and wisdom help us to resist over-identifying with the client and their situation.

In a compassionate coaching conversation, we might explore:

  • Thinking about how we think (metacognition)
  • Thinking about how we feel
  • Feeling about how we think
  • Feeling about how we feel (meta-emotion)

Each of these modes provides a different perspective. The greater the coach’s compassion, the deeper each perspective can be explored.

Useful questions for reflection include:

  • What might I and my client bring into the room that would undermine our compassion towards others?
  • What might I and my client bring into the room that would undermine our self-compassion?
  • How can I help my client find the space and the courage to be self-compassionate?