Coaching and Empathic Listening | Steve Barkley

Coaching and Empathic Listening

The MindTools website defines empathic listening as “a structured listening and questioning technique that allows you to develop and enhance relationships with a stronger understanding of what is being conveyed, both intellectually and emotionally. As such, it takes active listening techniques to a new level.”

The power of really listening

I was surprised to come across research from Michael Kraus of Yale University who through five experiments, asked individuals to interact with another person or to observe an interaction between two people and either

*only listen and not look;
* look but not listen;
* both look and listen.

He found that on average, those who were tasked with “listening only” more accurately identified the emotions that others experience. “The findings suggest that we should be focusing more on studying vocalizations of emotion.”

A post from Inc. focused on five listening guidelines for building stronger, deeper relationships:

#1 – “Don’t Interrupt – when you interrupt, you often cause your conversation partner to feel that you aren’t really interested in them.”

I think that coaches often unconsciously interrupt. One reason this occurs can be discomfort with silence. There is a sense that when the coachee finishes a statement, I must have an immediate response. That may lead to the coach telling a story about when she experienced a similar situation and maybe even how she handled it. That can shift the attention away from the coachee. If you are feeling the need to respond, a confirmatory paraphrase (earlier blog) can be helpful in communicating your interest in hearing more. “It sounds like that surprised you.”

#2 – “Focus – By giving others your full attention when they’re speaking, you stand out as different.”

I think that the past two years of coaching on zoom has increased my appreciation of focusing. That two-way conversation on-screen limits side interruptions and the dialogue seems to go deeper faster. Probably true that both parties have increased focus.
One of my discoveries from my earliest experiences as a coach is that taking notes helps me focus and I believe helps me communicate my focus to the coachee. When possible, being right-handed, I sit next to the coachee with the coachee on my right side, My notes are between us allowing the coachee to see what I am recording which is usually her words. Sometimes an illustration like a continuum or sketch of how I’ll collect desired observational data has the coachee physically interact with the notes.

“Silence is sometimes the best answer.”

(Dalai Lama)

#3 – Ask discerning questions – “As you try to understand your partner’s viewpoint, ask questions to help you understand where they’re coming from, and why they feel the way they do. Of course, you don’t want your partner to feel interrogated.”

I have always focused a lot of my coaching training and coaching on the important role that coaches’ questions play in guiding teacher reflection and empowering teachers as decision-makers.

Here is a suggestion I made in a recent podcast on coaching questions:

Avoid trying to think of your next question while the teacher is speaking. Dedicate your time to listening and then give yourself pause time at the end of the teacher’s answer to think of that next question. Only then can your questioning truly follow the teacher because your question comes from the depth of listening you did. Investing in increasing your questioning skills will extend the impact of your coaching.

#4 – Relate to feelings, not to situations – It can be challenging to relate to what someone else is going through because we all get overwhelmed or frustrated by different things.

This is a practice that requires my conscious attention. Sensing a coachee’s discomfort from a negative feeling. I can unconsciously offer a solution or downplay the negative emotion. “That’s nothing to be worried about” or “I can plan that lesson with you.” While these kinds of responses can bring me quickly to a comfortable place as a coach, the coachee gets the message that I am not really listening.

I consciously look to use confirmatory paraphrasing and empathy statements in these situations. First with the paraphrase, I identify the feeling I believe I am hearing. “You sound angry about the response you received.” “You’re disappointed in the students’ performance.” When the coachee’s reactions signal that I have read the situation appropriately, I look to use an Empathy statement. First expressing that the emotion is real and then a forward-looking direction.

  • “Many of us would be angered by that response. Is there more information that you want to seek?”
  • “It is disappointing to work so hard and not see more results in your student’s learning. Do you think they need more time or something different?”

#5 – Don’t provide a solution – “When you try to immediately offer a solution, you send the message: This problem is easy to solve; just do this.”

The key to offering a possible solution is timing. A possible solution too soon can be unempowering. Waiting too long can be frustrating to the coachee. It can almost feel like a test. Reading the coachee’s readiness is a skill coaches work to develop. Empathic listening is key.

In my empathy statements above, I call the second part a test balloon. I am listening to read readiness for possible solutions. “Is there more information you want to seek?” “Do you think they need more time or something different?” The coachee’s response leads me to slow down and listen more or begin a problem-solving approach.

“Coaching is a process in which people do not work on goals that should be attained but work on goals that they really want to attain.”

(Current Psychology, 2021)

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