Coaching and Empathy - Steve Barkley

Coaching and Empathy

I often explore the role of vulnerability in coaching relationships. I need to make myself vulnerable with my coach for me to gain maximum growth from coaching input. As a coach I need to share my own vulnerability in supporting the person I’m coaching.

Brené  Brown, the author of The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection and Courage, describes the role of empathy in vulnerability:

“Fixing your loved one’s problem is not often what is needed, nor is it necessarily your job or even within your ability to do so. Sharing a listening, caring ear is something most people can do. When we feel heard, cared about, and understood, we also feel loved, accepted, and as if we belong.”

Understanding what a teacher is thinking and feeling is a component of what I identify as agenda. Finding a teacher’s agenda is a purpose of the preconference. Many coaches share with me that they often struggle to not jump to solving a teacher’s problem, sometimes prior to the teacher being able to clearly identify a problem.

As a coach I want to provide feedback and reflection built around the teacher’s agenda. Uncovering agenda means that the teacher’s emotions around an issue can emerge and create the opportunity for the coach to respond with empathy.

In I Thought it Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), Brown references nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman’s four attributes of empathy:

To be able to see the world as others see it—This requires putting your own “stuff” aside to see the situation through another one’s eyes.

 To be nonjudgmental—Judgment of another person’s situation discounts the experience and is an attempt to protect ourselves from the pain of the situation.

 To understand another person’s feelings—We have to be in touch with our own feelings in order to understand someone else’s. Again, this requires putting your own “stuff” aside to focus on your loved one.

 To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings—Rather than saying, “At least you…” or “It could be worse…” try, “I’ve been there, and that really hurts,” or  “It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”

 Here are connections to coaching I made as I reviewed Wiseman’s four attributes:

*I have described the ideal coach as a person who can stop outside the door of a classroom, take off their agenda and put it on a hook, and put on the teacher’s agenda as they enter. I suggest that our humanness prevents taking off our agenda, so we need to consciously understand what our biases are and how they influence our observation and processing of what is happening in teaching and learning. Being conscious of ourselves, allows us to hear and see another’s viewpoints.

*Being non-judgmental may be impossible. I think the critical step is realizing the judgment that that one has automatically made and then deciding how to put the judgment aside and think through the eyes and processing of the teacher.

*In order to respond with empathy I must focus on listening, paraphrasing and put aside problem solving until I receive a response, verbally or nonverbally, from the teacher that she has been “heard.” As a coach I want to follow the teacher into problem solving or idea generation rather than pushing them there.

*I often have to recognize that the teacher may be having an emotion that is different from what I would have in the same scenario. These are the times I need to be most conscious in my use of empathy. Accept the emotion that is present and listen more for where the teacher wants to move.


Brown explains that empathy is a skill that strengthens with practice and encourages people to both give and receive it often. By receiving empathy, not only do we understand how good it feels to be heard and accepted, we also come to better understand the strength and courage it takes to be vulnerable and share that need for empathy in the first place.


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