Coaching is a key tool to help individuals and teams reach peak performance. One of the key attributes of a good coach is empathy. Critical to the understanding the role that empathy plays in coaching is an understanding of the definition of empathy. I was recently drawn into a discussion about the role of empathy in coaching, and one of the most difficult parts of the discussion was agreeing on a common definition .
One of the first definitions proffered during our discussion was that empathy represented the ability to understand others’ feelings and emotions. But this definition only goes part of the way. Empathy is a deeper concept that subsumes mere understanding, requiring more of a cognitive connection between the coach and coachee. The level of understanding requires both parties understand not only the emotion or behavior, but have understanding of the basis for the emotion or behavior without taking on the emotion or accepting the emotion. In the end we arrived at a more precise definition: empathy is the ability to understand what another person is experiencing from their frame of reference. Put another way, Chris Nurre on SPaMCAST 362 stated:
The ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes is critical for a good coach because it helps the coach to accept the coachee on his or her own terms.
Empathy is useful to:
- Help to build trust.
- Build a pathway that enables communication.
- Disarm the coachee’s self-interest.
- Facilitate the development of altruism.
- Encourage bigger picture point of view.
Empathy is also a valuable commodity at the team level. Empathy between team members allows teams to create bonds of trust in a similar manner as between individuals. Without empathy between members, teams will be not be cohesive and will pursue their individual self-interest. A coach must be able to put themselves into the shoes of the team and team members they interact with in order to help those they are coaching to build self-knowledge. At the same time, team members must have enough empathy for their fellow team members to hold a team together so they can pursue a single goal.
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