Coaching textbooks are full of advice for coaches to develop their skills of empathy.
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 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
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?
Learn to be more self compassionate
- 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
- 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 mentor’s compassion, the deeper each perspective can be explored.
Useful questions for reflection include:
- What might I and my,mentee bring into the room that would undermine our compassion towards others?
- What might I and my mentee bring into the room that would undermine our self-compassion?
- How can I help my mentee find the space and the courage to be self-compassionate?
© David Clutterbuck