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14 June 2020

Empathy in the coaching process

by Jacob Schepis 0

This piece is somewhat unique and is quite different from our regular articles. Firstly, what follows are two seperate articles from our private facebook group for our JPS online mentorship students on the topic of empathy during the coaching process. The first article is by Jacob Schepis, where we explores the concept of empathy, what…

This piece is somewhat unique and is quite different from our regular articles. Firstly, what follows are two seperate articles from our private facebook group for our JPS online mentorship students on the topic of empathy during the coaching process. The first article is by Jacob Schepis, where we explores the concept of empathy, what it is, its relevance in coaching and some of his experiences with clients. The second article was a follow up post by Lyndon Purcell. In this post, Lyndon continues the discussion of empathy and covers some of the ways we can train ourselves to be more ’empathetic’.

We hope you enjoy this article and find it useful and insightful.

Post #1 – Exploring empathy by Jacob Schepis

The concept of empathy is one that I am deeply fascinated with and have spent a fair amount of time trying to understand. I’m sure most of you are all vaguely familiar with it and have thrown the term around at some point in your coaching career. 

In this post I want to broadly discuss empathy and speak to how these phenomena relates to coaching and what we can do to better utilise our empathetic capacities to improve our relationships with the people we work with.

Hopefully you enjoy this type of post and take at least one or two things away from it.

What is empathy?

Empathy is used to refer to a wide range of psychological capacities. It is thought of as being a central component for social creatures such as us to know what other people are thinking and feeling, to emotionally engage with them, to share their thoughts and feelings, and to care for their well–being. The broad range of empathy-related phenomena helps us better understand not just others but informs us as to how we should orientate our own behaviour and guides our interactions with society and its members. 

As I’m sure all of you are aware, empathy plays a central role in the coaching process. Oftentimes the success of our coaching is predicated upon the dimensions associated with our empathetic capacities, namely how well we can demonstrate to our clients that we ‘get them’. 

That being said, many of us, myself included grossly overestimate our empathy capacities and that’s worth thinking about.

The study of empathy is concerned with the psychological understanding of our social and moral nature and as David Hume, the godfather of empathy states:

“the minds of men are mirrors to one another” …

Simply put, empathy is “knowing other minds” or “putting yourself in someone’s shoes” so to speak. It allows us to relate to what someone else is thinking or feeling and can be understood as a phenomenon of “inner imitation”. The idea that we ‘imitate’ what others experience suggests that our mind have at least some capacity to mirror the mental activities or experiences of another person. This is kind of freaky to think about, but super cool and useful for a number of reasons.

When we observe someone’s bodily movement or facial expressions, we call upon this weird and complex innate disposition for motor mimicry and formulate an idea of what we think they are experiencing. This helps us ‘connect’ and gain ‘buy in’ from our clients which is integral to helping them modify their behaviour, adhere to their plan and ultimately achieve their goals.

For example, when a client tells us that they ate out on the weekend, made a poor choice with their food when tired or gave in to peer pressure and got LIT, most of us can resonate with them. We can recreate and echo the situation in our own mind and relate to them in a way that makes sense of the decisions they made. 

In most interactions with others, we subconsciously reference our own experiences against theirs in a bid to help us navigate our relationships and achieve whatever motives are pertinent to us at the time.

The boundaries of your empathy!

There are a number of problems inherent in our empathy capacities, which are worth mentioning. If we act out a behaviour B1 because of a certain cause C1, and then observe another person acting out B1, we automatically infer that it is because of C1. The issue here is that this other person may not be performing B1 for the same causes as we are. There is a myriad of reasons which cause people to feel, think and act the way they do. Some we can understand, others we cannot. 

Thus, our empathetic capacities presume that another person has a mind that is psychologically similar to our own mind, which is problematic for obvious reasons.

Beyond empathy lies the nebulous realm of sympathy. A story for another day…

Empathy in action. 

The idea for this post came after a discussion I had with my mentor student, Ryan, on a video call. Ryan was asking what to do with clients who simply don’t stick to their training plan or aren’t consistent. He was frustrated with their lack of commitment to their goals and couldn’t understand why this was the case given that he is so diligent and adherent to his own training. I encouraged Ryan to think to other situations in his life where he had sought out the advice of someone else and proceeded to not follow their recommendations. Immediately, I could see he had a lightbulb moment. 

He then told me of multiple different experiences where he had either not followed or gone against the advice given to him by someone else and had a greater appreciation for why his clients weren’t following his advice.

I bring this up because the bandwidth of our empathy is limited. We can only relate to someone else when we have shared the same experiences OR when we are able to draw upon similar experiences. In many cases, we cannot experience what our clients are going through.

For example, I have never been obese, given birth, worked a 9-5 job or struggled with anorexia. Some of the people I work with have, and thus in these situations, I cannot draw upon empathy to understand.

That is not to say you cannot try, or you shouldn’t endeavour to better know the experiences of those who you cannot empathise with. In fact, I would argue that you should try even harder to put yourself in their shoes and understand what it is they are going through.

This is why I am a firm believer of ‘practicing what you preach’. By putting yourself through the processes and situations that your clients will face you will inevitably expand the bandwidth of your empathy. If coaching contest prep athletes is an interest of yours or you want to work with powerlifters, it’s a damn good idea to diet down to low levels of body fat or put a heavy arse load on your back. You can certainly learn a lot about what’s involved in these processes in a text, but real-life experience is a fantastic teacher of exactly how it ‘feels’ to experience a certain thing and thus enhance your ability to ‘empathise’ with others who are in similar situations.

Summing up…

Long story short, try to explore and expand the bandwidth of your empathy as it relates to your coaching. Draw upon your experiences, try new things that closely mirror the things the people you work with will go through and don’t be afraid to share your hardships with your clients if they bridge the ‘empathy gap’. 

More importantly, recognise when a client is experiencing something that is beyond what you can understand. Humility is critical in exerting your empathy in a relationship, and any signs of disingenuous attempts to relate to someone are easily detectable and highly problematic.

So, do your best to walk in the shoes of others, but respect that sometimes you cannot fully appreciate their situation.

POST #2 – Enhancing the bandwidth of your empathy by Lyndon Purcell

Jacob made an excellent post a few days ago about empathy, and I think that it is such a fundamental concept to not only coaching but being a good human in general, that I am going to continue in the same vein.

In part, this post goes very “big picture.” Hopefully, you can all understand though that the message is applicable at all levels, including coaching.

In Jacob’s post he said:

“I bring this up because the bandwidth of our empathy is limited. We can only relate to someone else when we have shared the same experiences OR are when we able to draw upon similar experiences.”

What this translates to, is that empathy has both practical (direct relation to someone’s experience) and theoretical (ability to draw on more abstract forms of data) components.

Hopefully, this shouldn’t be surprising to this cohort, but the perceived divide between “practice” and “theory” is much smaller and less distinct than the pervasive conception tends to suggest.

Theory is abstract information, meaning it lacks specific details. This means it has the advantage of mapping onto many (but not all) situations. The disadvantage, however, is also what makes it valuable: the fact that it lacks specific, and practice-oriented details.

Relating this back to empathy; while it is undoubtedly useful and important to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” at times, inevitably, it isn’t always advantageous, or often, even possible to do so.

For example, you don’t want to suffer a variety of life’s most heartbreaking events, just so that you can empathise to a greater extent with certain groups of people. 

Consider: starting a World War for the sake of relating to veterans. On net-balance that likely won’t be worth it.

Additionally, some circumstances, such as those due to strong biological or historical reasons, mean that you will never be able to empathise with certain groups of people in a direct and “practical” sense.

However, this does not mean you shouldn’t try to empathise at all.

It is in cases like this that the ability to abstract information and apply it conceptually, in order to fill holes in understanding – or simply: “to make use of theory” – rises in value.

As Jacob said:

“[Empathy] allows us to relate to what someone else is thinking or feeling and can be understood as a phenomenon of ‘inner imitation’.”

One of the ways that research has indicated we can get better at this is reading literary fiction. Reading popular fiction or nonfiction didn’t produce the same effect, however.

The hypothesis is that due to the complexity of literary fiction, the reader must work to decode the thoughts and motives of the characters, which translates to real-world improvements in simulating a variety of perspectives for the same situation (a key component of empathy).

Reading literary fiction is a way in which we can generally train our “empathy muscle”.

However, specific details layered in on top of this can further enhance the specific outcomes we can achieve with that (hopefully strong) muscle. Again, books can offer an imperfect, but at least practical, solution. Biographies, in particular, are extremely useful in this regard. They offer very experience-based details.

I will use myself as an example. As a straight, white, male, I would almost certainly benefit from – an empathic standpoint – reading more biographies written by, or about, individuals or groups who fall outside of the aforementioned characteristics. 

Now, I try not to view the world through the lens of demographic groups, however, not looking through that lens reduces my ability to connect with someone who does. This is something that I have learned and begun to appreciate more in recent times.

To relate this back to coaching; for example, when working with an obese client, you may not look at them and think “obese” and you may consider that the ethical thing to do because you care about their deeper values and characteristics, not the superficial details of how they look.

However, if that person looks at themselves and thinks “obese,” then you are simply tooting your own ethical horn for non-empathetic reasons. You have not mentally simulated their worldview or experience at all.

If we truly wish to care for, and help people, then we must do our best to view the world through their eyes. Even if we think that it is not, ultimately, the way they should view it themselves.

So, while I do not wish to make this post political, we can see some very unfortunate events unfolding in America right now. There is a variety of genuinely open-minded, as well as closed-minded behaviour going on, across a number of divides.

This is sad, unfortunate and something we want to work towards avoiding in the future.

If we wish to make progress as individual people, or even populations of them, we must strive for communication, and understanding, not conflict and power-games.

In my view, one of the fundamentals ways in which you can enhance understanding is by recognising that it occurs on a spectrum. None of us share perfect overlap in life circumstances with anyone else, but believing that we can understand, or be understood, allows us to make progress towards both. 

When it comes to understanding, if we lack practical details of a situation, we must strive for a theoretical or abstract conception, rather than presuming we will never know what it is like. Alternatively, when it comes being understood, if we close our minds, and mouths because we do not believe others will be able to share our view, then we have guaranteed that they will not.

Finally, some divides are arbitrary and do not possess the degree of significance that we perceive that they have. Other, more significant divides, do, however, exist. Regardless of their significance, though, we have an ethical imperative to overcome them. To do so, empathy, ranging from the practical to the theoretical, will be one of the foundational elements required. The difficult thing is, though, often empathy means mentally simulating that which we do not wish to.

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