Empathetic Listening in Coaching
Empathetic listening takes active listening skills to a new level of effectiveness. In empathetic listening we are listening for what is being expressed, even if it is not being spoken. This form of deep listening develops trust between the coach and the client, and as Mr. Covey states, it requires you to be influenced. If you are holding onto an agenda for your coaching clients, you will not become an empathetic listener. You will miss the ques your clients give you that, if paid attention to, would help you support your clients in developing deeper awareness, identifying those deeply held underlying assumptions and beliefs that may be preventing them from obtaining what they really want. Empathetic listening helps you get to the root cause of obstacles faster and more accurately than listening on the surface of what is being expressed.
Listening patiently and with acceptance of the speakers statements and experiences, even when you disagree with what someone is saying, demonstrates acceptance and respect. You are not agreeing necessarily, you are acknowledging that you heard what the person said by articulating acknowledging statements. It is important to get a feel for what the speaker is expressing, while at the same time, staying mindful of the emotions and ideas being presented.
We encourage the speaker to continue and go deeper with what they are saying by interjecting neutral summations such as, "So you don't feel important in this relationship", or "You feel you would be happier in a different job", or "You feel scared when you have to make a decision about this." The neutral summation doesn't lead a person into an agenda you may be holding. It keeps the space open for them to respond to, and go deeper into their concerns.
There is a distinct difference between empathy and sympathy, and to become a masterful coach it is important to know the difference. Empathy feels “as” someone, and sympathy is feeling “for” someone. Sympathy pulls the listener into the client’s experience and joins with the disempowering energy and can even unknowingly collude with the client in their disempowering state by affirming any judging statements a client may make. It takes you down into their experience. Joining clients in sympathy does not give the client room to explore the issue more deeply, it simply keeps the client running in the same emotional circles without giving them the opportunity to discover an empowering way of being in the situation if it cannot change, as in the situation of death. If the situation can be transformed, staying in a sympathetic way of being with clients does not give them the opportunity to discover how to transform the situation.
Empathy, on the other hand, allows the listener to feel how the client is feeling, and stays outside the experience enough to be able to be present, create space, and give the client permission to talk about it if they want to. The empathetic listener can still feel the client’s emotions very deeply, yet does not get pulled down into the disempowering state with them. Empathy does not join in, or reinforce the disempowerment, it simply acknowledges the client’s emotions and experience, normalizes them, and then gives the client room to explore the issue more deeply. The coach does not agree with any judgement a client may make about people or situations in empathetic listening.
Empathetic listening keeps the speaker from becoming defensive. Empathetic listening does not include: asking direct questions, checking facts, or argue/attack what is being said. This is the time a coach builds trust and rapport with the client. This is not the time to ask direct questions, the time to test evidence and assumptions can be done at a later time in the conversation or even in a different session.
By employing empathetic listening skills as a coach you are learning more about a person and gaining information you can utilize at a later time. If the speaker says something that appears to be demanding more input, you simply repeat their statement, and add a question. Such as, "You say you feel unimportant in your job?" By repeating the statement as a question you will encourage the speaker to give you more in-depth information.
Your role as an empathetic listener is a supportive role. Your success as an empathetic listener is determined by the ability to utilize the information you receive from the conversation, and allow that information to develop or ripen into new information and deeper awareness for both yourself and the client.