Being empathetic yet impartial: should we walk in our clients’ shoes, our shoes, or both?
Some people will tell you that a good coach is a tabula rasa; impartial, observing things like an anthropologist, helping clients see ‘what is’. We consistently ask ourselves whether we are seeing our client’s world as It Is, or as We Are. But after many years of practice, I feel more strongly than ever that neither vantage point is enough on its own. Neither perspective can see the full picture. In fact, we need to be able to be an impartial observer, to think clinically about what is true, and what our clients are imagining. And we also need to be able to listen with empathy, sit in the place of the other, and put ourselves in our clients’ mindset—which is critical to the process of helping them feel safe in their explorations, seen and valued as They are. The end product is an act of very activated paying attention, relating and listening—and questioning.
As a new coach, we have to figure out how to strike this balance effectively. Over time, we learn to ‘use our self’ to reflect to a client what we think we’ve heard them say with unadulterated honesty. We take the risk of being wrong, and we ask them to assess the extent to which our observation feels like it fits. We assume that the client is the expert in their own world, yet we are curious to understand how they see themselves in it. In that exchange, we are simultaneously empathetic and impartial.
A client shares a story in which they describe being evaluated unfairly. It is a familiar theme for this individual, who often repeats the sentiment ‘they are out to get me’ as they share outtakes of conversations with their boss. I recognize this as a familiar narrative. In their last assignment, at a different company, reporting to a different leader, the refrain was similar.
I want to help this client recognize that this refrain sounds familiar. But in doing so, I must also imagine being them – convinced that how I perceive something is how it is, perhaps not ready to consider an alternative.
“It sounds like you’re feeling under-valued. Is that accurate? Can you think of some other scenarios in which you felt that someone failed to see you as you are?”
As new coaches, and in reality, even multiple years into a practice, we are motivated to always add value. We may over-empathize, or become overly attached to offering the ‘right observation’. By repeating back what we hear, using the client’s own words as descriptors, while also asking the client to reflect on the statement that feels like it captures the central theme, we observe in a way that helps the client feel both heard and acknowledged.
I find that getting myself to a balanced headspace in which I am both empathetic and observant, requires a very conscious act in which I ask: “How can I see their perspective as being ‘true’?” And, how can I reflect back what I think I’m hearing, while remaining curious about alternative explanations and open to my client’s response?
“So let me know if this feels right: You describe Pat’s failure to respond to your Slack message as evidence of him being ‘totally disinterested in what you have to say’. Perhaps that is a clue. (Allow for silence, giving client a moment to reflect on how it feels to hear their own characterization of an event, reflected back to them). Can you think of anything else that might be going on for Pat that could be distracting him right now?” (Offering client an option to look through a somewhat different lens while still legitimizing their experience of it).
When I first launched my practice as a coach, I took great care in creating a relationship in which my own thoughts, experiences, and personal opinions remained in the background. It is part of a coach’s job, I reasoned, to keep the clinical environment focused entirely on the client, helping them own what is theirs and guiding them to find their own agency to affect the change they want to see. But I would also regularly assess whether my client would say that my impartial observations made them feel understood. Did they feel safe and acknowledged? Could I see things as they see them, along with all of the buy-in and ‘whys’, their reason for doing what they did?
Now fifteen years into my practice, I continue to perfect the skills of listening, reflecting, relating and querying, hopefully, coaching with a clear clinical eye mixed with a healthy capacity for empathy.