Thursday 12 March 2020


One of my coaching clients was asking about empathy, the other day. Which set me thinking... and one of the things I thought was that Gerry Egan is bound to have wise words on this, and likewise Carl Rogers.  Which set me reading...

Egan, as ever, is very good. His book, is a foundational text for all those in the helping professions, and has a couple of chapters on empathy.

In the first he focuses on reflecting and checking what you have heard as the core of the other person’s communication; a typical structure would be: ‘you feel…. because….’ in a tone of voice that suggests enquiry rather than judgement.  That is designed both to demonstrate that you have been listening and are trying to understand (in particular) the emotional weight of the communication; and also to invite the other person to amplify, modify (or if necessary correct) the impression that you are forming. It is also an invitation to the other person to talk further - a signal that this is discussable stuff and that you are open to that discussion.

In a later chapter, he discusses ‘advanced empathy’ and specifically:
  • Helping clients to make the implied explicit
  • Helping clients to identify themes
  • Helping clients to make connections
  • Helper self-disclosure
These are all valuable approaches, of course, and regular tools in the coach's kitbag. But it useful to have them listed in that way, and to do a mental audit of how frequently, and how well, one uses them.

Rogers, in Client Centred Therapy, focuses more on the tonality of the exchange: how important it is that the way in which the helper (coach, in my case, though therapist in his language) is heard by the client to be on the client's wavelength; and above all not judging the client.

And then, by one of those leaps of insight that mark me out as a man of exceptional something or other (one client referred to my interventions as a 'blinding flash of the obvious,' which I take as a compliment...) I reflected on how much Nancy Kline's work (in which I am particularly interested) serves to create the conditions for empathy.  Indeed one might say that her ten components of a Thinking Environment offer an excellent blueprint for creating the conditions for empathy.

The ten components are: Attention, Ease, Equality, Diversity, Appreciation, Information, Encouragement, Feelings, Incisive Questions and Place. 

So these three perspectives, I think, offer a very useful way of triangulating our thinking and self-reflection on empathy. As ever, I am indebted to my coaching clients for provoking my learning: mine is a truly privileged job!

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