Ten tensions 7: empathetic and curious

7. Feeling empathy while remaining curious about the singular experience of the client.

This is the paradox of shared humanity: I am just like you and I cannot be because we have lived different lives. So, as coaches, we must hold our empathy lightly. An integral part of the coaches’ wisdom is that they recognise and work with the universality and individuality of client experience. Coaches soon come to recognise repeating themes in the challenges and issues that senior clients bring. They will quickly form some hypotheses about how the client might meet those challenges, and their questions or observations will properly be informed by those hypotheses. At the same time, the coach recognises each client is a unique self and the particulars of the client’s experience need to be laid bare if the challenge is to be resolved in a sustainable way based on the client’s inner consent.

If the challenges faced by leaders are universal, then the coach will develop models of leadership, of the self, of organisations and of how they coincide in individual behaviour. Given the nature of so many leadership challenges, they will probably also have models of individual and organisational change. If the coach is to work with these while embodying the ‘non-authority’ and mind-set described above, then those models need to be conscious, clear and robust but not constrain the coach or lead them to direct the client. So these too need to be held lightly: to be used or explicitly offered by the expert and treated with freshness and curiosity by the beginner.

The ‘holding lightly’ that is emerging as a theme here shows up in the elegance, balance and responsiveness of the good coach. Like all experts, their knowledge and skill is tacit, internalised and embodied[1].

[1] This is a key finding of research into skill acquisition. For further explanation, see ‘The Mystery of Coaching Mastery’, which draws on the work of Dreyfus and Dreyfus and of Michael Eraut

Leave a Reply