What do you do if they cry?

I had the pleasure this week of working with a group of bright, young tech consultants on developing their coaching skills and practice. They impressed me with their openness, their appetite for learning and the way they wrestled with the practicalities and tensions of integrating coaching into their practice as leaders and consultants.

As we focused on common blocks and challenges, one of the group asked, “What do you do if they cry?” Good question. It seemed to us that coaches call on two things: empathy and presence.

My friend and co-facilitator Sarah Brammeier flagged up the importance of being clear on what empathy is and is not: “you can’t walk in another person’s shoes”. Indeed. As coaches we walk alongside, recognise our shared humanity and draw on the experience that has shaped us to enable us to touch and be touched by our clients. But as Zadie Smith said this week, “each person is a world” and we should not presume to know a world.

Our presence as coaches helps create the space in which it is ok to cry. Our clients sense our resilience: the fact that, whatever the particulars of our experience, we are ok with our own strong emotions so we are ok being with theirs. And we can recognise the power of their emotions without being overwhelmed by them.

As we show that we recognise the power of the emotions that our clients are experiencing, they know that they have been seen. And that’s powerful stuff. Seen and accepted. Not judged. Seen and heard. So why is that powerful?

I recall a notice in the entrance to a local church – St Nicholas, Chislehurst: “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.”