Why Empathy is the Starting Point for the Best Business Coaching

Post by Building Champions on July 17, 2015

Quick – what’s more valuable: the ability to juggle conflicting priorities or the confidence to seize a new opportunity? While the question can be debated from every angle, in reality the answer depends on the individual. That’s why business coaching that creates deep, lasting growth must start from a place of empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s perspective in both concrete and emotional terms without judgment. For a business coach, it’s the ability to walk in an executive’s shoes: to understand that this exec’s swirling hailstorm of conflicting priorities makes him feel totally out of control, while that exec is kept awake at night wondering how her shaky leadership skills are holding her career back.

“Coaching is about connecting with people, inspiring them to do their best, and helping them to grow,” writes Ed Batista in the Harvard Business Review.

And connecting starts with empathy. “Without empathy other people remain alien and opaque to us. When present it establishes the interpersonal connection that makes coaching possible.”

That’s why the best coaches often start with a series of questions and interviews before they move onto formal evaluations or skills assessments. These coaches are exercising and building empathy with clients. They want to know what motivates and intimidates and energizes an executive before they dig into the concrete tasks of improving presentation skills or crafting a clear five-year vision.

Empathy is all about understanding someone else’s perspective.

Growth from vulnerability

Empathy can help place motivations and anxieties into the larger context of a client’s life and strengthen the coach’s plan of action in terms of training. But empathy is also a powerful psychological tool for dispelling embarrassment.

Words like embarrassment or shame aren’t often linked to business leaders. Executives are generally used to being at the top of their game (or at least near the top of the organizational chart). They have experience commanding a room and leading teams of employees. They rely on being seen as strong, confident and in control. It’s natural, then, that the process of seeking out assistance and admitting shortcomings can spark a cascade of complicated emotions, such as awkwardness, vulnerability or embarrassment.

Empathy can banish those feelings that would otherwise make personal and professional growth so difficult. Brene Brown, a University of Houston researcher and the author of “Daring Greatly,” has spent decades studying empathy, vulnerability and shame. In her work, she’s found that when people make themselves vulnerable and admit that they are inadequate in some way (such as needing better time-management skills or feeling like their work-life balance is out of whack), it can trigger a powerful shame response.

But “if we can share out story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive,” she said during an interview originally posted on the Outrospection blog.

In other words, empathy dispels shame. In a coaching relationship, empathy allows the executive to shake off negative emotions that can impede so much progress and move on to the real work of growing as a business leader.

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