Human beings are hardwired for empathy. Mirror neurons in our brain are programmed to mimic the experiences of those around us, so that we literally feel what they feel. The brainstem, origin of the fight or flight response, is always scanning the environment for information about potential threats or danger. Much of this data is absorbed unconsciously from the reactions and expressions of those around us. The brainstem also houses the nuclei for facial expressions and tone of voice, involuntarily broadcasting the way we feel even if we are trying to hide our emotions. This potential sensitivity to others and what they are going through has a strong value in nature – generally the more integrated and connected a group is the higher its chances of survival.
Yet, in a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers at the Max Planck Institute suggest that human beings have an innate tendency towards being egocentric. This might not come as a surprise. One doesn’t need to look far to see evidence of self-centered, non-empathic behaviour – in others and also in ourselves. But isn’t there also a massive amount of evidence and personal experience suggesting that human beings are capable of immense care, compassion and empathy? The Max Planck scientists posit that this is partly due to the brain recognizing a lack of empathy and self-correcting. We might call that false empathy. But what of the real stuff – the genuine connection we feel with another human being as we put ourselves in their shoes? I’m not referring to simply seeing things from their perspective, I mean feelingthings from their perspective. This is what it means to be truly empathetic. What, also, of those times we can sense people are doing that for us? Those times when we can feel someone else emotionally tuned into our experience? These are profound events and should form the foundation of a healthy coaching relationship.
So, why isn’t it always this way? Why are we sometimes closed and sometimes open? Why do some people seem more able to empathize than others? Why do we sometimes just not feel heard or understood in a coaching session? There are many potential answers to these questions, but let’s focus on three important ones:
1. Empathy takes guts
Yes, empathizing does feel strongly connected to the ‘gut feel’ that accompanies intuitive understanding, but here we use guts to mean courage. Connecting to another person’s suffering requires that you open up yourself, allowing often difficult emotions to rise within you as resonate with what the other is feeling. This is a vulnerable space, and for many people a scary one. The instinct is often to stay closed but try to offer some type of care or help. This is the difference between sympathy and empathy. From sympathy we get seemingly helpful offerings like, ‘I’m sorry to hear that, but at least..’ or, ’I know what you should do…’ From empathy we get, ‘That must be really difficult for you,’ without an attempt to solve the problem or sugar-coat it. From empathy we get silence, which is itself a powerful practice. As a coach, sitting in empathetic silence with a client without trying to ‘rescue’ her from her pain is challenging, especially if she is used to people jumping in and trying to solve her problems for her. However, what emerges from that silence is often deeply self-empowering for the client. Both coach and client have to show up with the courage to be with what is, without necessarily trying to ‘fix’ it. The connection that forms from there is empathy.
2. Empathy takes presence
Try to recall the last time you came home from an intense day at work and your child or partner needed to share something that they were struggling with. How available were you to them? Not just in terms of time and attention, but in terms of presence? Were you fully in the moment with them, or was your mind still partially on the many catastrophes going on at work? This isn’t about a negative judgement, it’s simply about bringing awareness to the difference between the head and the heart. Empathy becomes available when we are grounded and connected in the present moment. It is a heart practice, and we are not able to access it when we are stuck in our heads, and the distractions or concepts stored there Having an idea of someone’s experience is sympathy. Having a felt sense of their experience is empathy.
3. Empathy takes practice
Empathy is a primary component of Emotional Intelligence (EQ), something in which all people have a naturally higher or lower capability. But capability is not the same as capacity. Capacity is our EQ potential, which more often than not we are not fulfilling. The brain’s neuroplasticity means that EQ and empathy can be developed through regular practice. This also requires acceptance as we learn that our ability to empathize varies according to our personal circumstances. Some days we are tired, distracted or unable to offer the commitment of empathy to others, and that is okay. This happens in coaching sessions – for coach and client – and it is important to bear in mind when assessing one’s self-development.
Absence of these three qualities can impact your coaching relationship, which relies on high levels of empathy for success. This empathy, however, is not a one-way feed. Though in most topics it is critical that your coach is able to offer a strong empathetic space, the coaching container will ultimately benefit if the client is able to do the same.