We’d love to share with you an article by Kingstown College director – Paula King.

For more articles by Kingstown College Team and Alumni, be sure to read our Coaching magazine.

The Empathy Paradox

by Paula King


Empathy is the ability to be aware of, understand, and appreciate the feelings and thoughts of others. Empathy is “tuning in” (being sensitive) to what, how, and why people feel and think the way they do. Being empathic means being able to “emotionally read” other people. Empathetic people care about others and show interest in and concern for them. It is the ability to non-judgmentally put into words your understanding of the other person’s perspective on the world, even if you do not agree with it, or even if you find that perspective ridiculous. Being empathic shifts an adversarial relationship to a collaborative relationship. Empathy has nothing to do with being “nice” to others. Empathy is simply a skill that allows you to see and experience the world from another person’s perspective. Putting that understanding into words solidifies your relationship with that other person, and shifts it from an adversarial into a collaborative relationship.

A dialogue I had recently with a wonderful coach Trevor, whom I am currently supervising in his coaching practice, lead me to reflect deeply on the very interesting subject of empathy. During our discussion of Trevor’s practice he explored his relationship with one of his clients who is a senior leader in a finance company. Trevor’s own background is finance and he explained that he had huge empathy for the challenges his client is currently encountering as he himself had encountered similar challenges and therefore knows “exactly how he feels”.  This knowledge however is not proving useful to Trevor as he has become fearful that the coaching process might inadvertently pressurise his client and add more stress to what is already a stressful life.  So my question is does Trevor really know “exactly how his client feels”? Whatever has happened Trevor has lost his belief that his client has the answers within and has the capability of addressing the challenges being presented which led to my current reflections of the subject of empathy.

The coaching profession has long been a staunch fan of the word empathy and, indeed, we consistently list empathy as an important core skill for the professional coach.  I hasten to explain that I am not disputing my learned colleagues in their beliefs about the importance of an empathic approach in our coaching practice but rather I would like to explore exactly how, we as coaches, define empathy and the impact of this understanding on our coaching practice.

My reflections reminded me of the work carried out by C. Daniel Batson, an American Social Psychologist, who has carried out a number of experiments in empathy.  Batson believes that empathy can be difficult to define because it is often invoked to “provide an answer to two quite different questions”.

  •  How can one know what another person is thinking and feeling?
  • How can we explain the impulse to respond to the feelings of others?

The first is principally a question of knowledge.  It asks how we are able to infer the contents of others minds, or how and to what extent we project those contents from our own.  The second, centered on motivation and behaviour, is primarily ethical.  It seeks to understand as well as “promote prosocial action”.

The psychologist Paul Ekman, an expert on our ability to read and respond to others’ emotions discusses three main ways we can empathize with others, understanding their emotions as our own. The differences between these forms of empathy highlight the challenges we face in responding to other people’s pain. But they also make clear how the right approach can move us to compassionate action.

The first form is “cognitive empathy,” simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called perspective-taking, this kind of empathy can help in, say, a negotiation or in motivating people. A study at the University of Birmingham found, for example, that managers who are good at perspective-taking were able to move workers to give their best efforts.

But cognitive empathy can illustrate the “too cold to care” phenomenon: When people try to understand another person’s point of view without internalizing his or her emotions, they can be so detached that they’re not motivated to do anything to actually help that person.

In fact, those who fall within psychology’s “Dark Triad”—narcissists, Machiavellians, and sociopaths—can actually put cognitive empathy to use in hurting people. Talented political operatives can read people’s emotions to their own advantage, without necessarily caring about those people very much.

And so cognitive empathy alone is not enough. We also need what Ekman calls “emotional empathy”—when you physically feel what other people feel, as though their emotions were contagious. This emotional contagion depends in large part on cells in the brain called mirror neurons, which fire when we sense another’s emotional state, creating an echo of that state inside our own minds. Emotional empathy attunes us to another person’s inner emotional world, a plus for a wide range of professions, from sales to nursing.

However, I would argue, that emotional empathy may not be that useful for a professional coach.  In a state of emotional empathy, people sometimes lack the ability to manage their own distressing emotions which is not useful for a client.  If emotional empathy overwhelms us we cannot be detached – our clients do not want us to cry just because they are crying!

As coaches we do not want detachment to lead to indifference, rather than to well-calibrated caring which brings me to Ekman’s third description of empathy which is “compassionate empathy.” With this kind of empathy we not only understand our client’s predicament and feel with them, but are spontaneously prompted to help, if needed. We can do this through our use of powerful questions, mirroring, being in the moment and truly listening to our clients.

So what happened to Trevor?

Trevor, as he listened to his client, emotionally empathised with him, his client became ‘emotionally contagious’ and, in turn, Trevor’s response was to seek to protect his client (protect himself??)  rather than seeking to encourage his client to move to his Circle of Influence and become solution focused.

So the Empathy Paradox – yes it is most definitely a core skill of the professional coach to be empathic but what type of empathy are you bringing to your coaching practice?