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This article was originally written by Michael Hall and Waiman Ip Min Wan- gently edited by The Coaching Room


One of the characteristics that distinguish a great coach from a good coach is the skill of empathy. And so, why is this? Research from psychotherapy and coaching shows that the critical success factor that allows the client to get their outcome, is their relationship with the coach. This is over and above what methodology the coach uses. Wasylyshyn (2003) concluded from his outcome study of executive coaching that the top three personal characteristics of an executive coach are:

  1. Ability to form a strong connection with the executive (86%)
  2. Professionalism (82%)
  3. The use of a clear and sound methodology (35%).


Why is a strong connection so important? In coaching conversations, in order for clients to unleash the best in them, looking at what is holding them back is often the leverage point of change. Coachees would go to places within themselves where they may not want to go and/or go to places where they have never been before. They may share their upmost fears and may often speak about things that they have never spoken about to anyone else before. To facilitate this, a strong connection between the coach and coachee is imperative.

How can you make this connection? Rogers (1961) spoke about client-centred thinking and the characteristics in a successful coaching relationship. Rogers describes the conditions as:

  • Unconditional positive regard and acceptance
  • Accurate empathy
  • Congruence/genuineness
  • Non possessive warmth.


These are the characteristics within the coach that will facilitate connection in the coaching relationship. In this article, I will focus only on accurate empathy. What is empathy? Empathy comes from the Greek word empathos which means em –in and pathos feeling (feeling as in passion or suffering) 

How do you distinguish between empathy and sympathy? The etiology of the word empathy and sympathy is the same. Literature distinguish them as:

  • Sympathy is “suffering with” the person
  • Empathy is “being with” the person

Steve Covey states that sympathy as a form of agreement, a form of judgment. But people often feed on sympathy and it makes them dependent.

What is the structure of empathy? How do you do empathy? Theresa Wiseman (1996), a nursing scholar concluded, after 18 years of nursing experience, that the ability to empathise distinguishes an average nurse from an excellent nurse in the eyes of the patient, regardless of how care was delivered. She also concluded that there are 4 elements of empathy as follows:

  1. Perceptive taking – recognising the other person’s perceptive, seeing other’s truth
  2. Recognising emotion in other people
  3. Staying out of judgment
  4. Communicating


In order to be able to do perceptive taking and recognise the emotion in other people, you need to be vulnerable and connect with that part of yourself that knows that feeling. In this way, the empathy will be accurate and client centred.

Empathy is a vulnerable choice. In order for you to connect with that feeling, you need to connect to that feeling within yourself. You open yourself up to be influenced. You become vulnerable. It requires ego-strength to be able to do this accurately and effectively. This is all done in a non- judgement state; getting yourself out of the way. This is not about you. This is about the coachee. This is about not making evaluations from your own map but being truly present with the coachee in their map of the world. Again, this takes ego-strength.

Recognising the coachee’s perceptive from their truth, feeling their emotion, all in a non-judgment state then with all of that, communicating that accurately.


How would empathy look like in a coaching conversation? One of the Level 3 Supporting Skill in Meta-Coaching is empathy statements. What exactly are empathy statements and what would one sound like?

An empathy statement is a statement that:

Indicates the coach is perceiving (thinking/ feeling) empathetically with the client. It shows that the coach takes the second perceptual position and speak what the client is most likely feeling.

Is tentative, offer it as a possibility

“That must have been really disappointing.” If it is about the person—then it is a validation of the Person.

“It’s hard, what you’re doing is hard. You are leaving everything, and going back to …”

“You probably have asked yourself, ‘What else could I have done?’”

The empathy statement would be delivered in the tonality, gestures, facial expression, voice volume that would match the coachee.


How does empathy enable this strong connection with your coachee? Steve Covey describes the concept of empathic listening. This is listening with the intent to understand, seeking first to understand, to really understand. With empathic listening, you get inside another person’s frame of reference and look out through it and see the world as they see it, understand their paradigm and understand how they feel. It involves listening with your ears and more importantly with your eyes and heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning, behaviour, you sense, you intuit, you feel.


The essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone; it’s that you fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually. With the skill of empathy in listening, you are making deposits in Emotional Bank Accounts because nothing you do is a deposit unless the other person perceives it as such. This is the deep and meaningful connection to another human soul.

How do you demonstrate empathic listening in a coaching conversation? Do you have the ego- strength to connect within yourself to show empathy? Is the skill of empathy going to be your next coaching outcome?


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