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Empathy vs. Compassion


In my current coach training-the question of whether we should empathize with our client's stories came up.   Here are my notes (off of our training forum) to my students based on my approach and thoughts:


Hi  all you amazing coaches!


I want to discuss empathy a bit more.  Empathy is good.  We need empathy to be great coaches.

We empathize by understanding their pain and knowing what they feel is real to them without believing the cause (their thoughts) of the pain.

When you say to a client or  think “That is a terrible thing to happen.”  How do you feel?


You most likely feel negative emotion.  To some extent that is what empathy is-sharing the negative emotion and being able to relate to it by “going there” ourselves.

BUT does this help us coach?  I personally don't think it is useful-but I am open to your thoughts on this.


I do often believe I know what my clients are feeling and experiencing because I have been where they are mentally and had the same thoughts.  I often tell them this and I feel deep compassion for what they are feeling because of what they are telling themselves.  Their pain is real-even when it is caused by their own mind/thoughts.

But in my compassion- I am feeling compassion and not the negative emotion they are experiencing.


That is about as deep as I take my empathy when coaching clients.  I think any more is not useful for them.


It is interesting to think about the idea “What happened doesn't matter.”  Because it many ways it doesn't matter.  What matters is what they think about it.  That is the only way it emotionally affects them now.   This is challenging to convey sometimes and yet extremely important.


We don't heal by suffering.  We heal by discovering the cause of our suffering, understanding it, and then letting those thoughts go.  Time does not heal anything unless we change what we are thinking.


The most “life changing” coaching I have ever done is with clients is when they can see that their identity has been built around something that happened to them when they were kids.   They have built belief systems around events that are now defining who they are.  “survivor”  “victim” etc.


When they can see that they were a victim as a child-but they are NO LONGER  a victim now-it can be incredibly life changing.


All of your questions about how they are thinking now are awesome.  It gives “victims” of abuse etc.  all their power back now.


What is not helpful in our style of coaching is empathizing with our clients painful thoughts.


If a client tells me:  I am sorry I have let you down by not doing my food journal.

And I reply like this: Wow, that must be hard to have disappointed me.  I can see why you might be feeling bad because you didn't do your journal.

I am buying into her story.


Or if a client says to me:  I am damaged because when I was a child I was raped every day by my uncle.

And I reply like this:  That must be awful, I am so sorry you are damaged. OR So what I am hearing you say is that your uncle damaged you.  OR Many victims of sexual violence are permanently damaged like this.  You are rape survivor and that will affect you the rest of your life.


It sounds like I am being empathetic.  But really I am giving her story (it has damaged her) about what happened to her more evidence and validation.


Coaches- tell me how you can work with a client like this and reply to a client with compassion and empathy for them as a person but not any “buy in” to their painful story.