Yesterday at the AgileCoachCamp Germany I hosted a session called “Co-Aching — How to use empathy and compassion when coaching becomes hard”. It was 60 min long, after which we took time for debrief and feedback. This post explains the purpose and mechanics of the workshop.
Michael has published material that we used to prepare the session:
In many situations in coaching individuals, teams and organisations we face challenges with an emotional charge. We don’t dare to make a suggestion, refrain from a conversation, or don’t bring in someone who might be helpful because we’re afraid or angry. Many of us miss out on valuable opportunities to initiate difficult conversations because of insufficient presence, empathy and compassion being available at that moment.
Co-Aching is our name for a coaching stance in which we make conscious use of empathy and compassion to create a close and authentic connection with our client. Co-Aching enables us (coach and client) to move past our emotional blocks, decrease the emotional filters in our perception of reality and understand what’s really there. It works like Morpheus’ red pill, it helps us to stop pretending. We become able to identify options we were not able to see before—frankly because we were too afraid to look.
Natural Human Skills
Every human brain comes with mirror neurons which basically let us sense and feel what we observe another being going through. Unless suffering from a brain dysfunction (autism and schizophrenia seem to be related to how well our mirror neurons work) every human being (and many primates) have this ability.
We don’t need to learn empathy and compassion. We need to practice them in order to unlearn the ways we’ve been taught to block them.
Is Co-Aching Professional?
We’re taught to separate private life from work. Emotions are associated with our private life, so empathy and compassion are not considered appropriate in the workplace. People call this “professional distance”. It is not helpful. We are human beings, empathy and compassion are important aspects of being ourselves. Unless we want to severely limit our capacity to engage, we need to employ all of our human potential.
When I first heard about this, I was afraid that by emotionally engaging with people I would lose my ability to rationalise and limit my capacity to think. I found this to be far from the truth. Co-Aching is not about analysis of the problem, or analytical discovery of options. Co-Aching removes some of the blocks that keep us from seeing the problem, and possible solutions. As an experiment, think of something you want, and you don’t dare to even think that you might possibly deserve to have it. Once we get through those emotional blocks, we can move back to gain clarity of distance. You might not need to as removing the emotional blocks may give you and the client clarity without distance.
Compare this with a design thinking session. In design thinking, we achieve the effect of thinking the unthinkable, motivating and engaging people to get them out of their comfort zone by creating compassion for the user. By engaging in a group and using our empathy together. Co-Aching uses similar means (empathy and compassion) to achieve a similar result (clarity of problem and clarity of available options) in a different way. And it works well on your own, or in a pair.
First, I explained the goal and purpose of the session: to create a learning environment for empathy and compassion, Co-Aching with yourself and one other. We skipped the option to work with a system (organisation) as a client.
We started the interactive part by checking in in a way I learned from Jayson Gaddis. It’s very quick. 1 min of guided meditation to sense what’s going on your body, mind and heart. Just acknowledge what is, it’s ok. Summarise how you are here in one word. And a number from 1-10 indicating how open you are. Open your eyes once you have the word and the number.
Then, going round in the circle, everyone says one word and the number: “Curious, 8.” “Tired, 5.” …
There’s more to this way of checking in, yet this is all we did to get started.
What is Empathy, anyway?
We brainstormed for a few minutes what we understand when we hear the word empathy. The sketchnotes below are easier to read than my writing. I explained how empathy is a natural skill and warned them about the empathy traps we are used to.
Compassionate Listening One
Next, we formed pairs which stayed stable throughout the session. I advised to pair with someone you trust enough so that you’d tell a story you might not share with anyone. This could be a friend or someone you don’t know at all (and have little chance to meet every day).
I asked everyone to think of a challenge (past or present) with an emotional charge. A situation where you could not do what you wanted to do because you were too angry, or afraid. Pairs got five minutes to share these situations.
Before, I very briefly introduced them to Thich Naht Han’s compassionate listening. The next time, I’ll prepare a handout for this, the four steps, and the empathy traps.
“Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart. Even if he says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion. Because you know that listening like that, you give that person a chance to suffer less. If you want to help him to correct his perception, you wait for another time. For now, you don’t interrupt. You don’t argue. If you do, he loses his chance. You just listen with compassion and help him to suffer less. One hour like that can bring transformation and healing.”
(from an interview with Oprah Winfrey)
Tip: When you signal the pairs to switch when half of the time is over, allow for a few deep breaths. That way, the person who just listened can let go of their compassion and the emotions they shared from the first person’s story.
Compassionate Listening Two
The next exercise is a repeat of the first conversation, with the added knowledge and awareness of Thich Nath Han’s four steps of compassion:
I instructed the listeners to say these out loud:
- “I am here.” as soon as they felt fully present.
- “I see you.” as soon as they felt fully focused on the other.
- “I see you’re suffering.” when they feel their mirror neurons working.
- “I am suffering and I want to help.” as an option, if and when they felt the urge to help.
A participant pointed out that when he said he wanted to help (fully aware of not really being able to help as it was in a conference session) he fully meant it with his heart. And he noticed the importance of saying it and how just saying it helped the other.
Tip: As the listener may feel uncomfortable to interrupt the speaker, agree on gestures so that they have the option to signal the four steps without words. Saying them out loud will create a stronger connection.
Next we did an individual, silent Clean Slate. I asked who had chosen a story/situation that involved hirself, one other person, and a context. All had. I explained Clean Slate and gave them five minutes to individually reflect the situation from different perspectives. I gave them two options:
- Close your eyes and visualise the situation as vividly as possible from your perspective and the other’s perspective.
Some chose to just sit and think (I did not ask, they did not close their eyes or write). I was ok with that and it turned out that every participant chose a way of doing this that worked just fine.
Clean Slate asks us to look at a situation/context from two perspectives:
- How did I fail in the situation?
- How did the situation fail me?
For this exercise, we added the stepping into the other person’s perspective: how would they answer these questions?
After this silent exercise participants wanted to share their learnings in the pair, so we used the last 10 minutes of the available time to do that.
- changed my perspective
- Thich Nath Han helped to really listen
- Thich Nath Han helped me break through my poker face
- I learned how to behave when people show emotions
- we had a private room for a small experiment
- the check in meditation helped
- I became aware of how much I default to judgment when I listen
- the briefing that everyone knows how to do this helped
- Take-away learning: Empathy Traps
- Please capture empathy traps on flipchart the next time
coming soon. Pascal Pinck, Siraj Sirajuddin and Brene Brown..