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Empathy - one size fits all?

Posted on 28-2-2018 by Fiona Cosgrove

Empathy – one size fits all?  
Perhaps not.

We all know what empathy means – a few definitions exist.
Here’s one. “The ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people.  Skill in treating people according to their emotional reactions”.
“Ability to read other people’s cues to their emotional and psychological states.”

There are other factors involved:
Although you may be able to see the world through the other’s eyes, you do not necessarily agree with each person’s perspective, or condone the choices they have made, but you do understand.
As coaches, having empathy is an essential skill.  It allows us to hear unvoiced questions, to anticipate needs, to help people find the right words and the right phrases to express their feelings.  You help give voice to their emotional life.

Sounds straight forward and it’s certainly a desirable strength to have. We also know that empathic people tend to do better in personal and professional relationships and certainly in the helping professions.

What else do we know?  

Empathy is closely connected to “sensing” or “intuiting.”

We know that empathy is different from sympathy which can be somewhat dis empowering as the person receiving it can feel, well, in a worse, maybe “weaker” place than the person sympathizing.  

So why can empathy still be tricky? 
Because too little or too much can cause problems. Some research has shown that there are three distinct types of empathy:
Emotional empathy
Cognitive empathy

All three are useful at the right time. Emotional empathy is when our feelings become involved and we often find this happening when someone close to us is experiencing a strong emotion. At times in our coaching, we can verge on being too empathic and our own feelings become a little too strongly present. This can lead to emotional fatigue.

Cognitive empathy is at the other end of the scale – this is when we understand on an intellectual level what someone is feeling.  We will often say, “I understand what you are feeling”.  (Whether we do or not is sometimes questionable.)  This is the kind of empathy that would be appropriate for a health professional who needs to stay a little detached from their client in order to perform their role effectively.

Compassion – is the middle ground.  The difference here is that we want to help.  Coaching with compassion is our goal.  We feel for the person, not with the person.  It has the effect of making us want to help but not to be emotionally “impaired” which may prevent us from helping.  

So finding the right level of empathy is all important for us as health and wellness coaches.  And while we’re at it, self-compassion has its place up there with compassion for others!  If we are unkind and judgmental to ourselves, how can we possibly help others with authenticity?

About the Author - Fiona Cosgrove

Fiona Cosgrove’s 25 years experience as a business owner, a trainer, lecturer, coach and presenter, positions her well to identify and employ the strengths of your staff making your business a pleasure to work in and deal with. 


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