Using empathy and listening in a coaching conversation

Empathy and listeningListening is a familiar and essential technique in a coaching conversation. Empathy is also seen as a crucial requirement. So, how do empathy and listening work together in a coaching conversation to create that safe space in which great insights are made?

Is empathy the same as sympathy?

Empathy is variously described; often confused with sympathy or pity. Brockbank & McGill (2013 p.1) make that point and suggest coaches are not meant to feel sorry for their clients. They suggest three aspects relevant for a coach:

  1. what the coachee is feeling,
  2. the experience that is its source,
  3. plus full communication of that back to the coachee.

Empathy as the magic solvent to dissolve problems

Zero Empathy: Talk to the hand…

So how does a coach harness empathy whilst listening? The mirror neurones described by Goleman (2011 p.55) help explain how the coach can feel what the coachee is feeling. Egan’s (1990) exploration can help identify those aspects that are at the source of their experience. Summarisation, or even a Gestalt use-of-self (Bluckert 2006), can communicate this data back to the coachee.

The different levels of empathy

Brockbank & McGill (2013 p.5) go on to compare the different levels of empathy that act as solvents to dissolve problems that are immersed in empathy. These range from Zero empathy, featuring silence or giving advice, through Partial, Primary and then Advanced empathy, which includes responding based on a hunch or felt sense.

Three aspects of empathy

Goleman (2011 p.61) also describes three aspects or varieties of empathy:

  • Cognitive empathy; I can take your perspective,
  • Emotional empathy; I feel with you, and
  • Compassionate empathic (or concern); I sense your need and (if needed) am ready to help.

In other words, empathy comes in many flavours and has been sliced and categorised in many ways. 

Illusive empathy — hiding in plain sight

It is easy to overlook the power of empathy and fall into Brockbank & McGill’s (2013) sympathy camp; maybe assuming that you have Zero or Partial empathy. But perhaps you unwittingly use empathy more than you realise, whilst just not labelling it as empathy. It could be that using the word feels wrong?

Significantly, in some business environments, notions of ‘touchy-feely’ are not well received. Perhaps Martinuzzi (2009) had a point when she laughed at a bumper sticker saying: “I am not good at empathy. Will you settle for sarcasm?”.

I'm not good at empathy. Will you settle for sarcasm?

Goleman (2004) agrees that talk of empathy can seem unbusinesslike and points out empathy doesn’t mean an ‘I’m OK, you’re OK’ mushiness. It’s more about thoughtfully considering the talking partner’s feelings in the process of making intelligent decisions. 

Why combine Empathy and Listening?

Brown (2021) said that empathy is about listening to the story, and believing it, even when it doesn’t match your experiences. This open, non-directiveness is crucial.

First on Martinuzzi’s (2009) summary of techniques for demonstrating empathy is listening. It’s listening with your ears, but also your eyes and heart.

Downey’s spectrum of coaching skills

Second, is to not interrupt. Don’t rush; allow people their moment. So, it’s not just:

  1. interpreting the unvoiced thoughts, it’s
  2. creating the space to allow the speaker to discover those extra words as yet unspoken, just as Trimboli suggested (2017).

Downey (2003 p.23) summarised the spectrum of coaching skills across a range of directiveness. Listening with empathy gently pulls at the top of the non-directive range, leaving different interventions for other times.

Listening as a crucial skill

Kline confirms (2006 p.21) that, ‘…not enough coaches listen deeply for an adequate period before they speak, and many are not truly comfortable with silence’. When used confidently, the simple act of remaining quiet is indeed a powerful technique.

There’s a joy in seeing the light come on in a coachee’s eyes, as they break the silence with a new insight. It is a powerful reward for any discomfort a coach might have felt at not having the next clever question lined up.

Empathy and listening from a nodding dog

The nodding dog coach

Yet listening is not a passive process; good listeners don’t just sit doing the ‘nodding dog’. Zenger & Folkman (2016) suggest that good listeners act like trampolines bouncing good ideas around; they encourage by asking follow-up questions that amplify, energize, and clarify thinking. Moreover, good questions clarify the coachee’s understanding, not the coach’s.

Whilst these ideas build increased liking, as Huang et al. (2017) discovered, it also risks the anxiety of collusion. But judiciously used, friendly active listening, provides a great opportunity to segue into well-received tough-love coaching and constructive challenge (Lancer et al., 2015 p.31).

The benefit of listening with empathy in a coaching session

It turns out that there is a richness, integrity and wonderfulness that comes from a good empathetic understanding of your coachee. Moreover, empathy is a powerful solvent for a coachee’s problems. So a coach who understands its many flavours can harness empathy more effectively. Listening with empathy not only builds trust and supports the safe space, it also helps build the foundation from which new ideas bloom.

PGC in Coaching and MentoringThe ideas in this article grew from explorations during my Postgraduate Certificate in Coaching and Mentoring for Leadership in Organisations. This accredited programme runs as a closed programme within an organisation, or as an open programme for eclectic individuals keen to develop their coaching and mentoring skills.

What do you think?

Leave a reply in the comments below, or get in touch; I’ll give you a good listening to!



Bluckert, P. (2006) Psychological Dimensions of Executive Coaching. 1st edition. Open University Press. ISBN: 978 0335 220 618.

Brockbank, A. & McGill, I. (2013) Coaching with Empathy. 1st edition. Open University Press, England. ISBN: 978-0-33-524655-7.

Brown, B. (2021) Atlas of the Heart. Vermilion; 1st edition (30 Nov. 2021). ISBN-13: 978-1785043772.

Downey, M. (2003) Effective Coaching: Lessons from the Coach’s Coach. Texere Publishing; 3rd edition. 16 Oct. 2003. ISBN 978-1587991721.

Egan, G. (1990) The Skilled Helper. 4th edition. Thomson Brooks/Cole Publishing Co. ISBN 978 053 412 1389.

Goleman, D. (2004) What Makes a Leader? Harvard Business Review January 2004.

Goleman, D. (2011) The brain and emotional intelligence: New insights. 1st edition. More Than Sound. ISBN 978-1-934441-15-2.

Huang, K., Yeomans, M., Brooks, A. W., Minson, J., & Gino, F. (2017) It doesn’t hurt to ask: Question-asking increases liking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113, pp. 430–452.

Kline, N. (2006) Catalytic Converter. Coaching at Work magazine. 28 April 2006. pp.21–25.

Lancer N., Clutterbuck D. & Megginson D. (2016) Techniques for coaching and mentoring. 2nd edition. London and New York: Routledge.

Martinuzzi, B. (2009) What’s Empathy Got to Do With It?

Trimboli, O. (2017) The five myths of listening.

Zenger, J. & Folkman, J. (2016) What great listeners actually do. Harvard Business Review July 14, 2016.


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