Coach As Empathizer? What We Can Learn From Neuroscience
Traditionally, coaches have the answers. In the sports world, they know the plays, which players to tap for a given situation, and limit influence from others so as not to have unnecessary interference. In short, they are the authority.
Today, business and organization life move fast. It is a matter of seconds (2 to be exact) decisions are made, according to Gladwell, in Blink. While leaders need to understand the business, they do not need to know all the answers. As a result, leadership needs to adjust to a style that relies on asking questions, listening, and responding (rather than just reacting). They need to be great observers and be able to act, sometimes, on limited information.
This is especially true in coaching situations. A great coach uses a strategy to listen effectively, not just for context, but for emotions and meaning – this is what is meant by coach as empathizer. A listening strategy helps the leader challenge situations, look at problems holistically, and empowers (i.e., involving, delegating, giving authority).
Let’s start with a question and then take a look at two types of coaching approaches and discuss what this means for your leadership.
If a team member is doing something that requires a change of behavior, how do you effectively respond?
Two options to consider:
- Keep it to yourself so as not to impose your agenda?
- Engage the person in a discussion about their vision and aspirations?
Too often leaders in the manager as coach role take route one. It’s easier in many ways. And the hope of the issue passing or taking care of itself is enticing. After all, who wants unnecessary conflict, right?
When a manager is in a coach compliant frame it sounds like this: “The next time you do the task you should...”. You might get your point across AND leave the person uninspired and feeling judged. This approach rarely changes behavior.
In my research and coaching practice, I found that self-judgment is common and undermines interactions with others. Our inner voice derails confidence in being open to others because we of our self-limiting beliefs and we get distracted. To address these tendencies, I use a model I call Triple Loop Listening.
In this mindset approach to listening, the coach (1) notices their cognitive/emotional state and the energy of the other person (i.e., excited, frustrated), (2) suspends judgment so they can be fully absorbed with what the other person is communicating, and (3) thinks broadly to expand possibility and perspective. A process that fully engages both the coach and team member excites and inspires and builds mutual accountability.
Boyatzis and Jack (2018) in a fascinating study on the neuroscience of coaching found a compliance approach was shown to be associated with sympathetic stress response and self-consciousness. You feel your back is against the wall and doing things wrong. This activates the amygdala and a flight or fight response setting off networks of the brain associated with not feeling safe. Meaningful change is all but vanished.
Contrast this with coaching with compassion (i.e., empathy and the ability to understand people’s thoughts, emotions). Networks in the brain associated with big-picture thinking, engagement, motivation, and stress regulation are activated. This increases perspective-taking and feelings of safety – creativity and self-reflection increase. The coaching conversation emphasizes exploration rather than a compliance approach.
The implications to coaching with compassion are profound. For decades, organizations have used multi-raters (i.e., 360s), as ways to help leaders to increase effectiveness. Feedback in and of itself can be a positive thing – it reveals blind spots and confirms areas of strength. Yet, when the coach focuses on the gaps and weaknesses this affects our ability to regulate emotions – we experience a heightened sense of stress. In fact, high stress can momentary diminish IQ and ability to reason.
Rather than starting with constructive feedback, begin with the person’s aspirations and vision. Take the time to understand what it is they want to achieve that supports their goals and career. This helps to create perspective when discussing gaps and how the information can be used to propel them to new heights.
All change requires discomfort and this is what fuels new thinking.
So, how can you increase your coaching abilities with what neuroscience?
- Recognize that people respond well when they feel heard. This is not a nice to have or about making someone feel good. Rather, it is knowing that you are aware of and in-tune with others. Trust deepens.
- Practice triple-loop listening. Use a proven tool to engage with others provides a compass and framework to guide your thinking. Rewiring listening habits takes time. This approach naturally leads to a compassion-oriented coaching style.
- Be patient and keep at it. Change starts within. As you adopt a new mindset you will be able to support others in new and effective ways. Notice when you veer into a compliance mindset and correct course. Repeat and try again.
The role of coach as empathizer cannot be underestimated. Your style will become contagious. It is time to take the high road to feedback based on compassion rather than compliance. The next time you find yourself caught up in the way a task or project is supposed to happen, take a step back, gather yourself, and be open to dialogue with curiosity and a sense of adventure. You will have a much better chance of not only inspiring the person, but also creating the conditions for the change you seek.