Management & Leadership

Psychology Festival of Learning: Empathy in Coaching, A Cause for Concern?

Sep 14, 2015

Empathy, while recognised as facilitating transformation in coaching and therapeutic interactions, is a complex human capacity. An initial unconscious, automatic proclivity to share ‘affect’ between a coach and coachee, if not adequately identified and regulated, may lead to empathic distress – a condition that, aside from being unfavorable to a true understanding, can also lead to burnout.

Cape Town-based professional and life coach, Katherine Train has been researching the topic of empathy and compassion in human-service organisations since 2009, first as a master’s degree in healthcare and, more recently, as part of her PhD. She discussed the multifaceted subject at the fourth Psychology Festival of Learning, which took place last week at both SACAP’s Cape Town and Johannesburg campuses. We spoke to her about her talk…

Q: Why is empathy important in the coach-coachee relationship?

A: Empathy in coaching is an invaluable tool for inquiry, advocacy and effective communication in the coach-coachee interaction. By making skilled use of empathy, the coach is able to facilitate deeper and more relevant insights for the coachee. Aspects of the interpersonal engagement leading up to empathy, such as emotional contagion and physiologic linkage, occur automatically and unconsciously, so, if a coach is not skilled in empathy, this may lead to compensatory mechanisms that are undermining for the wellbeing of the coach and may lead to directing the coachee in a manner not entirely relevant to his or her needs.

Q: Is this, then, empathic distress? What are some of the signs to look out for?

A: In empathy, one has an ‘affect experience’ similar to the ‘affect experience’ of the person with whom one is empathising. The experiences may be either pleasant or aversive, or both. In empathic distress, the shared ‘affect experience’ is distressing. It may also be experienced as empathic over-arousal and occurs when intense feelings of personal distress are elicited because of the aversive nature of the very intense empathic arousal. Since there is a vicarious sharing of affect that happens at an unconscious, bodily level between a coach and coachee, the stress or trauma of the coachee may not be on the table in the immediate interaction. However, when coachees face adversity in their life, are under significant stress, or experience trauma this may be evident in their postural, vocal or facial expressions and can be unconsciously mimicked and experienced by the coach.

Empathic distress experiences may manifest as an experience of sadness, or a welling up, or closing of the throat when a coachee mentions a sad experience in their life; an experience of intense fatigue following an interaction with a coachee who is despondent or depressed; an experience of frustration when a coachee feels stuck and unable to shift patterns; or an experience of dissociation when a coachee is vague or undirected in a session.

Q: Empathic distress has been likened to severe codependence, in which one person wants to control the reality of another in order to soothe themselves. Would you agree with this comparison?

A: I would agree that unmanaged empathic distress would very likely lead to mechanisms by the coach to avoid the aversive ‘affect experiences’ – one such mechanism may be the attempt to control the reality of the other in order to soothe themselves, and, in extreme cases, may lead to codependence. Another common mechanism may be emotional cutting off, both from the coachee and also from the coach’s own emotions, thus restricting a valuable capacity for understanding the coachee. This is commonly referred to by practitioners as ‘building a wall’ and may result in cynicism and depersonalisation towards the coachee, and also to other coachees that remind the coach of the aversive experiences. This may result in over-intellectualisation. Empathic distress may also lead to complete avoidance of people perceived to be needy.

Q: What are the other dangers of empathic distress?

A: Sustained, repeated and unmanaged experiences of empathic distress may predispose the coach to ‘compassion fatigue’ or burnout. In compassion fatigue, the coach has invasive thoughts about the coachee. In burnout, the coach experiences sustained and ongoing fatigue, cynicism and the need to depersonalise the coachee, with a resultant reduced sense of accomplishment in the work that one is doing.

Q: Are certain people more predisposed to empathic distress than others?

A: There are many and varied responses to the emotional experiences of others. Some people may be more likely to experience empathic distress and be aware of it; others may be predisposed but not be aware of the root cause of their own distress experiences. Factors that put a coach at risk of empathic distress are current or previous stress and the distress history of the coach as well as caseload of interactions with coachees who exhibit behaviours, or report on situations, as a result of stress and distress.

Q: How can the coach regulate empathy in order not to fall prey to empathic distress?

A: It is essential to have a conscious, top-of-mind awareness of how empathy works so that one can apply techniques to moderate the effects of empathic distress. Cognitive and neuroscientists distinguish between bottom-up, automatic, unconscious bodily effects of empathy and top-down, executive management of those effects coupled with a capacity to separate the experiences of self and other in the exchange. Either supervision with another coach or therapist, or learnt self-supervision techniques are essential alongside early identification and intervention of experiences of distress.

Q: Please share a little information on your business, your specialties and the services you offer to the general public.

A: I work as a one-on-one and group coach and facilitator to individuals and in organisations. I create spaces for people to access the integrated wisdom of head, heart and hand. My special interest is in the awareness and effective management of relational dynamics so that people in interaction with others are able to engage the best of self to inspire the best in others. I develop programmes to meet the specific needs of an organisation or group focused on foundational skills of experience awareness, embodiment practices and relational dynamics; on processes of individual and participatory sense-making; and on core competencies of self-awareness and self-management, managed empathy, diversity and tolerance, resolution into action, perceptions and mindsets and consistency – this is relevant for people in leadership, management or caring roles.

Hosted by the South African College of Applied Psychology, the Psychology Festival of Learning took place from 8 to 12 September 2015 and sought to bring together professionals, students and the broader community in an environment that facilitates the exploration of the many facets of psychology, counselling and coaching.

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