Getting outside ourselves: Coaching with empathy

Getting outside ourselves: Coaching with empathy

Both sympathy and empathy convey recognition, and both forge a bond, but the one is an embrace, the other an encounter. Sympathy overcomes differences through imaginative acts of identification; empathy attends to another person on his or her own terms… Empathy is a more demanding exercise, at least in listening; the listener has to get outside him- or herself (Sennett, 2012, p. 21).

At the end of August, I was delighted to speak at the International Coach Federation’s 20th Year Birthday Celebration in Sydney. It was a wonderful night for this remarkable organisation. During my keynote, I shared the quote from the distinguished sociologist, Richard Sennett. It resonated. I think it reminds us of the importance of demonstrating empathy and in doing so the need to put ourselves (our egos) aside in the service of the other person.

Welcome to our fifth evidence-based monthly coaching dialogue. This month we look at empathy in the coaching relationship.

Initially I was fascinated by the book title ‘Coaching with empathy’ (2013) by Anne Brockbank and Ian McGill because on face value it could imply that coaching can be practised without empathy. This is clearly not the case. Empathy is central in coaching.

Julie-Anne Tooth’s research (2014) identified that the link between empathy, trust and effective coaching is strong. In her research the people being coached described empathic listening as an essential part of the relationship – one of the building blocks. To really listen with empathy, coaches suspend judgements and ‘park’ their interests and ego or as Sennett suggests, ‘get outside’ themselves. The coaching space is therefore a stark contrast to typical conversations, characterised by lots of talking, ego and self-interest. Nor is it an inquisition. Coaching is about listening and being curious about the experience of the other person. With empathy it goes further than this and awakes curiosity in the person themselves about their experience. They begin to understand themselves differently, to gain greater self-insight.

The research highlights the opportunity for coaches to deeply understand empathy and suggests the value of coaches giving their clients ‘a good listening to’!

How have you experienced empathy in coaching?

Please contribute to the discussion and let us know what you think of our fifth bulletin.



Brockbank, A., & McGill, I. (2013). Coaching with empathy. Maindenhead, Berkshire: Open Univeristy Press.

Sennett, R. (2012). Together. The rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation. New Haven: Yale University Press

Tooth, J.-A. (2014). Experiencing executive coaching. Saarbrucken, Germany: Scholars Press.