There was a time early in my life coaching career that I found I was losing direction, not fully understanding the counselling environment, and lacking the skills to communicate effectively with my clients. I thought it necessary to consult with a good life life coach in my area to assist me with my concerns.
I find that when I am in a new environment, I tend to become more closed-off in my behaviour as I approach new situations with hesitation and often-times, scepticism. I will often guard and hide my feelings around people I do not know to appear that I am un-phased by what is happening and may even appear indifferent. However, meeting my therapist was refreshing as his friendly and welcoming attitude made me feel comfortable to get the process started. Even though I may have appeared stand off-ish, I really wanted someone who would accept me, listen to what I have to say, and understand my feelings towards my situation. My life coach’s attitude ticked those boxes straight away, and he skilfully brought in a deep empathetic approach throughout the life coaching process. This created, what Pedersen called “an inclusive cultural empathy” the flowed smoothly during our interactions.
Upon deeper reflection I was looking for a role model, someone to boost my self-esteem, and someone I could aspire to be one day. I desired to feel respected as someone with potential to create positive changes in people’s lives.
My life coach made excellent use of the common counselling techniques such as making use of good questions; being able to correctly paraphrase and even summarise what I was saying; helping me to work on some core issues; accurately reflect on key emotions and affective states; and express empathy in a way that really made me feel supported. He confidently and effortlessly embodied what Carl Rogers defines as the three attributes of a skilled therapist. These are: (1) congruence, (2) unconditional positive regard, and (3) accurate empathic understanding, as mentioned by Midwinter and Dickson.
During my therapy sessions I noticed the questioning process he used seemed to be intentionally picked to stimulate certain reactions in me. Most questions were used as open questions, but each type of question would allow me to further explore my issues as if noticing them from many different angles. Sometimes the questions would confront certain limiting beliefs, while others were used to create momentum in my own thinking and problem-solving abilities. I always felt like we were on the same team as he was able to leave out his own agendas, while his use of questioning seemed to provoke a deeper understanding of me and my concerns, as opposed to pacifying his own curiosity.
His ability to pay attention and to remember critical information in the stories I was sharing was admirable. By paraphrasing short sentences and summarising much longer statements really made me notice how focused he was on me, without ever needing to interrupt me. He seemed to understand that I was responsible and capable enough to come up with my own solutions.
Becoming skilled as a Life Coach requires the use of empathy as a tool that helps deliver a certain outcome, and in this case is used to help counselling clients (1) gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their behaviour; (2) provide a sense of hope and motivation that they can achieve their goals; and (3) a space where they can feel safe to be open and vulnerable. It is important to remember that there are no hard and fast rules to abide by when using empathy, but more so that the therapist will have some useful guidelines that can be adjusted to their own style and most importantly customised to fit the needs of the client. Each component that makes up a well-rounded style of empathy needs to be learned with proficiency and then fine-tuned to make best use of it. Coaching should also understand the importance of knowing when not to make use of any components of empathy that are not best suited to the task at hand.
Making good use of high quality, intentional questions helps the clients to explore and really open their imaginations when delving into their issue. While inappropriate use and overuse of questions can make a client feel intimidated, interrogated, judged, and victimised. Being aware of what one would like to achieve with a question is vital. Questions should be used to identify feelings, underlying motives, core meanings and/or limiting beliefs to name a few, and not to try confuse, trap, or mislead the individual.
The ability to paraphrase and accurately reflect a client’s affective state is a skill that requires active listening and memory recall. Clarkson noted that it can also be used to check the counsellor’s understanding of what has been said and to spark further elaboration. Such skills must be used with caution due to the negative consequences that can occur if misused. If done too often can make the client feel like the therapist is just pretending to understand and not really “getting” the what they are saying. Paraphrasing the incorrect information, and/or reflecting the wrong affective state back to the client can likewise make the client feel that the Life Coach is simply not listening, or perhaps hearing the wrong thing. However, done correctly and with tact, can help the client identify their feelings, to feel understood, and feel encouraged to explore their concern further. Correct use of paraphrasing and reflection can demonstrate that the counsellor’s attention is solely focused on the client and their needs. Rogers and Farson found that when people are listened to sensitively, they tend to listen to themselves with more care and to make clear exactly what they are feeling and thinking.
Knowing how to summarise lengthy pieces of dialogue is a vital asset in therapy, as most often clients will come for counselling with numerous problems that need to be resolved; and an entanglement of different issues that relate to each other at certain intersections. Clients also often feel that the people in their lives either do not listen to them, or do not really understand what they are going through, so it can be difficult for them to freely discuss such issues with them. Over time this can create a build-up of unexpressed emotions and issues, which are then released as a barrage of incoming information when with a Life Coach. The counsellor must use great skill in (1) staying with the conversation; (2) remembering crucial bits of relevant information; and (3) knowing how, according to Angus and Greenberg, in their book Working with narrative in emotion-focused therapy, to integrate the mix of information into a coherent story that resonates with the client.
During my own counselling sessions I found that my inability to paraphrase and/or summarise the correct information back to the client, while at the same time trying to stay focused on the conversation has been a difficult task for me. In trying to “get it right”, I often lose focus on the topic and do not pay attention to using active listening processes such as verbal fillers, eye contact, open body postures and/or providing targeted questions. Being attentive and responsive to the client’s needs are essential elements of becoming a great life coach. In order for me to be my best going forward, I feel that staying focused on the topic of the conversation and on the feelings that it brings up, will help me to formulate the correct response so my client is always assured that I am truly engaging in the conversation. As mentioned by Egan, I must learn to be more perceptive so I can identify key emotions and points of interest in what is being expressed, so I can then respond accurately and with empathy for the greater needs of the client.
So sum up I would like to share a quote by Norcross that emphasises the importance of empathy in life coaching, and goes as follows: “Empathy is linked to outcomes because it serves a positive relationship function, facilitates a corrective emotional experience, promotes exploration and meaning creation, and supports the client’s self healing”.
Lynne E. Angus, L. E & Greenberg, L. S. (2011). Working With Narrative in Emotion-Focused Therapy: Changing Stories, Healing Lives. American Psychological Association.
DeVito, J. A. (2019). Foundations of interpersonal communication. The interpersonal communication book. (15th ed., pp. 15-42). Pearson education.
Egan. (2013). Empathic responding: Working at mutual understanding. The skilled helper: a problem-management and opportunity-development approach to helping (10th ed., pp. 104-131). Brooks/Cole Cengage Learning.
Midwinter, R. & Dickson, J. (2020). The skill of communicating. Embedding Counselling and Communication Skills: A Relational Skills Model (1st ed.). https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315730493
Pedersen, P. (2009). Inclusive cultural empathy: A relationship-centered alternative to individualism. South African Journal of Psychology, 39(2). https://doi.org/10.1177/008124630903900201
Rogers, C. R & Farson, R. E. (1987). Active listening. Communicating in Business Today.