Empathy is Overrated: How Not Understanding Strengthens Your Practice
My private consulting business was thriving. I loved the work. I relished the flexibility. I assessed, advised, reported, and left. My clients were not accountable to me, nor was I responsible for their success or failure. So, when the job offer arrived to be CEO of a $22 million USD nonprofit agency, I was not entirely sure I would take it. I was 31 years old and while I had extensive experience in human services, my track record for leading felt underwhelming compared to the challenges of transforming the cultural and financial health of a multi-site, multi-division social impact agency. In one of the more pivotal moments in my life, I said yes.
While the board believed in me and my capacity to do the job well, they also acknowledged my relative lack of experience in such large and complex work. They wanted me to succeed as much as I did, so along with a salary and benefits, they offered executive coaching. In another pivotal moment, I said yes again.
Thankful for the gift of choice, I interviewed two local ICF-credentialed coaches at the PCC level, looking for someone who could identify with being a young CEO in a large, complex nonprofit organization. I wanted an empathizer — someone who would understand the experience and emotions of the road ahead. Instead, I found former executives in sales and health care, neither of whom had been in the top job (CEO). New to the concept of coaching, I judged their worthiness in part based on how similar their career paths had been to mine. I chose as well as I could, though I wasn’t convinced that either could really help me.
I was safe with [my coach], and the trust I felt was not based in her ability to ‘get it’ … the success of our relationship did not depend on her ability to empathize.
April Fool’s Day (April 1) marked my official beginning as CEO. I listened, built relationships, sorted through unmet needs, and provided direction. On most accounts, and against fairly big odds, I was doing well. But behind the scenes, I struggled. What none of my employees saw was that I suffered with loneliness and anxiety, often laboring over my decisions with painstaking detail, feeling intense emotions and swimming in self-critique. The problems had only just begun: For every big win, there seemed to be a bigger loss or an uglier opponent around the corner.
Every other week, I sat across from my coach in a comfortable chair, her dog at my feet, and laid it all out. We sorted through the work above- and below-the-neck: the intellectual challenges, the emotional wear-and-tear, and gut-level discernment. I was safe with her, and the trust I felt was not based in her ability to “get it.” While she had certainly experienced challenges and emotions like mine, “I understand what you’re going through” was not something I remember her saying. She’d say things like:
“What do you want?”
“What was going on for you when that happened?”
“How would you like to work with that today?”
The success of our relationship did not depend on her ability to empathize. It turned out that I did not need her to understand. I did not need her to have experienced my same feelings or walked through these problems. I needed her to meet me in the midst of it all and stay with me until I understood, until I could move from debilitated to decisive in the way that was right for me. My coach offered honest questions stemming from true curiosity, the kind that comes when you aren’t making assumptions, when you are fully present with the client in front of you.
As a new coach, it can be difficult for me to remember that by being the expert in a coach-client relationship, I can hinder my client’s progress if I over-identify with her experience and emotions. It’s hard to help someone find her way when I’m too busy focusing on mine. Empathy is not the same thing as presence and attention and can be an insufficient workaround to really listening. Our clients need us to curiously bear witness to their journeys more than they need us to nod in appreciation that we’ve been there, done that.
I’ve experienced the magic of coaching from both chairs: as a terrified new CEO with insurmountable challenges, and as a coach to terrified new CEOs with insurmountable challenges. The transformative moments have come when we relish the question and allow the quiet; when we focus more on being there than on having been there. Not knowing is reliable fuel for creating honest and shape-shifting dialogue that builds trust and strengthens the coaching relationship.
Not understanding helps us seek understanding, and there are far more possibilities in one honest question than there are in a hundred affirmations.
This is such a great reminder to not do all the heavy lifting as a coach. It’s all about being present, asking the right questions and allowing for this deep space for the client to craft their path forward. Thanks for sharing.