Why You Want a Compassionate Coach

compassionate coaching

By Yvonne Milosevic

If you think back to some of the best coaches you’ve had throughout your life, how would you describe them? Chances are, words such as encouraging, positive, enthusiastic, or supportive come to mind. Whether we’re talking sports coach, life coach, or professional coach, research shows that a compassionate coaching approach is more useful than focusing on flaws.

Professor Richard Boyatzis of Case Western Reserve University has spent decades studying leadership, motivation, and emotional intelligence. Not long ago, he co-authored the article “Coaching for Change” in Harvard Business Review. In it, he points out what’s wrong with traditional coaching and why the world needs more “compassionate coaches” instead.

Because change, as we all know, is rarely easy. You may feel stuck at work but struggle with the decision to make a significant career pivot. Maybe you need guidance for managing workplace relationships. Or need help sorting out your ambitious career goals and creating a roadmap to achieve them. Having a trusted coach at your side can make those changes less scary.

Plus, becoming that trusted coach for others is key for leadership success and personal wellbeing. “Whether you’re a boss or a colleague, a friend or a spouse, introverted or extroverted, emotional or analytic, or high or low on the totem pole,” Boyatzis says, “you can learn how to facilitate life-enhancing change in those around you.”

As Andrew Carnegie once said, “Men are developed the same way that gold is mined. When gold is mined, several tons of dirt must be moved to get an ounce of gold. But one doesn’t go into the mine looking for dirt—one goes in looking for gold.”

What’s wrong with the usual approach?

The problem is that, too often, people coach for “compliance.” Meaning, we’re trying to get the other person to do what we want them to do. Unfortunately, most of us tend to drill down into the problem and then offer advice and solutions, Boyatzis explains. When that happens, people don’t learn much, he says. They don’t change or can’t sustain whatever change they have attempted.

To test this, Boyatzis partnered with Anthony Jack, an assistant professor of cognitive science, philosophy, and psychology at Case Western. The duo conducted a study on college students using fMRI. Jack wanted to see if different parts of the brain would light up based on the coaching style people received.

Students met with interviewers who either used compliance or compassionate coaching techniques. In the compassionate approach, coaches asked the open-ended question: “If everything worked out ideally in your life, what would you be doing in 10 years?” The coaching-for-compliance approach used a series of questions focused on the student’s academic experience. (“How are you doing with your courses? Are you doing all of the homework and readings?”)

The fMRI scans showed distinctly different responses to the two coaching styles. During the coaching for compliance interviews, areas of the brain related to focused attention and stress response lit up. Meanwhile, the compassionate coaching style triggered activity in the brain regions associated with creative problem solving, empathy, and positive visioning.

Do this instead

compassionate coaching

Compassionate coaching creates positive change by focusing on the learner’s vision and ideal self. Boyatzis suggests using nonleading, nonjudgmental questions that focus on the person’s best qualities and how he or she can leverage them. Even when discussing development areas, he says it’s crucial to keep coachees in that positive emotional state.

“If you are coaching someone, help them take stock of their current situation, and identify what they need to change, looking at strengths before considering weaknesses,” shares Boyatzis and his co-authors. “Get them to articulate a compelling personal vision, make a realistic plan, listen to them when they encounter problems, and encourage them to persevere. The more supportive you can be, the more successful they will be.”