My executive coaching model 3/5 : coaching with strategic empathy

Building a bridge between support and challenge..

Executive coaching is about asking questions and helping the client find their own resources. That said, there are as many coaching models as there are coaches and I owe my clients full transparency on my approach.

My executive coaching model is built around 4 principles:

  1. understanding  behaviours systemically;
  2. coaching with strategic empathy;
  3. communicating with the whole self;
  4. helping my clients see the world through a different frame. 

Coaching with strategic empathy helps me build a bridge between the support my coachees need to feel safe, considered and understood, and the challenge they are ready to take to change.

I can never spend too much time and care building rapport.

Research in the field of psychotherapy links success to the quality of the relationship, much more than on the therapeutic model[1].

Accordingly, recent publications by systemic coaches claim that “relationship prevails over strategy”[2]. Even Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which has long considered the therapeutic relationship as a neutral stimulus in a technical treatment, now integrates attachment theory to leverage the therapeutic potential of the relationship[3].

Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment[4] has provided me with the most valuable practical guide to creating an environment where the coachee feels considered, listened to and supported.

I have reviewed and improved my practice of each of the ten components, making a habit of turning off all sources of distraction and asking my coachee to do the same as a favour to our working relationship, shortening and opening my questions, giving my coachee time and space to find their own pace to think without being interrupted, doing whatever is in my power to make the meeting space welcoming and enhancing for my client, and so forth. Asking a personal assistant to book a particular room is no longer trivial: it has become a backstage part of my signature presence.

As I mostly work for global organisations, I pay special attention to intercultural gaps to convey my relational intentions according to the business and regional culture of my clients.

How much time to spend checking-in differs significantly whether my client is American or Lebanese; I don’t make contact with a Japanese as I do with a French person. Understanding better how foreign executives experience the French corporate culture whether they come from a high or low context culture, use an implicit or explicit communication style, has greatly helped me improve my awareness to create a personalised thinking environment for each coachee[5]. Reciprocally, I put special effort in grasping the cultural gaps when working in non-French environments: if these cannot be abolished, I often find it better to make them explicit.

Last but not least, Rogers[6] has helped me take my presence to another level.

Having been trained to focus on my client, I had never thought that bringing my own emotions into the relationship was an option. Reading that being “genuine, [my] words matching [my] own internal feeling” was an indispensable characteristic of a helping relationship has liberated my natural sensitivity, enhancing the quality of my relationships and opening a whole new field of coaching possibilities.

 

Strategic empathy is a powerful way to create a containing environment.

In some cases, my experience has shown me that empathy alone helps clients become more acceptant of themselves, which allows change to happen.

Supporting insecure overachieving leaders to ‘be themselves more, with skill’[7] is indeed an enjoyable and rewarding experience, both for the coach and coachee. But I define this developmental type of coaching as reinforcement or fine tuning rather than change. In my view, change is a more confronting experience, and I see my role as a coach to support my clients through this challenge toward a desired or unknown future.

I don’t feel comfortable opposing support and confrontation.

Guiding a coachee through a chair work experiment requires supporting the effort on the one hand and confronting the client with a situation they most often dread on the other; sharing my clients’ frustration while listing all their failed attempts to reach a goal also requires a robust blend of support and challenge. Drawing from Rogers’ description of the helping relationship, Wittezaele & Nardone,  two masters of the Palo Alto school in Europe[8], have created the concept of strategic empathy, to describe this double movement, meeting the patients where they are, stuck or in pain, resonating with the nature and intensity of their feelings, yet challenging their course of action to help them find a more ecological one.

Strategic empathy helps asking helpful incisive questions, that enable my coachees to envisage alternative solutions to their issues.

It is never comfortable for anyone to be asked questions as provocative as: “If you were absolutely sure that your assumption is not true, what would you do or say or think differently?”, or  « no matter how much care one takes in phrasing it more gently. Even Nancy Kline’s soft voice calls this question “incisive”, cutting. I have many other provocative questions in store to instill doubt into my coachee’s mind, and I have learnt to make them feel deeply and sincerely understood before I ask any of these sharp questions. Even then, many clients keep telling me they remember them long after the coaching has ended. I cannot anticipate when is the right moment to ask a provocative question in the course of a coaching. The only thing I know is that my coachee must be absolutely confident in my understanding and positive intent before I ask them.

 

The double movement implied by strategic empathy can seem contradictory, but it is a powerful way to coach with “backbone and heart”[9].

To read more 

my executive coaching model 1/5

my executive coaching model 2/5 : understanding behaviours systemically

References 

[1] de Haan, E. (2008) Relational coaching: journeys towards mastering one–to–one learning.

[4] Kline, N. (2017) More time to think: the power of independent thinking. 

[5] Suleiman, E. Bournois, F. Jaïdi, Y. (2017) La prouesse française: le management du CAC 40 vu d’ailleurs.

[6] Rogers C. R. (1961) On becoming a person: a therapist’s view of psychotherapy.

[7] Goffee, R. Jones, G. (2006) Why should anyone be led by you? What it takes to be an authentic leader.

[8] Wittezaele, J.J. Nardone, G. (2016) Une logique des troubles mentaux: le DOSS.

[9] O’Neill, M.B. (2007) Executive coaching with backbone and heart: a systems approach to engaging leaders with their challenges.