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As coaches, we are known for ‘holding space’ for people to express themselves fully while we really listen. Listening is one of those ‘superpowers’ most coaches possess and is one of the things I often hear from my coaching clients: “wow! It is such a rare treat to have someone really listen to me, as if you genuinely want to understand what I am trying to say.”

Of course I do! And isn’t it sad that it feels so rare.

Active Listening

In fact, active listening is one of the eleven International Coach Federation (ICF) Core Competencies. They define active listening as the ability to focus completely on what the client is saying and is not saying, to understand the meaning of what is said in the context of the client’s desires, and to support client self-expression.

No doubt, as a coach, you have honed your listening skills. You know how to engage in active listening. You are fully present and lean into the conversation, you paraphrase back to ensure understanding, and you listen below the surface of what is being said. This is all critical to help your coachee explore the possibilities related to their challenge, issue, or goal and help them move toward action – which, as you know, is the whole point of coaching.

Being Emotionally Triggered

But have you ever had someone come to a coaching session triggered by an emotion? When something has happened to them at work or in their personal lives that has left them feeling hurt, angry, or ashamed? Have you noticed how difficult it can be to move someone to action when they are emotionally triggered?

This is when holding space becomes even more important. When we need to draw on our active listening skills even more. And yet, even that might not be enough. Did you know that there is one step further you can go to making someone truly feel heard? Empathy. I strongly believe that demonstrating empathy is the antidote to almost everything.

Active Listening versus Demonstrating Empathy

So, exactly how is demonstrating empathy different than active listening?

Active listening is about ensuring you have understood what they have shared with you – at an intellectual level. Demonstrating empathy requires active listening but makes the person feel heard at an emotional level. When someone feels truly heard – both intellectually and emotionally – their emotions come down. Then, and only then, can they think about solutions, possibilities, or action.

Being Empathetic versus Demonstrating Empathy

Being empathetic is not the same as demonstrating empathy. When we say someone is highly empathetic, we generally mean that they can pick up on the feelings of others, often to the point of feeling those emotions themselves. Feeling deeply for someone doesn’t make the other person feel heard unless you can express or demonstrate that empathy. Fortunately, you can demonstrate empathy even if you are not highly empathetic by nature. Demonstrating empathy is a skill, not a character trait.

Steps to Demonstrating Empathy

Here are the four steps to demonstrating empathy:

  1. Take the other person’s perspective. This requires listening to and honouring their story as their truth, even if it doesn’t fit with your experience of the situation. For example, they may share a difficult exchange they had with their boss, who you know well and experience very differently. Resist the temptation to change their perspective based on your own experience “Oh, I am sure she didn’t mean it that way…”
  2. Withhold judgment. We are often quick to judge other people, but the reality is we cannot be empathetic and judgmental at the same time. For example, they may share with you that the argument with their boss was about them being consistently late to meetings. If your mind goes to “what!? You are consistently late to meetings? How disrespectful!” it will be exceedingly difficult for you to demonstrate empathy.
  3. Recognize their feelings and emotions. This is the emotional literacy piece. You need to pick up on their feelings based on what they are saying, not saying, body language, tone, and demeanour.
  4. Convey your understanding of those feelings. Once you pick up on those emotions, you need share them back. This is where people feel heard. Saying things like: “That’s really tough.” “It sounds like you are struggling with that” or “I can hear your frustration” is the language of empathy.


Magic happens when people feel heard. It dissipates emotions even when there are no solutions. It is a tool every coach needs in their toolbox.

This is why empathy is a core component of Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead™ research, book, and courage building program. She refers to empathy as the antidote to shame, but it is even more powerful than that. I believe it is the antidote to almost everything. Just imagine what could happen if there was more empathy in the workplace, or better yet, in the world.

About Tara Cree, Ph.D.

Tara Cree, Ph.D. is a Certified Dare to Lead™ Facilitator, leadership coach, and expert in leadership development. She is passionate about living an authentic and wholehearted life and incorporates this highly experiential methodology based on the work of Dr. Brené Brown into her life and work.

She delivers the Dare to Lead™ program one-on-one as a coaching program and in group workshops. She is offering a Virtual Dare to Lead™ program starting September 2020. For more information or to register, contact

Learn more about Tara.

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