Empathetic or sympathetic: What do I want my coach to be?

There appears to be widespread acceptance that a coach should be empathetic. However, there is considerable confusion over what empathy is, and how/if it differs from sympathy, and if empathy leads to better outcomes. The paper reviews the research evidence related to the development of empathy, sympathy, and pro-social and altruistic behaviour and concludes that notions of empathy in coaching are not evidence-based, are largely about marketing, and that one should want a sympathetic, rather than an empathetic coach.

MANY COACHES claim to be empathetic, and much coach training claims to develop empathetic coaches. ‘Empathic’ appears to be a common descriptor in the marketing of coaching. Empathy is also described as important in the Coaching Psychology literature. There is little discussion of sympathy in either the coaching psychology or coaching literature.

This paper challenges the poor use of terminology in Coaching and Coaching Psychology. Uncritical use probably affects how we think about coaching practice, undermines the evidence base and strengthens coaching folklore. Coaching psychology has a responsibility and opportunity to ensure that wider coaching practice is firmly based upon evidence-based scientific practice. This paper examines empathy and sympathy and the relevance of these constructs to coaching and coaching psychology.



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