The importance of empathy in career coaching


By Karen Lomas 

When providing career coaching support, empathy is essential. In this blog, I look at the three faces of empathy — accuracy, range and depth — and how they can be best used by a career coach. 

Empathy and Hope Action Theory  

Hope Action Theory emphasises the essential role of empathy for a career coach. Regardless of age, a client will easily detect a lack of concern or absence of empathy. 

Humans tend to pick up on the behaviour of others quite quickly. Children, teenagers and young adults can tell if a friend, teacher, sports coach, or family member is distracted, or not listening carefully. For example, signs in a career coaching session that may indicate a lack of empathy include particular facial expressions, lack of eye contact, or the coach answering a phone call during an appointment. A career coach needs to be mindful of all of these behavioural cues to allow the client to feel safe in the process and trust can develop. 

What is empathy, exactly? 

Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. 

Career counselling, or vocational guidance, used to be seen as an advisory service. Even the title of Career Educator lacks the holistic and caring aspect that is important in the client-coach relationship. This is especially important in career coaching of students and young adults, roughly between the ages of 15 to 25, who are going through so many significant transitions and tend to be over-represented in unemployment. 

When coaching young coaching clients, sensitivity to their emotions and an ability to imagine what the other person is going through is key. For mature-age clients, whose life experiences are varied and likely quite profound, trust can be very easily lost if a career coach is insensitive. 

Coaching is a support role. We teach skills, such as how best to explore options, find and use the best resources — but first, we listen. Career coaches find out about what their client is dealing with, to be able to walk with them in their journey for a while. 

Accuracy of Empathy 

Hope Action Theory emphasises that we cannot accurately empathise unless we step down from the ‘powerful’, authoritative, advisor status and sit in the situation of the young person. Indeed, Dr Norman Amundson says that career coaches need to think about times when they themselves have felt powerless. Or they may even have to place themselves into positions where they themselves feel powerless (Amundson, N. Active Engagement, Anniversary Edition; 2018, p. 272-275). 

Career coaching is much more than writing out of a list of instructions.  

Range of Empathy 

For a career coach, a range of experiences with a wide variety of clients from different backgrounds can be helpful in instilling empathy. Travel and a range of life experiences outside of our work can also provide such feelings and emotions. 

To reference Amundson again, it is easy to “get into a rut and only deal with a narrow group of people” and this limits the performance of a career coach. Range of empathy is possible when dealing with special needs, indigenous, unemployed, migrant, and otherwise disadvantaged clients from a wide variety of locations and contexts. 

Depth of Empathy 

Depth of empathy is gained in humans by way of deep and meaningful connections with others. A career coach with insight into human behaviour will come across with authentic empathy. 

As career coaches, we need to be willing to reflect upon our own experiences, in particular our challenges. This is what I have been doing as part of this training and study in Hope Action Theory. It has been a good networking opportunity as well. 

The importance of empathy during the pandemic 

The past two years in particular many of us have faced considerable struggles, due to the Covid-19 global pandemic and the many lockdowns we have been enduring. As discussed in a recent blog about motivation, a client will more readily trust an empathetic career coach. They feel safe to divulge exactly how they are experiencing. Thanks to my ongoing training with some of the best career development theorists, I have been reminded of how important a part empathy plays in the career coaching process. 

Karen is a career coach specialising in early career exploration with school-aged students. This article has been edited and republished with permission from the author. You can read the original here

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