In the face of uncertainty, it is tempting to slip into taskmaster mode and resort to simply telling others what to do to fix a problem or improve a situation. We call that coaching for compliance because the aim is compliance to some external standard of how a person should behave or what they should accomplish. That can sometimes work when the context is predictable and known and the goal is clearly and discretely defined, such as coaching a salesperson to achieve quarterly goals. But none of these characteristics apply to periods of volatility and distress.
Research suggests that coaching for compliance often leads to an outcome that is the opposite of what we desire. The individual can feel pressured or obligated, which activates a physiological state known as the “negative emotional attractor.” This state involves the body’s stress response system, which is essential for our fight-or-flight instinct, but will inhibit a person’s ability to learn, grow, and change. When the negative emotional attractor is triggered, a person is likely to become defensive and closed emotionally, cognitively, and physiologically.
Coaching with compassion, on the other hand, involves helping others to uncover or discover their ideas, feelings, hopes, and dreams and then supporting them in their efforts to adapt and change. This approach emphasizes the needs of the individual or group, rather than the agenda of the leader, and prioritizes building a resonant relationship with others. A resonant relationship is one anchored in mutual trust, where the leader takes intentional steps to notice people’s efforts and express gratitude, as well as suspend judgment and deeply listen.
How to Coach with Compassion
We have more opportunities to lead and coach with compassion than we often realize, but it requires us to be intentional about being aware of ourselves and others and about cultivating empathy in our conversations and relationships. Quite simply, we need to remember to “REACH2”—to follow the six steps below as we strive to help others.
R stands for resonance. Leaders need to reach out and connect in ways that are in sync and in tune with others’ thoughts, feelings, and experiences. The goal is to create a supportive, trusting, positive relationship in which you are focused on the other person over yourself.
E reminds us to lead with empathy. We need to shift our concern from wanting to be understood to understanding others.
A is about being aware of yourself and others. Before you can help others, you need to be clear on your mindset and emotions and their impact on the people and the environment around you. Emotions are contagious; so when you lead with joy, hope, humor, and love, others feel that. And when you lead with fear, anger, disappointment, and disgust, that rubs off on others, too.
C represents connecting with compassion. When we act from a place of compassion, we focus on the needs of others and respond in meaningful ways. Coaching others with compassion emphasizes caring, warmth, and tenderness to help another person in their professional development. We often have a front-row seat to expressions of emotion in others, running the gamut from joy to sadness to anger. When you demonstrate compassion in helping roles, you listen and respond to the emotions beyond the person’s words.
H is about spreading hope. You unleash positive emotions and uplift others when you help them to envision a brighter and better future. In the face of uncertainty, the tendency can be to succumb to worry, fear, and anxiety. Intentionally spreading hope is about acknowledging the difficulty and also the possibilities. In coaching conversations, that can take shape by reminding the other person of their strengths as well as your belief in their ability to get through the period of uncertainty. You can help others tap into hope by asking them what is possible now that wasn’t as likely before.
H also refers to the power of humor. Stress shuts us down to new ideas and experiences. It also makes us less likely to find things funny or amusing or be playful. By keeping things light, you remind others to keep smiling. Having a sense of humor and promoting laughter in the workplace has been shown to reduce stress and increase satisfaction, productivity, and performance.