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Fundamentals of the Coaching Relationship

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sports
Wordcount: 2539 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Expressing compassion and empathy are fundamental to the coaching relationship. Discuss these concepts using evidence from the literature and relate to a practice area of your choice.


The International Coaching Federation describes coaching as a partnership with clients in a “thought-provoking and creative process which inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential”. (ICF, 2015). Coaching is a growth–promoting relationship which enables a client to achieve a higher level of performance in work, life, health and overall wellbeing and is available in many forms e.g. performance coaching, personal or life coaching, executive coaching, business coaching, health coaching etc.

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Coaching differs from the traditional expert approach by utilising a collaborative rather than a prescriptive dynamic. The coach collaborates with the client to assist them in realising/ identifying their goals and supports them on the journey to achieve same. Rather than providing answers, the coach encourages the client to create their own possibilities through encouraging self-discovery, personal responsibility and the development of self -efficacy and self -reflection. Building a relationship based on trust and rapport is a critical ingredient in developing this process and lays the foundations for success.

In recent years, this approach has become increasingly popular in the delivery of healthcare / in the healthcare industry. A mounting body of research has been undertaken which has led to the shift in paradigm which promotes working towards the prevention of serious illness/ chronic disease.

The WHO defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”

Definition Health & Wellness. Bridging Sentence -More specifically, health coaching can be defined as a patient centred process that entails “goal setting determined by the patient, encourages self -discovery in addition to content education and incorporates mechanisms for developing accountability in health behaviours” Wolever et al (2013). (article 1).

There is numerous research which suggests the success of a coaching relationship depends primarily on the quality of the relationship between the coach and client (Ianiro, Lehman-Willenbrock, & Kaulfield, 2014) (article 2). Wasylyshn (2003) found that in terms of an effective coach, the ability to develop a strong connection with the client is often the highest – scoring characteristic. (article 2)

In all client professional relationships, it is vital that the client feels understood in order to achieve desirable outcomes.

The health coaching relationship operates on the basis that each client has the potential to self–actualize (i.e. maximise potential by seeking fulfilment and change through personal growth) through the utilisation of their innate creativity, resilience and resources and on this basis, the coach regards the client as the expert in their respective lives and work etc.

As cited in Moore et al (2016) (p. 11), the end game of coaching is self – determination i.e. the client’s ability to reach his /her highest level of performance, persistence, engagement, motivation and creativity.

Main Body

Bridging Sentence Self -determination theory as developed by Deci and Ryan (1985) is a theory of human motivation which focuses on addressing primary human needs and wellbeing. Deci and Ryan identify three primary psychological needs on which they propose a person’s level of functioning and well-being depend upon i.e. autonomy, competence and relatedness.

The need to feel in control of one’s own behaviours (autonomous), the need to gain mastery of tasks and learn different skills to produce valued outcomes (competence) and the need to experience a sense of belonging and attachment to other people (relatedness) are addressed in the coaching relationship as resources to aid the journey toward self -determination (Moore p.11). Self determination theory also proposes that people are more likely to feel their best and do well when the socio -cultural conditions of their lives (i.e. cultural norms, family relationships, friendships, workplace etc.) are congruent with these basic psychological needs. It is often possible that the socio-cultural conditions of a person’s life can inhibit one’s personal growth and development and it is on this basis that the presence of a coach could be beneficial in eliciting a general improvement in these conditions.

Spence and Oades (2011) explored the use of SDT as a theoretical framework for coaching, with specific attention directed towards the role that coaching would appear to play to contribute to the satisfaction of each of the three basic psychological needs identified above.

Spence and Oades draw particular attention to the importance of the process of connecting/relatedness to the working alliance and the interpersonal conditions which can be created to enhance growth and development.  It is important to note that while a client might have close relationships outside coaching, s/he may not consistently feel heard, understood, valued and/or genuinely supported within those relationships. It has been proposed that coaching is founded on core Rogerian person centred principles that are reinforced through the use of key micro-skills such as active listening, empathy, unconditional positive regard, attentive and responsive body language etc From an SDT perspective these skills create an atmosphere conducive to satisfying the need for relatedness, through the development of a warm trusting relationship focussed on the coaches salient concerns. from an SDT perspective, the use of core micro-skills such as active listening, expressing empathy, exploring successes, identifying personal strengths, encouraging volitional acts and other supportive gestures are important because of their potential to enliven processes that are central to human flourishing. (Keyes & Haidt, 2003). Green from Spence and Oades


Hoffman, a Professor of Clinical and Developmental Psychology (1984), described empathy as the “cognitive awareness of another person’s internal states (feelings, intentions, thoughts, perceptions) and the vicarious affective response to another person” (p. 103). This description refers to empathy as a multidimensional construct describing it as both a cognitive and affective phenomenon. As cited in Davis, Hoff man was a leading figure in the description of empathy referring to it as a multidimensional construct. Davis acknowledges the tendency for researched to focus on a particular aspect of empathy hence the shortage of research in this area looking at empathy as a whole. Researcher struggle to define and measure empathy. Some measurement techniques available. 3 aspects of empathy “So you think you are an effective coach”

Noting the lack of a universally accepted definition of empathy, according to Cohen & Strayer (1996), empathy must be regarded as a two-factor structure comprising of both cognitive and affective empathy. (article 2). Cognitive empathy can be described as “mental perspective taking” e.g. understanding why someone is feeling sad/ crying, while affective empathy is often regarded as an emotional response to the emotions of another e.g. feeling sad when someone else cries. P 55 Empathy research dichotomous (i.e. divided into 2 parts”.

Noting the gap in empirical research on the coaches’ individual perception of their empathic skills and behaviour in the coaching relationship, Will et al (2016), conducted a study on 19 coach – client dyads in a German University, utilising a multi method research design, to empirically examine the importance of the coaches expressed (cognitive) empathy during the coaching process. This was undertaken via the use of questionnaires, analysis of communication (interaction analysis) and direct observation. The coaches’ empathic statements (i.e. addressing counterparts’ feelings and paraphrasing) and the client’s reaction to same were also assessed. Will et al, utilised the Empathy Cycle by Barrett – Lennard (1998, 1993) which regards empathy as a three-phase process i.e. empathic resonation (coach mentally reproduces statements from other person), empathic communication (coach expresses cognitive empathy through behaviour) and the resulting perceived empathy (how empathy perceived by client) in order to map the coaches cognitive empathy as a sequential process. As the empathic resonation phase is difficult to measure, their study primarily focussed on the empathic communication (observable) and perceived empathy aspect (assessed via questionnaires) of the cycle. P.57 One of the interesting findings / outcomes from their study demonstrated that the more frequently a coach paraphrased the dialogue of the client, the higher the clients rated their coached empathy after the coaching process. It was also concluded that the paraphrasing and addressing counterparts feelings on the part of the coach led to a significant positive reaction from the client. Some limitations to this study were noted, specifically in respect of the age of all participannts, however the findings are supportive of the importance of the role of empathy in the coaching relationship.

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According to Rogers (1961), the use of words to reproduce the essence of another person’s message (i.e. paraphrasing), is a familiar and important way to demonstrate empathy. (article 2) To elaborate, Blackstone (2007) posits that in a favourable client relationship, the therapist conveys his/her understanding of the emotions experienced by the client, by reflecting back to the client what he/ she is communicating, in a way that encapsulates the meaning and feeling involved.

The coach needs to understand the incongruence within the client’s actual life situation in order to be able to demonstrate his/her understanding through according behaviour. P55 Cognitive empathy can be observed by the client (Barrett-Lennard, 1997) p. 56.

Will et al highlight the importance of cognitive empathy in the field of coaching in terms of the coaches social expertise and ability to facilitate conversations as well as demonstrate understanding towards the client. P 55

Forthe purpose of their study, Will et al (2004) define cognitive empathy as “an ability through which a coach is able to imagine the internal state of the client and therefore tries to understand the client’s mind”. (p. 54)


Compassion as a form of empathy? DEA/NEA approach to coaching – “ideal self” versus “ought self”. Focussing on strengths is critical in commencing relationship on correct footing to reduce NEA interactions. See piece n organisational psychology. Coaching for compliance – why doesn’t work and how compassion and empathy are important in focussing on DEA.

Boyatzis et al (2012) published an article seeking to enrich theorizing on coaching and it’s outcomes, with particular emphasis placed on coaching with compassion and suggest that coaching with compassion will lead to enhanced health and well-being and desired change. It is argued that coaching with compassion, (in contrast to coaching for compliance or deficit based coaching) invokes a psychophysiological state which enables a client to become open to new possibilities and learning and arouses the positive emotional attractor (PEA) in the client in two ways. Firstly this is triggered by the client describing his/her dreams, aspirations, passions etc. in response to the coaches probing and secondly, by sharing their “ideal – self” with the coach who listens attentively with interest and strives to assist them to achieve their dreams aspirations etc. It is also claimed this process is likely to invoke a feeling of safety in the client and a perception that the coach cares. It is theorized that coaching for compliance and deficit based coaching which refers to coaching towards how the coach or organization belivw a client should act) invoke the opposite state. (article 3)

Compassion involves noticing another’s need, empathizing, and acting to enhance their well-being.

Several recent studies suggest that it is the general orientation or approach to coaching, rather than specific techniques or behaviors, that predicts important outcomes, such as increased learning and performance (de Haan, Culpin, & Curd, 2011Sue-Chan et al., 2012).

Mindfulness – How being a mindful coach can enhance empathy and compassion.

Self-compassion – article on importance and how behaviours can be mirrored – mimcrosy. Perhaps coach can retrain neural thinking.

Generative moments – compassion and empathy ingredient

(Moore et al)

Moore et al p55 onwards

A coaches compassion makes an important contribution in helping clients handle their negative emotions. The balance of positive and negative emotions can have an immense impact on the brain’s capacity for learning and in particular, self-criticism can have served as a common source of negativity. When coaches display a non-judgemental, warm empathic and patient approach, clients are better enabled to accept themselves, let go of the past and feel self-compassion.


  • Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self – determination in human behaviour. New York: Plenum Press.
  • International Coach Federation. (2015). What is professional coaching? Lexington, KY: Author. Retrieved from https://coachfederation.org/about
  • Theresa Will, Sina Gessnitzer & Simone Kauffeld. (2016). You think you are an empathic coach? Maybe you should think again. The difference between perceptions of empathy vs. empathic behaviour after a person-centred coaching training. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 9:1, 53-68,DOI: 10.1080/17521882.2016.1143023
  • https://www.who.int/about/mission/en/ WHO Health definition
  • Ianiro etc article 2


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