BY Nicky Denegri

DATE: 08 MAY 2015


What are empathy and rapport?

Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”:

“If your emotional abilities aren't in hand, if you don't have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can't have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”
Daniel Goleman

Rapport is “a close and harmonious relationship in which the people or groups concerned understand each other's feelings or ideas and communicate well”:

“You want to work with people who you like and have an easy rapport with.”
Mike White

Why are they so important to the coaching relationship?

It’s simple. If you don’t have them you can forget it. Your client won’t trust you, they won’t want to confide in you and they’ll go through the motions at the very best. They’ll extract themselves from the process at the first possible opportunity and that will be the last you see of them.

You see, coaching is definitely about process (exploring issues, setting goals and moving to an action plan). It’s definitely about skill (listening, questioning, delivering feedback, challenging, etc). But it’s also – and equally importantly - about attitude. You need to genuinely care about the person sitting in front of you.

You need (as Billy Connolly says about empathy) to walk a mile in their shoes. Because then you’re a mile away from them. And you have their shoes. Seriously-you need to be able to say to yourself “I can never truly know how this person is feeling, but I can say to myself “Ok, just for a moment, if I try and imagine what it’s like to be this person, in this situation, then I will be in a better place to get under the skin of what’s happening for them, and stay with them in the process.”

And in terms of rapport, you need to take a bit of time to understand what makes them tick; to understand how they like to work; what will annoy them and how you can really make them feel “wanted”, liked and looked after. If when you look at them all you see are pound signs in front of your eyes, they will sniff that out. And they’ll be off. Again.

What does this do for the coach?

It builds their emotional intelligence (all you readers out there are high on IQ-your ability to use logic and reasoning to look at a situation to solve problems). But you may or may not be as high on EQ-the ability to manage and recognise your own and others’ emotions. Increasingly research shows that whilst in some professions high IQ is a must, it’s that plus EQ that creates professional success and longevity. So it’s in every coach’s interests to practise the development of their EQ (that’s the great thing about it-it can be developed constantly over our lifetime) because their hearts, minds and – frankly – pockets will be better off as a result!

And for the client?

Simple. Being in a space where they feel liked, respected and understood means they move more quickly and/or easily to a place of understanding and action- the ultimate goal of coaching.

So if you are a coach, or thinking about coaching, or a manager who’s trying to use a coaching approach, perhaps reflect on these statements and see how well you’re doing vis a vis your empathy and rapport:

SKILLS AUDIT: Are you good at building rapport and empathy?

  • I try always to put myself in the other person’s shoes when they’re describing how they feel – whatever the situation.
  • I don’t believe – or indeed tell people – that I “know exactly how they feel” (unhelpful, by the way. You really don’t).
  • I believe that’s important to listen to their perspective in order to get under the skin of the issue.
  • I resist the temptation to mentally tick off a “Yes, yes, I know exactly why this happening and what to do about it” checklist.
  • I really care about this person’s interests, agenda and issues.
  • I care about people. Full stop.


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about the author

Nicky Denegri is our Senior Consultant. If you would like to know more about this subject, drop her an email and we will be in touch.

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