Recently, while talking to a couple of CEOs, I again encountered some pushbacks to the suggestion with mandated coaching. Judging from their comments, it would seem that they were unhappy with what appeared to be a bruising relationship with a prior coach. The other complaint was that executive coaches tended to ask irrelevant questions instead of offering solutions. I have addressed this complaint in a previous blog post (Kong, 2012). I shall now attempt to address this other issue that coaches somehow are not relating well to their needs.

Coaching is essentially a process that aims to improve performance and “unlocks a person’s potential to maximise their performance.” It focuses on the “here and now”. (Pedr, undated) In furtherance of this objective, techniques for coaching rely heavily on cognitive behavioural techniques. Such techniques are manualized, easy to grasp but may be complex in its application. This was my experience when supervising trainees and beginning therapists when occasionally, behavioural techniques were not well framed and therefore unsuccessful (Kong, 2020).

This added to the fact that coaching has a low bar of entry with only part-time training over a period of less than 6 months, with no requirement for a background in psychological studies most of the time. Perhaps this can lead to results such as the kind of experiences reported by those cited above.

The Relationship Factor in Coaching

One of the most important qualities of therapists and coaches to be effective in their work is that of empathy. This is true when implementing behavioural techniques clinically. While it’s true that behavioural techniques are procedural to the point of being manualized, empathy together with positivity and acceptance helps to provide the basis for a supportive coaching relationship. It has been shown by many authorities that empathy induces a collaborative spirit into the coaching relationship (for example, Vyskocilovaetal et al, 2011).

Motivational interviewing, a powerful behavioural technique for behavioural change in tough conditions including addictive behaviours such as alcohol and drugs, depends on empathy to facilitate changes in motivation and thus behaviour.  A positive therapist-client relationship has a direct impact on client outcome and empathy facilitates the emergence of client language in favour of change (Moyers, 2014). It is therefore the case that a good relationship is an important component of behavioural techniques for it to be effective.

Like psychotherapy, coaching relies heavily on a good relationship between coach and coachee. The many desirable qualities of a coach presuppose empathy: being supportive, positive, enthusiastic, trusting and respectful for example. If a coach has an empathetic relationship with the client, it is unlikely that the abrasive relationship between coach and coachee described earlier on in this article will materialize.

To effect behaviour change, a coach must have an empathetic relationship with his client as well as compassion to see the client through the change (Century City, 2018). Like all forms of therapy, coaching as a helping technique depends a lot on empathy. It has been shown since the sixties in the last century that the relationship the therapist has with his patients is a significant predictor of outcome rather than the techniques used or the theoretical orientation (Kong, 2020). Hence, it is asserted that the skill of empathy distinguishes a great coach from just a good coach. (Hall & Wan, 2019)

What is empathy?

But what is empathy? Experts generally distinguish in the first instance between sympathy and empathy. Is sympathy needed in coaching? Sympathy is the subjective reaction of an individual to the difficult situation someone is in. When you are sympathetic, you feel with the person. (from the Greek, sym = with) This is useful when you wish to express your understanding and support. Thus, a client may express frustration at not being able to change some aspect of his behaviour which he is working towards. Here a sympathetic response may give the client the feeling that he is not alone.

But to be of help, sympathy is not enough. One has to have empathy. Empathy is objective, it is an understanding of what the client is going through and how he feels. To be empathetic, you need to insert yourself into the client’s situation (from the Greek, em = in) When you put yourself in the client’s shoes, you know what he is going through, this is cognitive empathy. 

You will also be able to understand how he feels as he goes through his predicament, this is emotional empathy. Research evidence suggests that the person with cognitive empathy will predict helping behaviours more than one that is just emotionally empathetic. The latter is more associated with emotional distress and helplessness.

To want to help, one has to have a sense of compassion. Indeed, Ekman & Goleman (2007) has described 3 categories of empathy: cognitive empathy, emotional empathy and compassion. Although compassion is not always classified as empathy, it has always been associated with empathy and helping behaviours. Without compassion it is difficult to be supportive and positive.

Adverse side effects and how to overcome them

Further, confrontational techniques and a low empathy coach are generally experienced as toxic and lead to poor outcomes. This has been recognized by practitioners as reported by Berglas (2002).

In this report, Berglas noted how a coach with no psychological background created havoc in the life of his coachee with long-term consequences. The cause of the unintended consequence was the presence of a personality disorder the coach was not able to identify and therefore recommended a behavioural change that had long-term adverse effects on the coachee’s performance.

Indeed, a report of an undated study of more than 100 coachees noted that 26% of coachees had psychological issues that cannot be dealt with by their coach (Wilkinson, undated). Further the research showed that problems especially the perceived negative side effects of coaching are correlated with a poor coach-coachee relationship.

In my book on Psychotherapy, I had argued for a relational approach for helping people.  I further showed that in a case of behavioural issues, you can either deal with it purely by behavioural means or by a relational approach. A relational approach emphasizes a positive relationship, enhances trust and a sense of security, leading to exploration and learning.

In helping people, we will always encounter difficult or complex cases which may be beyond our competency to handle. Psychological professionals have been drilled in their training and supervision to deal with what is within their competencies and refer what they cannot handle to fellow colleagues who have more expertise to deal with those difficulties they encounter. This protects both the therapist/coach as well as the client and highlights the maxim: Whatever you do, do no harm.

In my opinion, all coaches should practise such referrals to specialised colleagues whenever they come across cases beyond their competencies. Such collegial support is to be encouraged and indeed coaches in many niches have gotten together to give each other support. This is to be encouraged. This is especially true for coaches with no professional psychological training in their background.

Indeed, for all coaches including those with no psychological background, I would think that participation in sensitivity group training will support them to understand how they relate to clients and enhances empathy. As one who had participated in such sensitivity training and had conducted such groups for therapists and counsellors, I would strongly endorse that.

Like everything, when coaching is done wrong it can lead to disastrous results. But the results of coaching done right are numerous, from results as nebulous as stronger relationships between those within your organization to the more solid numbers associated with a stronger bottom line.

Coaching may not always be easy, but done right, it is always worth it. To learn more about how coaching will improve your performance and unlock your potential to maximise performance, let’s get started over a coffee.


  1. Berglas S (2002) The very Real Dangers of Executive Coaching. Harvard Business Review
  2. Century City (2018): The Role of Empathy and Sympathy in Coaching.
  3. Ekman P & Goleman D (2007): Knowing our emotions, improving our world. (audiobook). Northampton.
  4. Hall M & Wan WIM (2019): The Skill of Empathy in Coaching.
  5. Kong D (2012): Coaching vs interrogation.
  6. Kong D (2020): Psychotherapy: Modern Approaches. Ebook.
  7. Moyers TB (2014): The relationship in Motivational Interviewing. Psychotherapy. Vol 51(3): 358-363.
  8. Pedr (undated) What is coaching?
  9. Vyskocilovaetal J, Prasko J, & Slepecky M (2011): Empathy in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Supervision. Act Nerv Super Rediviva. 53 (2): 72-83.
  10. Wilkinson D (undated): The negative side effects of coaching and how to deal with them – new study.