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Guest Blog: Empathy: 1. Beyond Lip Service

Following his recent session at the Partner Event Programme with Coach Developers working within Talent and Performance Steve Rollnick wanted to further share his thoughts and reflections in a three part series.

I’m a clinical psychologist and even inside my psychology orbit I hear colleagues talking about the importance of empathy in a hollow way. I imagine the sporting world might also be vulnerable.  Words and phrases are no doubt exchanged in meetings, pasted on walls, and “empathy” and “good relationships” might appear among them as a marker of a club’s mission or core values.  How do they pan out in practice?

If I was worried about sloganeering in sport about empathy I had a wonderful awakening, courtesy of an interview with a football coach developer Edu Robio talking about the selection of coaches.  When asked what attribute do you look for in your academy coaches his response was immediate and heartfelt: “I would say the biggest one (is) empathy.”  You don't often hear trainers of psychologists talking like that.  One exception in my field is a colleague who runs a counselling service. So strong is her conviction about the importance of empathy that she asks job applicants to send her a tape of their best effort at listening, and shortlists only those who reach beyond a certain standard.  If Edu dived into the psychology literature he would find his conviction strengthened: empathy has emerged from 60+ years of evaluation of psychological treatment as one of the most robust predictors of good outcome.

Empathic listening is a skill. I’ve struggled for a long time to help colleagues like doctors, nurses, social workers and psychiatrists to grasp the value of repeated practice with skills like empathic listening.  Sports coaches, on the other hand have no difficulty appreciating the importance of practice.  So I would encourage someone like Edu Rubio to take heart: your coaches can learn to get better at using empathy. How and why are questions I’ll address in a second blog if my host says he didn't yawn once when reading this one. 

Stephen Rollnick, PhD, Cardiff, WALES [email protected]