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Guest Blog: Empathy: 2. A useful muscle

About the author: Stephen Rollnick shares his experiences in a second blog in the series.  Steve explores further the concept of Empathy suggesting that if questions are knocking on the door, empathic listening is what you do when you step inside.  Connecting with athletes is essential in the coach/athlete relationship; take five minutes to add value to your coaching.

People who feel empathised with are more likely to flourish.  If they are angry, upset or confused they will calm down much more quickly if they are empathised with.  I’d wager my every possession on the validity of these observations.

This is a two-step process: first to imagine someone’s experience, what it’s like to stand in their shoes, and then secondly, to convey this to them.  In this second step your attitude and manner are important for sure, and then there’s something else, a verbal skill that’s observable, measureable and just like a muscle, amenable to practice.  This is variously called empathic listening, reflective listening or reflecting.

You can get a get feel for that first step by watching people and imagining what they might be experiencing.  Here’s a neat video that challenges you to do just that:; or you can even apparently visit an empathy museum.  

The second step, the verbal skill looks like this:

Example 1

Athlete: (clearly very angry) I’m telling you now I’ve reached the end.  I’m fed up with the way he speaks to me, like he’s the only one who knows how to play, ordering me around and talking like I’m some kind of idiot.

Coach: You know what’s helpful for you and this isn’t it.

Athlete: Exactly.

Example 2

Athlete: I tried honestly I did but I don't know what went wrong, it was like I froze and stopped thinking then all of a sudden it was bang, the chance was gone.

Coach: You slipped out of gear

Athlete: Yes, you got me, and I never expected that.  

Notice that what the coach said in each example was a statement, not a question.  I have honestly forgotten who made this observation: if asking a questions is like knocking on a door, empathic listening is what you do when you go inside. Here’s an example of me using this skill in response to an angry patient in health care, in an unrehearsed simulation produced for a medical journal. Notice how questions were used very sparingly.

A Norwegian colleague was struggling to translate the word for this skill into his language, so he came up with a very simple phrase – a short summary; you make a short summary of what the person said or is experiencing and leave it to them to amplify if they want to. Your summary captures the essence of what they are saying or feeling.  There’s no more direct way of empathising with a person.  

Who knows how much better sporting outcomes would be if empathic listening was widely practiced to a high standard. I’ll pen a third article if my ‘editor’ at Sports Coach UK promises me again that he never yawned once, and I’ll try to convey how this skill can save time and help to build motivation in an athlete. It’s what underlies a method called motivational interviewing (MI).  More on that in the third and final piece.
Stephen Rollnick, PhD, Cardiff, WALES. [email protected] @stephenrollnick