Coaching with Compassion

Leverage YOur Body’s Natural Physiology to Become a More Impactful Coach

Almost all of us can look back and point to a defining moment in our lives when we were pressed to choose between two life paths: one that we know deep down was right for us, and another that everyone else thought we should pursue.  If you’ve experienced one such moment, think back to it now.  Consider both options just as you had once upon a time.  Notice in your body how each one makes you feel.  For me, my moment was six years ago when I had to decide which college to attend.  Even to this day I vividly recall how thoughts of the prestigious university my parents wanted me to pursue evoked within me a sense of dread.  In contrast, the conception I had for my own life path filled me with a sense of excitement, passion, and drive.

Not surprisingly, the research reveals what our gut has always known instinctively: that our own goals and dreams are much more energizing than the expectations others place upon us (Boyatzis, Smith, & Beveridge, 2012).  If you are reading this as a manager, coach, or anyone who seeks to be an effective guide to others, reflect on the implications of this concept as it applies to your coaching conversations.  What if, during those sessions, you were able to guide the conversation in a way that tapped into the brain’s natural potential to slide into an upward spiral of generative emotions?

Richard Boyatzis, prominent professor of organizational studies and researcher known for his work on leadership, emotional intelligence, and behavior change, has studied this concept in depth and now teaches coaching courses based on his findings.  Boyatzis and colleagues (2012) introduce a model that hinges on decades of behavioral and neuroscience research. Their model demonstrates that coaching with compassion (coaching someone to their dreams and desires) is much more effective than our attempts at coaching for compliance (coaching someone to your wishes or expectations). Boyatzis’ research indicates that there is a strong physiological basis for coaching with compassion, and reveals a fascinating lens through which we can leverage brain science to upregulate our impact as coaches.


You might be asking yourself at this point, how could something that sounds as fuzzy as “coaching with compassion” have such a profound effect, physiologically speaking?

To summarize, Boyatzis and colleagues (2012) theorize that coaching with compassion triggers a cascade of positive emotions and cognitions, which evoke the arousal of the parasympathetic nervous system (slowing down the heart) and corresponding neuroendocrine systems (releasing hormones known to reduce anxiety and heighten feelings of attachment and closeness to others).  Their research suggests that tuning into a positive psychophysiological state can broaden our thought processes, improve cognitive performance, and enhance our emotional perceptibility.  We can feel calmer, a greater sense of wellbeing, and more inclined towards behavioral change.  This progression might even jumpstart the genesis of new brain neurons.  Furthermore, this cycle is self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating (Boyatzis et. al, 2012).

Coaching with compassion activates this generative system in two ways.  First, it is triggered when an individual describes her aspirations, passions, or ideals in response to a coach’s probing.  Encouraging a client to focus on and detail his Ideal Self can be a powerful, positive emotional event that shifts him into an upward spiral.  The second way coaching with compassion arouses that broadening state is by eliciting a feeling of being safe and cared for. These feelings come as a result of sharing the Ideal Self with someone who listens with interest and strives to help her make her dreams a reality. 

One benefit of that upward positive spiral is the activation of neural circuits that could enable a coachee to consider possibilities that she would not have considered otherwise.  Boyatzis (2012) witnessed this during coaching sessions, like when an IT executive realized that she didn’t have to quit her job to help inner city children learn to love computers.  Where she had previously seen only obstacles, a compassionate coaching conversation enabled her to discover that she could take one Friday off per month to deliver workshops.


If you’re looking to bring the power of coaching with compassion to your organization, know that its benefits are predicated on relationships characterized by safety and trust.  Assuming that you’ve established this foundation, try incorporating the following steps into your coaching sessions:

  1. Guide the coachee through a process of cultivating their Ideal Self and a compelling vision for their life.
  2. Next, take stock.  Encourage coachees to identify the changes they want
  3. Be sure to identify and draw out your coachee’s current strengths before their weaknesses.

Finally, don’t forget what coaching with compassion is NOT:

It is not “coaching for compliance.”  Putting pressure on an employee to accept an assignment or adhere to norms they don’t align with are, fundamentally, attempts at influencing a coachee to do something desired by others.  That is not to say that coaching with compassion doesn’t involve furthering personal development or serving an organizational need; it does!  The key factor is whether the coachee’s own goals and perspective are accounted for in the process (Boyatzis et. al, 2012).

Boyatzis’ model takes into consideration what our hearts and bodies have always known:  that it’s draining to cave to the external pressure we feel to be someone we’re not. That it’s exhausting to spend a life trying to fulfill others’ expectations for it.  Fortunately, I learned this lesson early on.  I heeded my concerned parents’ advice about college, but after two short years I found myself miserable and depleted of my normal vitality, having made the wrong decision.  Making the shift to a new life path that I actually resonated with has, in contrast, lead to a more adventure-filled, accomplished, and personally meaningful life than I ever could have imagined.   As a manager or coach, realize your power to frame conversations in a way that directly affects your employees’ physiology.  Take a leap and try coaching with compassion; I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find a jump in their levels of energy, vitality, and intrinsic drive.


Boyatzis, R. E., Smith, M.L. & Beveridge, A.J. (2012). Coaching with compassion: Inspiring health, well- being, and development in organizations.  The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 49, 153–178.