As coaches, we’re taught not to collude with our clients. But what does that really mean?
Quite simply, collusion happens when we validate and reinforce beliefs and behaviours in ways that shrink possibilities for change and risk a client remaining stuck with their problem.
So far, so good.
The difficulty comes in terms of where collusion starts and empathy finishes.
As an example of how coaches find this problematic, I recently ran a supervision group in which a number of coaches shared how they were unsure what collusion means in practice and whether they were doing it unknowingly by being empathetic.
One described how they felt a pressure to be expressionless and emotionless in their coaching even though it didn’t feel authentic for them to be like that. The fear was that in showing empathy they may be colluding with the client by reinforcing their narrative. As a result, they were holding back their authentic presence and full expression of themselves as a coach.
In this brief article, I want to share my perspective on the difference between empathy and collusion. My hope is that, if you find yourself held back by concerns around this, it will set you free to be more fully yourself.
Empathy and Compassion in Coaching
Let’s start by looking at what empathy is.
Actually, scrap that.
Let’s take a step further back and look at compassion.
Compassion is one of those words that has lost its true meaning over time. We talk about compassion in the same breath as sympathy, kindness, forgiveness and much else.
And that’s understandable. Compassion is at the root of all of these.
The word compassion comes from the Latin words pati, to suffer, and com, with.
Compassion, then, is to suffer with.
But what are we suffering with in coaching?
My take on this is that compassion in coaching comes from the fact that we are all human and we suffer the human condition together.
By the human condition, I mean all the stuff we can’t escape.
Choice, mortality, loss, age, limitation, fallibility, fragility, weakness, illness, fear, doubt, shame and so much more.
It also includes resilience, triumph, love, meaning, restoration, recovery, redemption, achievement and, again, so much more.
We’re all human and we suffer being human together.
It is this shared experience of being human that allows for the compassion that lies at the heart of empathy and coaching.
(As a side note, despite efforts in this field, it’s why I believe AI can only ever approximate and mimic empathy. Until AI suffers, it can have no true compassion.)
Empathy and Phenomenology
Given that compassion sits at the heart of coaching, we can say that our ability to feel and show empathy is a critical part of coaching.
Indeed, from a humanistic perspective, it is one of the six sufficient and necessary conditions for personal change proposed by Carl Rogers. Empathy allows coaching to be a meeting between two human beings rather than a human and a set of processes.
My conception of empathy is as an emotional connection around the impact on another of feeling a certain way. We are not empathetic towards the story, the cause or the narrative in coaching. We are empathetic towards the resulting feeling a client experiences.
Empathy acknowledges what is categorically, undeniably true (actually, one of the only truths in coaching) – the client’s phenomenological experience.
The 5 Animas Principles of Transformative Coaching has the Phenomenological Principle at its heart because it’s the starting point for discovery and change.
The phenomenological experience, in simple terms, is the client’s subjective experience which is utterly, unquestionably true for them.
If they felt sad, or angry, or happy, or embarrassed, or ashamed – that is a truth, not an interpretation.
Our compassion allows us to be empathetic towards this experience because we know broadly what it is like to be sad and so on.
Wait! Before you jump in, I’m not suggesting our version of sadness is the same as the client’s, but we can at least have resonance with the fact that feeling sad is, well, a sad thing to feel!
Allowing a client to express their emotions and feelings and to acknowledge them builds a powerful connection that nurtures the very conditions that will allow the client to look afresh at what’s possible.
By contrast, when they feel unheard or, worse still, silently judged by the dispassionate coach, I would argue, the risk of creating resistance and stuckness increases.
In other words, for the client to feel that change is possible, they often need to know you’ve appreciated what their experience was first.
That’s the true power of empathy.
The confusion between empathy and collusion
So why does empathy get confused with collusion?
Where I notice coaches get confused is the fear that empathy may validate the client’s story rather than their experience. “OMG! That’s so bad! Poor you!” Notice how the emphasis of this in on the narrative not the feeling.
However, if someone loses their job and they feel fearful, we can have empathy for the emotion of being fearful without validating the narrative that fearfulness was the only, or most obvious, response to losing their job.
Fearfulness, to go back to phenomenology, is the client’s truth. No-one can deny that this is what they felt. Someone might argue that they shouldn’t have been fearful or that they weren’t fearful enough, but they can’t deny that they were fearful.
So, we can have empathy for the emotional state they are in and we can acknowledge this without colluding.
And I don’t mean acknowledging in a flat, toneless, uncaring way that observes (Mr Spock-like) but doesn’t show compassion: “I see you are fearful” said like an automaton. I mean an acknowledgement that comes from a place of humanity; that is likely to be accompanied by a genuine and unfeigned softening of one’s features, a kind look, space for the client to collect their thoughts and so on.
Empathy might even express itself as self-disclosure, sharing how you too faced a situation like that and how you felt, or you might share how you can imagine that such a loss would shake them and create this fear. It’s true – you can imagine!
I would argue coaches can go surprisingly far in demonstrating empathy before it tips in to collusion.
Why? Because you are allowing the client to feel heard and understood in their experience before you open the conversation to what might change.
And there’s the key.
You are not keeping the client stuck with empathy. You are not reinforcing their interpretation of what led to the emotion or experience nor agreeing with their meaning-making process.
You are actually creating the conditions for change to happen.
The test of whether you are colluding is the extent to which you enter the same meaning-making paradigm in a way that limits their choices and options of what they believe and do, and reinforces their certainty of the absolute truth of their story.
Notice the difference between these two short vignettes.
“The collusive coach”
Wow, I’m so sorry to hear all that. It sounds horrendous! What a terrible boss you have! What are you going to do about him?
“The empathic coach”
Wow, I’m so sorry to hear about your experience. It sounds like it’s been really tough for you. I can only imagine how I might have experienced it! (leaves space for the client to collect themselves) Do you feel ready to explore some new ways of thinking about this?
Of course, this is a gross simplification to make a point but, hopefully, you can see the way the second coach expresses empathy around the phenomenological experience rather than the cause-and-effect story itself (the terrible boss narrative) and then gently offers the space to explore change.
The first coach accepts the client’s interpretation that the boss is “terrible” which limits the possibilities for thinking differently about what might be going on – it constrains change to what’s possible within the narrative presented by the client.
An easy thought-experiment I have for whenever I hear a story about someone else is, would they themselves agree with the judgement made about them? Would everyone else in their team? Would their friends? Would their partner? Would their kids?
When we contextualise someone in a wider system like this, we have to accept that the client’s interpretation is merely that, an interpretation, and so open to change.
Getting clear on collusion
I think by now, my concept of collusion is pretty clear, but let’s go through it one final time and draw out some further thoughts.
Collusion in coaching happens when we validate and reinforce beliefs and behaviours in ways that shrink possibilities for change and risk a client remaining stuck with their problem.
This is profoundly important for understanding collusion.
Coaching is about change.
An important distinction to get from this, then, is that collusion is not so much what we are doing, as coaches, but the intention and outcomes of what we do in relation to the change process.
If our intention and outcomes remain open to possibilities that exist outside of the client’s limited perspective then, by definition, we are not colluding.
On that basis, I can envisage a situation where one seems to accept the client’s version of events knowing full well that this is merely the first step in creating the conditions in the coaching for the change to emerge. Whilst this is not an approach I take, I can certainly see how seeming to buy into a client’s story for a period of time would create certain conditions for change to take place if that client needed to feel validated.
I bring this up, not to sow confusion, but to draw attention to the fact that collusion is a result of the coach being unwittingly sucked into the quicksand of the client’s interpretation, truth making and judgement and becoming stuck with limited possibilities.
Collusion, then, is not the words we say or the way we act, per se, but the emotional and cognitive stuckness that limits not only the client’s options but our own.
Any of us, at any time, as coaches can find ourselves drawn into the seemingly undeniable truth of a narrative that a client presents us with. Our job is to stay mindful of this and have the resources to snap out of the hypnotic nature of narrative and to open the space for new possibilities. Donald Schön, in The Reflective Practitioner, would call this reflection-in-action, the ability to notice and reflect upon our actions even as we were doing them.
And, finally, this brings us back to compassion. As coaches, we need to have self-compassion too. We need to recognise that we are suffering with everyone else the act of being human which means that we too can be drawn into a compelling, powerful narrative.
At this point, empathy can tip over into collusion and we need to bring ourselves back to recognising that the experience is their truth, but the story is just that, a story.
We’re human. We’re vulnerable to being drawn in. It’s OK. Go easy on yourself and just bring yourself back to a more curious mindset.
Always remember that empathy is not collusion and we can step back from colluding without discarding our empathy.
In this article, I hope I’ve made the distinction clear and my great hope is that any coach reading this who struggles to separate the two can step fully into the empathetic self and build more powerful, authentic coaching relationships as a result.