A to Z of coaching: C – Compassion

Given the choice of picking a word beginning with ‘c’, most coaches wouldn’t pick compassion.

More conventional choices would include change, or confidence, or competencies. For the same reason that many leaders adjust their facial expression when they talk about ’soft skills’, compassion is still seen as unsafe ground where the messiness of feelings could derail the project plan.

From my professional experience, I’ve discovered compassion to be a foundational element in coaching. And it’s likely to become more easily understood as coaching continues its evolution from an industrial to a humanistic paradigm.

Much of our coaching work is focused on improvement. And that often means getting clearer on things that could be better in some way. If the work isn’t grounded in compassion then there’s a risk of developing a harshness of tone, or of weaponising self-criticism as a means to make progress.

Finding fault with what you’re doing or ‘beating yourself up’ is exhausting. If it gives a sense of reward in the moment, that utility is fleeting. Coaching without compassion is unsustainable.

When we allow ourselves to work on improving our situation, we’re revealing that we truly care about ourselves and the world immediately around us. As we do so, we also learn that when it comes to caring it’s better when we go ‘all in’ and open ourselves to a mindset of compassion.

My favourite quotation on this topic comes from the meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein.

Compassion is the motivation to alleviate suffering, to alleviate harm.

When it’s developed, it opens us to whatever suffering is in front of us and it overcomes the arising of indifference and inaction.

Joseph helps us realise that compassion is an antidote to avoidance, a very common starting point for much of our professional struggle. Developing our ability to be compassionate allows us to sit more easily with our reality, allowing us to gain the kind of clarity that enables us to act more appropriately.

Rather than being the opposite of being ‘a tough guy’, being compassionate requires courage. And sometimes that is uncomfortable.

Compassion is worth practicing, and here are a couple of useful exercises to apply to yourself.

1. To whom are you speaking?

I sometimes ask my coaching clients how they would speak to their best friend, a beloved sibling or even their own child if they found themselves in the same situation. This often leads to an emotional moment. Why wouldn’t you speak to yourself in the same way?

2. Improving your inner dialogue

If you’ve realised that your self-talk tends to be negative and likely interfering with your ability to perform, how do you address that? Two phases: initially, work on just noticing. Catch yourself using particular words or concepts. Develop a radar-like scanning ability. Once your awareness is raised, then experiment with adjusting your language. Try flipping some of the ‘shoulds’ into ‘I get to…’ or reframe some criticism into “Ok, that’s useful, now I can…..”. All while developing your self-compassion.


This post was adapted from one of Aodan’s Sunday morning newsletters, eagerly anticipated by hundreds of readers. Give yourself the gift of that weekly wisdom by signing up here.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *