Empathy Mapping Technique for Life Coaches

The "empathy mapping" tool is well known in the world of tech and product design. Here’s how we can apply it as life coaches to better understand our clients.

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Empathy Mapping Technique for Life Coaches

Empathy mapping is a well known tool in the technology industry. It comes from human-centered design theory, and involves exploring the world through the eyes of the customer or client to better understand their behaviors and needs.

According to the user experience community UX Booth, “creating an effective solution requires understanding the true problem and the person who is experiencing it. The exercise of creating the map helps participants consider things from the user’s perspective along with his or her goals and challenges.”

So what is empathy mapping, exactly? It’s a method for deeply understanding a person, particularly in a specific situation.

How Do We Do It?

Empathy is more than a personal virtue. It’s a tool, and a critical coaching skillset. It is also something that can be learned. 

To cultivate empathy, we must take the time to understand somebody else’s perspective from a 360º view. It involves a compassionate investigation of the world as they see it, and how their point of view impacts what they might think, say, or do.

Empathy mapping involves both how we listen, and the quality of questions that we ask.

It involves bringing our full curiosity to what our client:

  • Says
  • Does
  • Hears
  • Thinks

It invites us to take the time to fully investigate: 

  • What are their Pains?
  • What are their Gains?

When we practice empathy mapping we need to be concurrently aware of both what the other person is telling us alongside our own blockers and barriers. When we do this we are not just “mapping”, but engaging in the practice of developing empathy itself.  

According to the Harvard Business Review, we can build our empathy skills by:

  • Listening as if what the person is saying to you is the most important thing in the world.
  • Carefully considering what the other person’s perspective might be. “All of our lived experiences differ in some way, so be tolerant of the possibility that you may have different perspectives.”
  • Noticing what barriers you may face in trying to understand the other person. This could include assumptions you may be making about them, what you need from them, or your own reactivity.

In a coaching session, we may miss out on really rich data points if we keep the conversation at a surface level. To use Empathy Mapping properly, it’s vital to keep expressing interest in what your client is sharing. Go deep and ask questions until you really feel like you can take a 360 walk around their world on the specific issue at hand.

According to International Coaching Federation standards, taking time to do this type of deep dive serves both the coach and client.

What we know is that a specific pain point that a client is bringing into the coaching session that day is usually just the tip of the iceberg. Often, the issue at hand has created difficulty before, or at least shown up in other aspects of a client's life. An important part of your role as a coach is to pull back to see the wider view, and draw awareness to a client's whole life.

Exercise for Coaches: Pre-Session Prep

As a coach, it’s important to acknowledge that you are a human and have a whole life too! To do the deep work of truly empathizing with another person, we have to prepare ourselves and get into the right mindset. 

One strategy offered by the Harvard Business Review that can help prime you to go deep with your clients involves taking time to attend to your own nervous system first.

Before a coaching session begins, pause for a moment and try the following:

  • Tilt your chin down, so it feels like your head is gently suspended from above. 
  • Scan your body for a feeling of gentle lengthening in your neck. 
  • Relax your shoulders down. 
  • Feel your belly expand with your in-breath and relax back down with your out-breath.
  • Really notice your environment. 

According to the Harvard Business Review, “these steps can calm your nervous system and make you feel more grounded and centered in the present moment. It’ll help you to give the other person your undivided attention, which is a real gift in our world of constant digital distractions.”

The Impact of Empathy Mapping

Adopting an empathetic perspective as a coach is hard and important work. There are also some surprising benefits that emerge for coaches who master this skill.

Treating people with empathy benefits both coach and client! Empathy mapping not only makes the person on the receiving end feel good, but also brings about a powerful to secondary flow of kindness from the coach practitioner.  

Kindness is an active form of engagement that flows from empathy.

Studies show that if a person is empathetic they will be able to deeply understand a situation and put the needs of others above their own. This leads to behaviors that benefit others, fostering feelings of positivity and peer acceptance that lead to increased wellbeing and positive social bonds. 

According to Random Acts of Kindness, engaging in empathy based acts of kindness reduces pain, stress, anxiety, depression, and blood pressure.

Christine Carter from the UC Berkeley, Greater Good Science Center says that this kind of behavior can also cause a boost in energy: “About half of participants in one study reported that they feel stronger and more energetic after helping others; many also reported feeling calmer and less depressed, with increased feelings of self-worth.”  

Practicing empathy not only benefits your clients - it also pays dividends in terms of your own fulfillment and well-being as a coach.

The value of this process is that it allows you to relate to others in ways that you may not have previously considered. Empathy supports us in developing compassion, which in turn changes the way that we think, feel, and behave. (In coaching, and in life!)

Ready To Put Empathy in Action As A Coach?

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