How the ancient mindfulness practice of loving-kindness meditation can turbo-charge your coaching. Paul Heardman reports
We all know those quintessential lightbulb moments, when how we see the world suddenly shifts and things are never quite the same again. One of the great joys of coaching is being present when our clients experience such moments. I had my own flash of insight on a small Spanish island a few years ago and it transformed my approach to coaching.
It was May 2013 and I found myself in Menorca for a week-long mindfulness course, my first foray into the world of meditation. Menorca may be the least known of the Balearic isles, but it proved the ideal place to discover mindfulness. Over the week, we covered typical introductory mindfulness practices, like trying to eat a raisin mindfully (harder than it sounds!) and scanning the body.
On the penultimate day, we were introduced to something called a ‘befriending meditation’, a practice aimed squarely at generating greater rapport – both with ourselves and with others – and I was hooked. I wondered why I had never heard of it before and instantly knew it would be a powerful new tool, both in my life and as a coach.
So what is it? Professor Mark Williams of Oxford University (the man who famously taught Ruby Wax about mindfulness) coined the term ‘befriending meditation’1 to describe a five-step meditation practice aimed at generating feelings of goodwill towards oneself and others.
In short, it is a visualisation practice where we actively call up compassionate feelings which we then intentionally target towards ourselves and those we are close to, progressively widening out to include those we don’t know and even for people we find difficult.
It is a methodology that draws on meditative approaches which have been used in spiritual traditions for thousands of years. In Buddhism, it is often known as a loving-kindness meditation (or LKM).
Sharon Salzberg2 is one of the best-known authors and teachers in bringing this approach to the West in the 1970s. But it is also used in many secular contexts. For example, in the therapeutic and self-help domains, variations of this approach are becoming popular. Meditation teacher, author and therapist Chris Germer3 – who uses the term compassion or self-compassion meditation – argues this brings an essential quality of openheartedness to mindfulness, which, he suggests, is especially important in personal transformation work. Germer says this helps us ‘hold’ our experience in a warm-hearted way, making change more possible.
How is all this relevant to coaching? I recently researched this question as part of my Master’s in Coaching at Henley Business School. My interviews with coaches who regularly use some form of LKM practice revealed strong positive correlations for two key outcomes: enhanced self-awareness by the coach and stronger rapport in the coaching relationship.
It also appears to improve the coach’s resilience, coaching presence and help generate better coaching outcomes for clients.
Recent discoveries in neuroscience help explain what might be going on. Lewis et al4 cite research on how LKM strengthens the functioning of the body’s vagus nerve, which plays a vital role in our ability to read other people’s emotions, something known as limbic resonance. Daniel Goleman (who popularised the term ‘emotional intelligence’) has also found that LKM can significantly strengthen the functioning of the brain’s insula and temporal parietal juncture, which are both involved in empathetic processing and perceiving the mental and emotional state of others.
Prize-winning psychology professor, Barbara Fredrickson, has demonstrated similar findings.5 She shows how LKM can be effective in quietening the amygdala, the part of the brain which drives our fight-flight-freeze response to fear. This, in turn, reduces the internal critic. Science is also now showing how LKM boosts levels of the hormone oxytocin, which plays a key role in increasing interpersonal trust.
According to Fredrickson, oxytocin even stimulates tiny muscles in the face and ears which help us see and hear better. This could explain why coaches who use these methods report improved listening skills and ability to remain present throughout a coaching session.
This field of research is still pretty cutting edge so there is more groundwork to be done. But it appears to provide an interesting scientific explanation for what coaches on the ground who are using LKM are already reporting as their direct experience.
Unconditional positive regard
It is more than 50 years since legendary psychologist Carl Rogers coined the term ‘unconditional positive regard’. Erik de Haan, professor of coaching at Ashridge, argues6 for the continuing and fundamental importance of a warm, supportive coaching relationship over and above any particular technique we might use.
LKM appears to be one effective route to helping the coach develop such qualities in the coaching relationship. It has certainly changed how I coach. It wasn’t what I was expecting when I set foot on Menorca for that week of mindfulness back in 2013. But I am glad it did.
- Paul Heardman is a coach and supervisor with the UK Civil Service’s internal coaching programme. He was recently awarded Henley Business School’s top prize in coaching and graduated with distinction in a Master’s in Coaching and Behavioural Change.
Case study: Tackling the inner critic
Miranda has a thriving coaching practice, getting most of her business by personal referrals. Despite being a successful coach, however, she has struggled with a strong inner critic, which undermined her confidence.
Miranda found that her regular LKM practice dramatically reduced the power of her inner critic. It still comes up, but now she is “able to smile at it rather than buying into its attacks”. Her practice just before sessions boosts her confidence. As the internal chatter has reduced, Miranda is now more consistently present with her clients.
She says: “Before I developed this practice, I could be quite hard on myself if I fell short of my expectations. While I operated like that, I was less good at seeing this was what my clients were doing too. Now I am more at peace with myself and more present.”
- Try integrating a loving-kindness meditation into your existing mindfulness practice. There are numerous free online guided meditations,
eg, Barbara Fredrickson’s www.positivityresonance.com or Mark Williams’ befriending meditation: www.franticworld.com
- Short but regular practices appear the most effective way to harness the benefits. Even relatively infrequent experience of this meditation has been shown to have positive effects. But the brain’s neuroplasticity means that regular practice is what embeds change
- It can be useful as, what one coach called, a “top-up of positivity” just prior to a coaching session to quieten your inner critic or boost rapport. Some coaches even use it just before chemistry sessions to increase their chances of winning that coaching contract
- Focus on your own LKM practice first before being tempted to offer it to clients. If you are minded to introduce it to a particular client, finding the right language is important so we meet clients where they are. Some of this terminology may well be off-putting, particularly in a corporate context. “Compassionate coaching” or “mindful self-compassion” are some of the terms coaches use to avoid being seen as “pink and fluffy”
A note of caution
Loving-kindness meditation can be powerfully effective in improving presence and rapport. But because it is so powerful, it can also get behind people’s defences, particularly if there is unhealed trauma or other emotional wounding. So most of the coaches I interviewed for my research are cautious about offering this technique directly to clients. Their focus is more on integrating loving-kindness into their own meditation practice as coaches. So if this is a new area for you, that might be the place to start.
What other coaches say who use loving-kindness meditation:
- “My loving-kindness meditation helps me be less opinionated, less judgemental …. The feedback from my coachees is they feel very unjudged and accepted”
- “The biggest difference it makes is the nature of the improved relationship you develop with your client”
- “Compassion is what enables people to move out of fear-based responses”
- “Loving-kindness is not about having something clever to say or trying to change anyone, or applying a technique or process. It is about being with, a seeing and honoring of the uniqueness and interconnectedness of someone”
Case study: Boosting rapport with clients
David is an in-demand leadership coach, working mainly with blue chip corporates, particularly in sales environments. Although the work is well-paid, David is often not in sync with what he see as his clients’ ultra-competitive values.
So David uses loving-kindness meditation as part of his preparation for these sessions, helping him find greater empathy and rapport with his more difficult clients.
He now reports: “Through cultivating more kindness, I am able to have a greater sense of warmth to other people, a greater ability to see things from the other person’s perspective, to listen more deeply.”
1 M Williams and D Penman, Mindfulness: a Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, London: Piaktus, 2013
2 S Salzberg, Loving-kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, Massachusetts: Shambhala, 2002
3 C Germer, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, New York: The Guilford Press, 2009
4 T Lewis, F Amini and R Lannon, A General Theory of Love, New York: Random House, 2000
5 B Fredrickson, Love 2:0, New York: Penguin, 2014
6 E De Haan, Relational Coaching, Chichester, UK: John Wiley, 2008
Publisher’s note: article revised on 27/11/17