Now, more than ever, compassion must be part of our coaching conversations. Like mindful meditation, it restores balance and calm to both coach and client

Many of us are somewhere on the scale of anxiety about what might happen next Covid-wise – the risk of standing too close to a stranger, catching the virus from an asymptomatic colleague, or our family members being exposed to it.

Many parents are wondering, with bated breath, if and when their children’s attendance at school will be interrupted by unexpected quarantine – and so whether their own availability to work will be jeopardised.

Some employees are wondering how long their jobs will last or whether redundancy is around the next corner. Business owners are living day-to-day and week-to-week with the hope that their businesses will survive the global recession. Employers are holding their breath in case the next Covid surge impacts their workforce. We’re all living with the threat of the next constraint or the next precaution, or the promise of the next piece of freedom.

As a coach, I’m aware that I may also be holding my breath as I enter my clients’ systems and engage with their anxieties and aspirations – albeit temporarily. The impediment to flow that that can create means, I realise, that empathy can blur the boundary with the connected separateness that allows me to be present to their challenges but not jump into their hole with them. This connected separateness means I can be present to resignation rather than acceptance, to clients’ longing for perspectives to be clearer and for a sense of being more in control, while simultaneously knowing that the clarity, answers and control they want are impossible.

In contexts such as this, I’m aware that if I hold my breath, my body becomes tenser and my thinking less versatile. I can feel the interruption to the flow of my energy and the fluidity of my thinking.

Many people who meditate experience the benefits of deeper breathing. And it occurs to me that in some senses compassion – which can be nourished by mindfulness meditation – can be the bridge between holding our breath and inhibiting our thinking, on the one hand, and the kind of breathing that can help equip both the client and me to restore balance and calm, and thus greater effectiveness.

Through Coaching through Covid, I’m privileged to have recently been able to undertake the Compassion Cultivation Training offered by The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University in the US.

A significant part of the training involved mindfulness meditation (with all the benefits for – and from – breathing that that enables). When I bring more of a compassionate perspective to my coaching, I notice that my breathing slows down, that my capacity to engage with broader perspectives is of a different quality, and that the client’s breath changes too, from holding to releasing.

Compassion includes the desire to relieve the suffering of another person as we accompany them on their journey. When I’m more compassionate, I’m more aware of my breath (physically and metaphorically) in response to the coaching client’s challenges or anxieties – and I can consciously interrogate the place of my breath in specific coaching interactions.

I’m now becoming more curious about how my breath may be encouraging or inhibiting the impact of the coaching interaction. On to the next step in my learning.

  • Lindsay Wittenberg is director of Lindsay Wittenberg Ltd. She is an executive coach who specialises in authentic leadership, career development and cross-cultural coaching