Coaching can be a tough gig.

There are so many pitfalls, so many opportunities to make things worse not better.  I am often irritated when I see a coach or Scrum Master mistakenly offer empathy when they should offer sympathy.  That is, they offer soothing platitudes rather than tools for growth & learning.

Sympathy: feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.


Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

So, whilst thinking about this, I came across this podcast from ManagerTools.  I am a bit of a fan girl for their podcast & models, and this particular cast was about “having nothing bad to say’.  They were talking about political situations in the workplace,  but it gave me a really great idea.

I decided to try an experiment at LASCOT16 to consciously find ways in which I could have “nothing bad to say”.  It seemed easy:  don’t gossip,  offer meaningful help, and look for the positive in everything.  I’ve been a coach for a long time, this is how my brain works now.  It’ll be a piece of cake, surely.

It turned out it was harder than I thought!

I am going to share 2 particular situations I encountered to explain why this was.  Apologies if they are a little vague.  I am keen to explore my ‘not saying anything bad’ as opposed to them & their particular circumstance.

Example 1:

A friend of mine was feeling offended.

So, when someone tells you about a bad experience they have had, you naturally want to support them.  This can easily translate into taking their side (against the perceived offender in this case).  I identified 2 reasons for this.

First, they are present right now.  The immediacy of their presence gives their side of the story extra weight, even to a careful or balanced thinker.

Second, they come to you with a pedigree, i.e.they are your friend, and you already know and like them.  Because of this, you already trust their opinion.  If they tell you something is so, your inclination is to believe them.  That’s friendship.

But what if their bad experience was at the hand of another friend?  Now whose side do you take?  You can’t possible know the whole story – you weren’t there.

So this was my dilemma.

How could I be sympathetic or empathetic without agreeing with a ‘bad’ point of view?  Without choosing one friend over another?  Without having something bad to say in my new experiment?

I tried a couple of tentative mollifiers.

“Perhaps they just expressed themselves poorly, and didn’t intend to insult you”.

“We all say things that come out of our mouths sounding different to how they sounded in our heads. Perhaps they meant something different.”

I was assured this was not the case – of course it wasn’t, and certainly not from the view point of an offended party.  I also knew this wasn’t a great approach.

I thought about it some more before I saw my friend again.  The approach I had just used had done nothing but disenfranchise the person to whom I was speaking.  Looking back I could see that in essence I was saying:

This is YOUR fault not theirs, YOU misunderstood them.

It wasn’t them that was rude, it was YOU that was over sensitive.

I didn’t like the way this felt at all.  And if it didn’t sit well with me, I can only imagine it being less than helpful to my friend too.  Next time I would try another approach, but I will come back to that.

Example 2:

Later, I had another opportunity to try “having nothing bad to say”, but with a different person and in a different circumstance.

A fellow speaker asked me to give them some feedback on their talk which I had seen.  The request was made whilst we were chatting in a group of people.  I had no time to prepare or think about what I wanted to say.

A little context first.

I feel it is important to give feedback – especially when it is specifically requested.  It is an honour for your opinion to be worthy of being sought, and it should be treated as such.

So phrasing feedback should be done with care.  “Sorry, that’s not what I meant” won’t cut it once you’ve blurted something thoughtless and poorly worded.

I also think it is important not to take easy road of “everything is fine”.   People in the agile world rarely ask for feedback as an ego boost, they are genuinely looking for ways in which they can improve for next time.

Getting back to the Example

With all these things in mind, I needed to give feedback framed in a thoughtful way.  I feel I managed to do this.  (It was a great talk, and I had enjoyed it.  Yet, there are always a few things we can do better at next time.)  I gave some honest and useful feedback, allmost well-phrased (after all, I was on the spot a bit!) and we agreed to talk more later.

Then it struck me – this had been much easier to ‘have nothing bad to say’ than other times, why was that?  I realised it was because this is the way I always give feedback.  I was practiced at it, and it was such a  habit that it felt natural.

I had an epiphany.

Returning to Experiment 1:

So now, in all my later interactions with my offended friend, I could allow them to vent their feelings (some people need to talk about things more than others).

When I needed to respond I could now offer things like: “I can see you are obviously upset by this”, “You are understandably angry about feeling offended”.

I could use inquiry to ask “Was this just one event? Could this have just been them having a bad day?”

In this way I was able to listen, yet never put myself in the position of sharing that point of view.  After all, I wasn’t there, and can’t possibly have a point of view.

It is important to add here, that not judging or taking a side based on one side of a story must be one of the hardest things to do whilst maintaining empathy.

What did I learn?

I am loving this experiment, which I am continuing with in an effort to learn more about how I use language, as well as do my best to build this into a habit.

I like myself a lot better after these sorts of interactions now that I am not slipping up so often and falling into a partisan point of view.

I do have views (quite strong ones in some cases), but I don’t need to express them at every opportunity.  To use a phrase I remind other scrum masters to remember:  Its not about me.   And it shouldn’t be about someone who isn’t present either.

Using kind words to frame a thought is definitely harder, but that’s just a habit, and one I am keen to embrace.

With this experiment (to have nothing bad to say) I still sometimes I miss my mark, which makes me feel bad.  Terrible in fact.  I felt bad before I embarked on this experiment, and now that I have, I feel terrible if I get it wrong.

I keep writing and speaking about how habits are hard to form.  But here’s a twist: how can I possibly use unkind words to myself about my own behaviour, when I am trying so hard to never use them with another person?  How can I set myself up to be so intolerant of my own failure, if I am actively seeking to help other people with theirs in a more kindly fashion.

Self compassion, people.  Remember that too!