COACHING WITH COMPASSION VS. COACHING FROM DEFICIT What it is, when to use it, and why it matters.

January 14th, 2020 | 22 Comments

By Daniel White & Andy Satter

There’s an old saying that the only humans that like change are babies with wet diapers.

When it comes to behavior change for leaders, executive coaches and managers face a dilemma that we’ve known about for years—giving negative or constructive feedback is hurtful to the recipient. And this pain can interfere with the learning and change that we seek when we give feedback.

But constructive feedback is important. Most of us, except for the clinically depressed, have views of ourselves that are skewed positive.

Cordelia Fine in A Mind of its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives describes the “vain brain” like this: “When asked, people will modestly and reluctantly confess that they are, for example, more ethical, more nobly motivated employees, and better drivers than the average person. In the latter cases, this even includes people interviewed in the hospital shortly after being extracted from the mangled wrecks that were once their cars.”

Another popular adage is that 80% of males believe they are in the top 20% of athletic ability.

An important role of a leader or executive coach is to help people to see their behavior more objectively in order to bridge the gap between the optimistic way people typically view themselves and the more objective way others view them.

Most leadership models emphasize the value of constructive feedback in learning, growth and development, often describing a variety of ways to soften the blow of criticism. One common approach is the “sandwich” statement, a technique where the feedback-provider sandwiches the constructive or negative feedback between two positive statements.
Another approach is the now popular 360-degree feedback process which strives to bridge the “I’m just fine” gap by communicating the perceptions of others, specifically managers, peers, and direct reports. But the fact remains that criticism is painful and is involuntarily perceived as a threat against which we must defend ourselves.
Therein lies the dilemma.

Traditional attempts to help someone else improve are difficult because the messages for change are coming from someone else. These “not from me” messages can reduce the person’s intrinsic motivation to change and even arouse defensiveness.

A potential solution to this dilemma lies in coaching with compassion—the work of  Richard Boyatzis, PhD, Melvin Smith PhD, and Ellen Van Oosten, PhD, whose theory and research applies positive psychology to coaching and leadership development.

Boyatzis’ approach begins the developmental process by asking a person to construct an image of his or her ideal self. This is an expression of who the person wants to be and what they hope to accomplish. By conceptualizing an ideal self, a person shifts the motive for change from Others to Self, and this process becomes a source of emotional, psychological and physical energy. Rather than defending against criticisms from others (think of anti-bodies attacking a virus), their energy can be focused on becoming a leader who is consistent with their own values, interests and passions.

Thanks to neuroscience research, we now know that the personal experience of receiving criticism or constructive feedback stimulates the same brain and nerve centers as the physical pain of being cut with a knife.

This pain then sends the person into a self-protective mode causing them to defend both their physical and social selves, or ego, in an attempt to restore their feeling of being OK. And most significantly, this self-protection compromises a person’s ability to trust, learn, innovate and even listen.

To better understand the rationale for constructing an image of the ideal self, it’s helpful to make a distinction between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

The sympathetic nervous system regulates the human body’s involuntary response to real or perceived threats. When it is activated the body releases the stress hormone cortisol into the bloodstream to prime us to fight, flee, or freeze.

Alternatively, the parasympathetic nervous system regulates the body’s relaxation response and its conservation of energy. When the parasympathetic system is activated the body releases the hormone oxytocin into the bloodstream. This oxytocin promotes social bonding and reduces stress.

Brain researchers can now observe these two discrete neural pathways “lighting up” in the brain with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). An activated sympathetic nervous system preoccupies us with defending ourselves, therefore reducing learning. Conversely, an activated parasympathetic nervous system relaxes us, therefore enhancing listening, learning, and experimentation.

The beauty of Boyatzis’ approach is that it works with rather than against the body’s neurochemistry. Coaching with compassion is like guiding a rowboat that floats easily downstream. Whereas deficit coaching is like rowing against the current.

This is not to say that coaching with compassion is a magic bullet that replaces the tough conversations that need to happen. Instead, a coaching with compassion approach primes the nervous systems of both the feedback recipient and the provider for flexibility and resilience, therefore increasing the likelihood of positive and productive conversations, all leading to meaningful change.

Look for our next blog in this series. We’ll demonstrate how we applied compassionate coaching to help the CEO of a well-known healthcare network, and the VP of a Fortune 500 Health & Beauty company achieve breakthrough results in two different and challenging situations.


Daniel White is an executive coach and organization development consultant. He works with senior and mid-level leaders helping them strengthen their leadership capabilities, focusing on topics such as: leading change, influence, emotional intelligence, role transitions, delegation and conflict resolution. Clients deepen their self-awareness and motivate their learning. They focus on specific, developmental skills and mind-sets. Then practice them in a way that leads to greater leadership effectiveness.
Dan is an active gardener, swimmer, walker and writer. He also chairs an environmental committee that works to create a sustainable community.
Discovery Consulting: 917-902-7466

Andy Satter is a successful executive leadership coach and organization development consultant to Fortune 500 firms, C-Suite executives and their teams, and startup CEOs. He is known for helping executives develop agility and project greater executive presence in the face of rapid change. Andy also provides organization change and strategy consulting. He is an avid hiker, mountain biker, Nordic skier, and award-winning amateur wine maker.
Andy Satter | Founder & CEO Andrew Satter & Associates, Inc.

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