Monday, December 17, 2012

Understanding empathy as a mirror neuron tool in a coach kit

Posted on Monday, December 17, 2012 by International Coach Federation

There are numerous examples in our day to day life where we relate to other people’s experiences almost as if they were our own.  A person watching a football game can feel the rush and excitement almost to the same extent as the players themselves. While watching suspense movies, we find ourselves totally immersed in the experience of the movie characters. How one is able to tune into other people’s experiences, emotions and intentions so easily and instinctively?

This phenomenon of being able to mentally experience the other person’s experience brings a lot of value to the field of Coaching. Most coaches are skilled, aware and knowledgeable. They do their best to help and support their clients. Still, some have this mysterious ‘human’ factor that makes them more successful with their clients. Sometimes, when we can ‘relate’ to the other person’s experience, conversation seems to flow effortlessly while at other times, it may quickly lose direction and it becomes a struggle to keep it going. While there can be a number of reasons for it, ‘empathy’ is certainly one extremely important attribute of a good coach. An empathetic person will definitely make a great coach. A coach who instinctively understands what a client is going through is more likely to win client’s trust.  Why is it sometimes easier to establish rapport with some people while it seems hard with some others? The connection or the rapport could simply be the empathy factor.

In an interesting study published in Family medicine 2009 by the researchers at the University of Wisconsin, the effect that practitioner empathy had on the severity and duration of cold in their patients was studied. The result showed that the participants whose physicians showed higher levels of empathy had less severe and shorter cold than the participants who scored their physicians lower on empathy. This amazing study proves very well that empathy can have healing effect.  An empathetic coaching relationship can also bring about similar powerful positive transformation in the client.

The important question is whether we are born with it or can we develop it?

A relatively recent discovery in the field of Neurosciences explains quite a bit. There are specialized cells called ‘Mirror Neurons’ which respond at the same level whether the action is performed by self or another person in front. Mirror Neurons help us perceive not only the other person’s emotions but intention behind his action as well. Another fascinating research finding is that mirror neurons ‘feel’ others, rather than thinking/analyzing them. Before this finding, it was generally believed that our brains use logical thought processes to interpret and predict other people’s actions. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have found compelling evidence that people who are more empathetic possess a particular variation of the oxytocin receptor gene. So, Empathy is a genetically determined trait. In this study, the most empathetic were able to get an accurate read on others' emotions. This ability can bestow important advantage in terms of handling people and situations. In contrast, members of the other groups were found to be less capable of putting themselves in the shoes of others and more likely to get stressed out in difficult situations. Those who do not consider themselves as empathetic should not despair as the researchers suggest that it is still possible to be caring and empathetic by sincerely trying harder. Another beautiful promise of recent times is the concept of ‘Neuroplasticity’. Neuroplasticity is the capacity of the brain to change itself by constantly practicing the desired behavior. Therefore, it is definitely possible to train our brain to be more empathetic!

Himani Tyagi is a youth and career coach, currently pursuing her professional coach certification from International Coach Academy. She holds a PhD in Molecular Biology and has a lot of experience in research and teaching. She is passionate about Neurosciences and its implications in improving everyday life. She is seeking to integrate Neurosciences into her coaching approach to help people better their lives. She is a mom to two beautiful boys. Himani loves to read and spend time with her family.

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