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How to Practise Emotional Intelligence as a Coach

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During your coaching sessions, there will be times when things get emotionally heavy.

It’s natural, it’s human.

At such times, want to be able to manage your own emotions – and enable the client to “fill the space” with their own emotions and thoughts.

You determine how the client feels, at the same time keeping your emotions in check. An effective coach will be there for the client without “getting involved” in the situation’s drama. This is known as emotional intelligence in coaching.

It’s a fine dance between staying committed to your clients’ success and redirecting their emotions to empower them to reach their desired goals.

Here are a few ways to practise emotional intelligence during a coaching session:


Empathy is often confused with sympathy or pity. Pity, for example, is feeling discomfort at the distress of another person.

Sympathy is a feeling of care for the other person, wishing to see them better off. The goal of sympathy is “feeling for” or “feeling with” the other person.

Whereas the goal with empathy is to understand, communicate and facilitate, which more closely aligns with the goals of coaching relationship. A basic guideline is not to invalidate your client’s feelings by “minimalising” or ignoring them.

As coaches, we must constantly learn and develop our capacity to disengage from inappropriate emotions and tap into appropriate and functional emotions.

Our emotions are a major influence on the coaching session and on the client. This impacts the clients and will sway them in terms of outcomes. If you’re overly emotional, they will seek, possibly, to reassure you.

If you’re not expressing emotion, they may seek reassurance from you.

In either case, it is all about you. And that’s not what we’re after in a coaching session.

It’s the responsibility of the coach to notice which emotions we tend to rely on the most, which are not appropriate or would not serve the client, and learn to access more appropriate emotions.

While there is a time and place for any emotion, as the coach, our standards are much higher and we don’t have the luxury to fully express our feelings about something without moving the session focusing on the client to focusing on us.

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Using intuition is equally important as asking empowering questions and practising empathy.

It’s common to be wary of speaking your mind when your intuition tells you something. New coaches especially are worried if they are on the same page as their clients.

You don’t want to break the rapport, and therefore are reluctant to blurt out an “assumption” based on what you intuit.

But here’s the thing: You don’t have to state it – instead, ask for clarification in this way:

My intuition tells me that you . . .

Correct me if I’m wrong, I think . . .

I’m wondering if . . .

Using clarification questions such as above, you calibrate the client. The three-step rule of rapport is to pace, pace and lead.

Once you’re on the same page with the client, you can then lead them – for example, they see you sharing your intuition and do the same. This builds self-awareness in the client, and allows for sustainable change.

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Handling Strong Emotions

Generally speaking, humans are not very comfortable with some of the less-socially acceptable emotions.

We’re okay with happy.

We’re fine with gleeful.

We can do thoughtful.

But we tend to shy away from anger, sadness. Regret, misery, fury…

That said, your clients sometimes need to experience a strong emotion around you, to see if they can trust you.

And then there are times it’s not such a “test”. Be ready and willing and open to the emotion, because you want to be there for them no matter what.

Because if you cannot handle a strong emotion, then how can you handle what they haven’t told you yet?

You cannot coach people if your client is indifferent or disengaged emotionally. You want to welcome their emotional engagement in the journey.

In other words, prefer anger over apathy. Many people use apathy as a protection mechanism – it helps them stay safe in the comfort zone.

Superficially, it looks like a great strategy, but it stops the client from building enriching connections.

It’s not a great strategy to get things done.

When a client shrugs and seem OK with not changing something, you can shrug too.

Now they will really think about it. This will either cause them to decide they are really OK with the way things are, or make them want to do something different about it.

They will say: “No I want to change that.”

Now they are convincing you – that’s great. They are engaged and self-searching for answers.


Surface-level coaching relies on coaching conversation and questions. Deeper-level coaching, in addition to that, shows genuine interest in what the client is communicating.

There is little point in pushing on with the conversation (on the surface) where there can be so much more to it through showing empathy, genuine care and little cues via body language, to name a few.

As an emotionally coach, you open a new doorway for your client to express themselves fully without fearing judgement and building trust in you.

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