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Unlocking Empathy: A Judgment-less Coaching Culture

The Educational Coach

27 Mar 2024

A reflection of Carl Rogers’ teaching, a humanistic psychologist

In its entirety, this blog is in reflection of Carl Rogers’ teaching, a humanistic psychologist. Despite facing criticism his whole professional career, his understanding of the human psyche is one in which we can all learn from. In particular, there is one learning that has great importance to our mission in creating a coaching culture through conversation. 

It follows:

‘If I let myself really understand another person, I might be changed by that understanding. And we all fear change.’

This nugget of insight, extracted from Rogers' seminal work, "Becoming a Person," serves as a guiding principle for those seeking to deepen their understanding of others.

To fully comprehend another individual, Rogers posits, we must first allow ourselves to do so without judgment. Now, here is the catch. When someone expresses a feeling or belief, without conscious thought, we have a tendency to judge. This judgment places a barrier in between us. A hierarchy, a criticism and, ultimately, a removal of ourselves from them. This is natural, of course, as a protective strategy - evolutionary adaptive for survival. But, it caps and limits our potential for growth and empathy.

Only by shedding our preconceptions and embracing empathy can we truly grasp the essence of another person. This act of empathetic understanding, however, is not without its challenges. It requires us to confront our fear of change, as delving into another's perspective may inevitably alter our own. Yet, it is precisely this vulnerability that lays the foundation for genuine empathy—the ability to see the world through another's eyes and, in doing so, transform both ourselves and others.

In the realm of coaching, Rogers' insights find practical application, yielding profound benefits for both coaches and their clients. Countless anecdotes attest to the transformative power of empathy in coaching relationships, where individuals often experience moments of clarity and self-discovery.

When we are trying to improve the quality of our everyday conversations, the research suggests practicing permitting ourselves fully to other people offers a unique view into you (Hunt, 2009)  It is important to note that Looking AS is not the same as “empathize with” or “connect to,” but instead involves being able to step into another person’s shoes, to get inside their world (as best as another being can), and look out at the world through their eyes with one’s body, heart, and mind. Figure 1. Shows how looking at another person’s lens has the capacity to reach empathy within our conversations, rather than judging the person through an ‘at’ lens. 

As we strive to improve the quality of our everyday conversations, Rogers' lessons offer invaluable guidance. By embracing empathy and confronting our fear of change, we unlock the transformative potential of conversation, fostering a culture of growth, understanding, and connection.

To support this, Exciting new research from the United States sheds light on the transformative power of empathy in instructional coaching. McGugan et al. (2023) delved into the realm of teachers' emotions during coaching sessions, revealing a profound impact on professional development.

The study focused on a poignant and emotional coaching event involving a mathematics teacher whose lesson was unexpectedly interrupted, leading to a surge of negative emotions. In response, the coach provided empathetic support, guiding the teacher through the emotional turmoil and fostering a sense of resilience. Remarkably, this experience sparked a transformative journey for the teacher, ultimately inspiring her to reassess and enhance her teaching practice.

Teachers often find themselves navigating a delicate balance between professional expectations and personal authenticity. Oplatka (2009) highlights the pervasive pressure to conform to societal norms, which can obscure their true selves. In this context, empathetic coaching serves as a beacon of authenticity, providing a safe space for teachers to express themselves freely and embrace growth.

The impact of empathetic coaching extends far beyond individual experiences, as evidenced by the ripple effect observed in the study. By adopting a supportive stance and offering ongoing guidance, coaches empower teachers to navigate challenging emotions and embark on a journey of self-discovery. This transformative process not only enhances teaching practices but also reshapes perceptions of what it means to be an effective educator.

The teacher explains: 

“Even when it was hard and emotional, you guys have always really honored who we are and the hard work that we do, but also whether it went well or not, pushed us to think about how to improve” (Interview 4, May 2019).’

In essence, the research underscores the pivotal role of coaching conversations as catalysts for personal and professional growth. By cultivating empathy and providing sustained support, coaches can foster a culture of learning and resilience within educational settings. As educators embrace the transformative power of empathy, they redefine the landscape of teaching and inspire future generations.

To conclude, let's explore actionable strategies for fostering empathetic conversations in educational contexts. Thomas Gordon's framework (1970) offers invaluable insights into behaviors to avoid. 

Thomas Gordon has outlined twelve kinds of responses that are not coaching or perceptive reflections (1970): 

1. Ordering, directing, or commanding 

2. Warning, cautioning, or threatening 

3. Giving advice, making suggestions, or providing solutions 

4. Persuading with logic, arguing, or lecturing

 5. Telling people what they should do; moralizing 

6. Disagreeing, judging, criticizing, or blaming 

7. Agreeing, approving, or praising

8. Shaming, ridiculing, or labeling

 9. Interpreting or analyzing 

10.Reassuring, sympathizing, or consoling 

11.Questioning or probing 

12.Withdrawing, distracting, humoring, or changing the subject

By refraining from these responses, educators can create an environment of mutual respect and understanding, paving the way for meaningful connections and transformative experiences.


Hunt, J. (2009). TRANSFORMATIONAL CONVERSATIONS: The Four Conversations of Integral Coaching. Journal of Integral Theory & Practice, 4(1).

McGugan, K. S., Horn, I. S., Garner, B., & Marshall, S. A. (2023). “Even when it was hard, you pushed us to improve”: Emotions and teacher learning in coaching conversations. Teaching and Teacher Education, 121, 103934.

Oplatka, I. (2009). Emotion management and display in teaching: Some ethical and moral considerations in the era of marketization and commercialization. Advances in teacher emotion research: The impact on teachers’ lives, 55-71. 

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