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Connecting through listening: giving empathy and creating coaching presence

Have you ever felt that you have been completely accepted and understood? Do you know that connection between two or more human beings, who despite different opinions, value and respect each other? Did you ever support someone because you liked him or her, and you felt respected?

You can create this bond, this respect, and this level of understanding with your counterparts. Imagine you having a language to describe what is going on inside you, and in your counterpart. You can formulate requests and give your needs a voice that can be heard – and that people are inclined to follow.

Rosenberg, an American psychologist, mediator, and author who developed non-violent communication in the 1960s, compared this ability to learning a new language – the language of life. Because what makes us humans alike is that we have feelings that are a result of needs being met - or not met. We all need things like security, love, acknowledgment, and sustenance. How many human needs can you name? How differentiated is your language of life?

The psychological mechanism behind this is that needs that are satisfied produce nice feelings and needs that are not met cause uncomfortable feelings. There are no bad feelings. All feelings are helpful because they can tell us what need is underlying. If we can know, name and meet that need, we produce pleasant feelings. If people feel pleasant, they are willing to cooperate, they reach their goals better, and they are happier in the first place.

With this perspective, there is also no negative behaviour and no toxic people. Once we are willing to get involved and understand that there are only human beings having needs that are met or unmet needs. If we feel pleasant because our needs are met, talking about it creates a bond. If we are having unmet needs, we can find a way to get them met. Talking about this also creates cooperation and understanding.

Feelings point to needs

It might be easier to fall back to usual patterns of conflict and back-biting. Culturally we are trained to keep our defenses high, and being professional often is understood as keeping emotions out of work. Showing emotions publicly is often not rewarded. Yet as coaches, we work with emotions and we help people feel good about their tasks, duties, dreams, and lives. Because we only change what we like to. And so dealing with emotions becomes part of our professional repertoire.

If you have heard about the concept of emotional intelligence, it’s that. It’s knowing why we are triggered with anger, sadness and frustration, or triggered with happiness and feel energized. And then, going one step further and being able to influence our moods, give our needs names and get them met. This means taking responsibility for ourselves and others as whole human beings with emotions, brains and bodies. This means a kind of empowerment, and many people, many leaders are looking forward to growing this.

Your skills as a coach in this technique help in two ways: seeing when someone is triggered, naming what is happening, and helping your coachee to find words for the feelings, needs, and values involved. This way leaders can learn to be more inclusive, to have more energy available through focussing, to have more trust and rely less on micro-managing, to have more clarity through knowledge that really matters to them and their organizations. This means they have their hands free for the real stuff: reaching goals of their organizations, and bringing the team together.

Conflict does not disappear, instead, it becomes an opportunity to align people: acknowledging how they feel, finding out what they need, we call that ‘giving empathy’. This allows us to request what they need, and because this understanding always goes both sides in a conflict, people are more willing to cooperate. The coachee can learn this from the coach and gradually introduce empathy into their practice.

‘I feel frustrated when you don’t deliver results, like today. I need commitment and reliability from you. I request you to show respect through holding up to your commitments’.

The second way this ‘empathy’ technique helps is with self-management. As a coach you might be triggered, feeling small, threatened, frustrated, or connected and happy. Having control over your emotions, finding words for them and requesting what you need becomes crucial. You are a role model for others. You are giving a demonstration. And through this, you create the coaching presence you need to be heard and valued.

A good way to practice empathy is with a conversation partner. One listens deeply, without speaking, just looking and encouraging with eye contact, nodding and smiling. It’s about identifying or guessing, maybe noting down feelings and needs for at least 10 minutes. The speaker could speak about anything that happened today, so it is recent. After a time, share what feelings and needs you heard, and see what impact this sharing has on each other. Do you feel more centred, connected and calm? Did you get insights, do you feel understood? That’s where you want to explore.

Here is a list of common feelings and needs:

Further reading:

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, By Marshall B. Rosenberg


About the Author:

Stefan Bannach is a Bali based consultant, trainer, and coach with more than 15 years of experience working in Germany, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. He has extensive experience in moderating and facilitating multi-stakeholder processes in a participative way, as well as setting up training modules in the fields of communication, team development, conflict management, participatory planning, and moderation.


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