Is empathy important?

That’s the question with which my client – let’s call him Andy – opened a recent session.

‘Is empathy important? I’ve got a guy in my department who is technically brilliant at his job. I also have a vacancy for a team leader. On paper, this guy’s the obvious choice. However, he never seems very empathetic. I guess the fact I’m even asking you the question means that I do think it’s important,’ he explained.

‘How would you describe someone who is empathetic?’ I asked.

‘They listen and make sure that they understand your perspective. They don’t just sympathise with you but they make you feel heard. They can’t always change things to be the way you want them to be but they can acknowledge that you feel like that. They are open about issues that they may have.’

‘And why might all that be important in a work context?’

‘I think it builds trust. You feel more comfortable being open with someone who really listens to you and is willing to share their experiences with you. An empathetic boss is great at holding a team together because they’re aware of the motivations and challenges of the team members. It spreads a culture of empathy within the team and that means that conflict is less likely and more easily nipped in the bud. If we practise empathy with each other, that could help us be more empathetic towards our users and customers and then produce better products which ultimately is good for business.’

Research professor of psychiatry, Mohammadreza Hojat, believes that empathy can be taught. “Empathy is a cognitive attribute, not a personality trait.” In that case, we can strengthen our empathetic ability. Andy and I discussed this and came up with the following ideas for exercising our empathy:

Five ways in which we can strengthen our empathetic ability

Be curious

If someone holds a different opinion to you, don’t just decide that you’re simply never going to get on: find out more. Ask them to explain how they have arrived at that opinion. They may widen your view of a situation. Be prepared to change your mind!

Be attentive 

Listen wholeheartedly. If you don’t have time for an undistracted conversation, say so and arrange a time to talk. If you’d like some ideas on how to be a more effective listener, try out the SIER technique in my post ‘Are you all ears?’.

Be open

Empathy isn’t just about listening – it’s about talking too. Opening up about your own situation can help to build rapport, understanding and trust.

Be prepared to walk in another person’s shoes

We hear of method actors who chose to stay in character whilst making a film, even going to extremes at times. In a work context, you may choose to go and spend a couple of days shadowing another team to discover how you can improve your working relationship with them. In Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, Atticus Finch says to his daughter:

“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Be aware

The word ’empathy’ literally means being ‘in feeling’ with someone: that requires you to be aware of how you are feeling. Being emotionally aware can sometimes be tricky – if that’s the case for you, an emotional body scan can help. As your understanding of your own emotional state grows, so will your ability to identify the emotions felt by others.

In a commencement address at Northwestern in 2006, Barak Obama said that empathy is a quality of character that can change the world. If that’s true, then empathy can change the team you work in, your friendships, even the conversation you have with your family over the dinner table.

Today’s pebble for you to ponder: could you do with strengthening your empathetic ability?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’re ready to transform your work or your life, why not email me to see how we can work together?

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Do you want your group to make better decisions? Try a stepladder!

Here is a scenario which has come up in discussions with several of my coaching clients over the years: do you recognise it?

You are in a meeting where it seems that the same people contribute all the time. You value their contribution and you know you will leave the meeting with a decision having been made. However, your experience outside such meetings means that you know that the others have something to offer too. Perhaps your issue is that your group knows each other so well that they have even started to think alike!

How can you make sure that everybody’s opinions can be heard? Can you avoid groupthink?

Is there a way of doing both of these and still reaching a decision?

I think there is: the Stepladder Technique. Imagine you are creating a stepladder, rung by rung, and at the top is your decision.

Rung one:

Present the issue to the team. Stick to the facts – don’t offer your own opinions. Inform the team that they will be given time to consider the issue as individuals before a decision is made as a group.

Rung two:

Invite two people to form an initial team – this could be an opportunity for you to involve any more reticent team members at an early stage of the process. These two people discuss the issue amongst themselves. No decision is made.

Rung three:

Invite a third team member to join the group. The third member presents his/her thoughts before hearing from the original two. All three members then have a group discussion. No decision is made.

Rung four:

One by one, add a new member to the group who presents his/her thoughts first, thus remaining uninfluenced by other opinions in the group. After each addition, allow time for group discussion before moving on. Repeat until all members of the group have aired their views.

Rung five:

Having heard everyone’s ideas, it’s time to take a decision: a decision based on a wide range of thoughts from everyone present rather than on the opinions of the most vocal members or a safe/lazy decision based on groupthink.

Whether you’re in an office, a classroom, or on a committee, the Stepladder Technique can help your group make a more effective decision.

Today’s pebble for your thoughts: can you think of a situation where the Stepladder Technique could help?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’re ready to transform your work or your life, why not email me to see how we can work together?


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Do you spend your time on what adds most value?

Earlier this week, I met with a client – let’s call her Julia – who felt that she’d lost her focus at work. Knowing that she wanted to address this in her next session, I had previously asked her to record how she spent her time over the previous fortnight.

She listed 10 activities – you can see them in the table below.

I then asked her to rank them 1 to 10 where 1 was the activity on which she had spent the most time and 10 was the activity on which she spent the least time. You can see that she’d spent most time planning and executing campaigns and least developing new uses for existing products.

Next, I asked her to rank them according to preference: number 1 being her favourite activity, number 10 being her least favourite: top of the list was marketing strategy and right down at the bottom was producing internal communications.

Lastly, I asked her to rank them according to which she believed added most value to the business. Again, marketing strategy topped the list whilst event attendance just beat internal comms to the bottom spot.

Activity Time Preference Value
Marketing strategy 6 1 1
Plan and execute campaigns 1 8 5
Team management 2 7 6
Budget control 8 3 2
Event attendance 3 9 10
External relationships 7 4 7
Internal relationships 5 6 8
New product launch 9 2 3
Production of internal communications 4 10 9
Develop new uses for existing products 10 5 4

‘What conclusions do you draw from this?’ I asked her.

‘My first instinct is that I need to spend a lot more time on marketing strategy. Looking at this, I can see that it’s the tactical work – the planning and execution of the campaigns – that’s getting in the way. I used to love that stuff but actually, I need to hand it on to another member of the team. It’s the perfect opportunity for her to progress and add value and will free me up.

‘Also, I need to devote much more time to budget management. To do that, I think I’ll find a new home for the internal communications work. We have a junior marketing exec who has just joined: he could team up with a more senior one and they could handle this together,’ replied Julia.

‘Whose support do you need?’ 

‘Well, my boss, firstly. Actually, what I really need to do is to sit down with her and talk through this table and check that she agrees with where I can add most value. Then we can take it from there. I feel much clearer about where my focus should be.’

Julia is meeting with her manager on Friday to have that discussion.

clock do you spend your time on what adds most value do you waste time productivity management

Coincidentally, I was catching up via Skype with another client and he mentioned that he and his wife have just used this exercise to plan their Christmas activities with their family. They realised that whilst they thought it was a real adventure to go into London to see a Christmas show, their children found the journey very tiring and sometimes fell asleep halfway through which seemed a shame for such an expensive outing. This year, they are opting for the local pantomime and inviting the grandparents to come with them. As a family, this seemed to tick several boxes in terms of preference and value whilst saving time.

Today’s pebble for your thoughts: could the time/preference/value exercise help you regain your focus?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’re ready to make progress, why not email me to see how we can work together?




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Is ‘bouncing back’ an essential part of resilience?

Resilience comes up frequently both in coaching conversations and conversations I have with friends and family. It’s a much desired quality in the workplace and a very useful quality in life too.

I’ve written about resilience on this blog before and in one post – How high will you bounce? – I twice use the phrase ‘bounce back’. I have always seen ‘bouncing back’ to be a key part of resilience: after a difficult event, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and get back to where we were before it occurred.

Now I’m not so sure about the phrase ‘bounce back.’

I am currently doing a course with FutureLearn and Deakin University on professional resilience.  As with all FutureLearn courses, a high level of participant interaction is encouraged. As part of this week’s session, we were asked to comment on how we defined resilience and many people wrote about ‘bouncing back.’

Then one learner wrote this:

Personally, I’m not a fan of ‘bounce-back’. That suggests to me that the ‘resilience ball’ brings you back to where you were – but I don’t think it does. Hopefully you face the future more able, and wiser by building up your resilience muscle.

‘Interesting’, I thought and then read on – another learner had replied:

maybe we should be using the term to bounce forward: as you experience set backs and sometimes failures, it’s the ability to see these circumstances not as failures but as stepping stones to move or bounce forward, stronger and wiser. 

That was a lightbulb moment for me: using all we learn in the difficult times to not just return to where we were before but to move forward with a deeper knowledge and experience. Like the Japanese art of kintsukoroi, the concept of bouncing forward values the lessons we learn from our struggles.

I don’t suppose that I will never use the phrase ‘bounce back’ again in the context of resilience but I hope that when I do, I will correct myself and look at the opportunities to bounce forward.

Today’s pebble for your consideration: can the phrase ‘bounce forward’ help you be more resilient and make the most of opportunities to make progress?


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching.

If you’d like someone to help you bounce forward so you can achieve the transformation you’re looking for, why not email me to see how we can work together?

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Are you all ears? How can you be a better listener?

Effective listening is essential to my work as a coach: I think it’s pretty key to my role as a wife, daughter, sister and friend too. I’m always on the look out (or should that be ‘I’m always listening out for’?) anything that can help me gain better listening skills and will help me pass on those skills to the people I coach or train.

In a recent session with Abi, she was telling me of her desire to make a success of her new role as a manager. I asked her to describe to me her best ever boss and this is the first thing she said:

‘When I needed to talk to him, he made me feel like I was a priority to him. If he hadn’t got time to listen to me properly right then, he would tell me and we’d arrange a time to talk when he could give me his full attention.’

When I heard that, I shared with Abi a quote I’d noted down once –

Being heard is so close to being loved that, for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.’ David Augsburger

‘That’s it,’ she smiled, ‘I wouldn’t go as far as to say that my boss loved me, but he certainly made me feel like I mattered to him and that made a huge difference.’

Abi decided that she wanted to focus the rest of her session on improving her listening skills and so I took her through the SIER formula (as described in Effective Listening: Key to Your Success by Barker, Steil & Watson).


Great listening is about more than just the words. What else is happening? Notice the body language, tone and volume of the speaker’s voice, their facial expressions, pauses, sighs etc.


When we listen, it’s essential that we ensure that we’ve understood and correctly interpreted the verbal and non-verbal elements of the conversation. The interpreting stage is all about summarising, checking, clarifying, and encouraging the speaker to elaborate further.


Effective listening means setting aside any tendency to jump to an immediate conclusion or be judgemental. Having the ability to hear the speaker out and then pausing to consider before offering your thoughts is key to the evaluating stage.


In most cases, the speaker has come to talk to you because they’re looking for something from you: advice, help, acknowledgement, or maybe validation. The final stage of the SIER formula is to respond appropriately.

Abi is now using the SIER formula with her team: when I last spoke to her, she mentioned that she’s also been using it at home and it’s helped her to be more present with her children after a busy day at work.

Today’s pebble for you to ponder: would it make a difference to your colleagues, family and friends if you improved your listening skills? 


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching.

If you’d like someone to listen to you and help you achieve the transformation you’re looking for, why not email me to see how we can work together?



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Seven ways to expand your mind

‘I’m so frustrated,’ groaned my client – let’s call him Andy, ‘I have never struggled to learn anything new before. I was one of those annoying kids who picked stuff up easily and was praised for being clever. I just can’t do this. It’s pointless.’

Andy’s reference to being quick to learn and praised for being clever rang a bell with me: it reminded me of Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset. In it, Dweck discusses the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. In a study with hundreds of students, half the group were praised for doing so well and told that they must be really smart; the others were praised for doing so well and that they must have worked really hard to do so. By doing so, the first group had been pushed into a fixed mindset; the second were in a growth mindset. What does that mean?

When then presented with a more challenging task at which they did less well, the first group felt that as they hadn’t done so well, maybe they weren’t so clever after all. The second group didn’t see doing less well as a failure, they viewed it as an indication they simply needed to put in more effort.

Andy was demonstrating a fixed mindset. When we talked about it some more, he disclosed that he tended to avoid activities which he didn’t feel certain he would do well at: he wanted to avoid failure. Resilience, avoiding perfectionism and fulfilment are three characteristics of a growth mindset: all areas which appealed to Andy so we came up with some ways in which he could open up his mind and I’ll share them with you here.

How to expand your mind through a growth mindset

1   Notice when you’re slipping into a fixed mindset

If you find that little voice in your head is saying ‘Are you sure you want to do this? You’ll look like an idiot if you muck it up’, you can be sure you’re moving into a fixed mindset.  Counteract it by talking back to it: ‘If I can’t do it first time, I’m not failing: I’m learning.’

2   Remind yourself of your purpose

Why are you taking on this challenge? Having a sense of perspective about how it fits into the bigger picture can help you stay focussed on acquiring the new skill or knowledge, even if it’s hard work. If you’re learning Spanish because your partner is Spanish and you want to be able to communicate better with his family, that will spur you on.

3   Value the process, not just the end result

Progress isn’t always speedy but that doesn’t mean it’s not progress. If you can do two more pull ups than you did last week, that’s great. Next week maybe you’ll do two more again.

4   View a setback for what it is – a blip, not a catastrophe

Sometimes learning isn’t straightforward and we struggle. Maybe we need to change the way we’re learning: if you’ve been doing online tutorials, perhaps it’s time to find someone who you can train with in person. Perhaps we need to change the environment in which we’re learning. Maybe nothing needs to change: we just need to dust ourselves off and start again the next day.

5   ‘Not yet’ is a useful phrase

When you’re asked if you’ve mastered the new software, rather than saying ‘no’, try saying ‘not yet.’ ‘No’ may make you feel like you’ve failed; ‘not yet’ says you’re on your way to mastery.

6   Don’t hide away from risk

Andy set himself a challenge to say ‘yes’ to opportunities he’d previously have avoided in case he couldn’t be certain of instant success. The more we try things we’re not certain we’ll be able to do immediately, the more we build up our resilience.

7   Remember our brains are plastic

Our brains continue to develop throughout our lives: learning new skills helps this. A growth mindset then will not only help our mental wellbeing, it can also contribute to our brain health.

Andy incorporated these seven points into his approach to acquiring new skills at work and when I saw him again a few months later, he told me how his growth mindset had led to him taking on some new challenges outside work too. Point one is key to Andy: noticing when he’s talking negatively to himself and dealing with that.

Today’s pebble for your thoughts: do you have a growth mindset? 


PS I’m taking a screen break for a couple of weeks: I’ll be back on the blog on Friday 17 November.


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching.

If you’re ready to expand your mind and transform your work, why not email me to see how we can work together?

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Why should we sweat the small stuff?

As you may have noticed, I like a motivational quote: in fact, I collect them. One very popular saying is Don’t sweat the small stuff. There are even books about how we can use this saying to help us live a simpler and more enjoyable life.

I mentioned recently that I’d been reading Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth and how it has challenged my thinking. Chapter four of this excellent book is entitled Sweat the Small Stuff: Hadfield tells us that ‘an astronaut who doesn’t sweat the small stuff is a dead astronaut’ and recounts how paying attention to the tiniest of details has made a huge difference to his life and career. He talks of how rehearsing procedures time and time again helps him and the team surrounding him to pinpoint areas of concern, address errors and create procedures to help others in similar situations.

As a coach, sometimes I help my clients to sweat the small stuff. With Helen, we worked on every aspect of her forthcoming conference speech to help dispel her anxiety. We visited the venue so she could familiarise herself with the back stage area, the equipment and she even stood on the stage so that she knew what she’d be looking out at when she gave her speech.

With Mark, we went back over every detail of a situation at work that had gone wrong, picking apart the evidence so that he could formulate a plan that meant such an issue would be far less likely to occur again.

With Lisa, a new manager, we put ourselves in the shoes of a new recruit so that we could imagine everything we’d want to know in our first days, weeks and months in the workplace so that she could create an induction plan to ease the integration of her new hires into the business.

As Chris Hadfield says, ‘When we got back to Earth, a lot of people asked whether everything had gone the way we’d planned. The truth is that nothing went as we’d planned, but everything was within the scope of what we’d prepared for.’

“When we got back to Earth, a lot of people asked whether everything had gone the way we’d planned. The truth is that nothing went as we’d planned, but everything was within the scope of what we’d prepared for.” Chris Hadfield astronaut sweat the small stuff

Today’s pebble for your thoughts: is there a situation at work (or at home) which would benefit from you taking some time to sweat the small stuff? 


Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching.

If you’re ready for transformation, why not email me to see how we can work together?

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