Compassion Makes for a Successful Coaching Relationship

… and is the core of this coaching approach: coaching with compassion, developed by Richard Boyatzis, Ellen VanOosten, PhD, and Melvin Smith, professors at Weatherhead School of Management.

One morning, I accidentally discovered this coaching approach when I took a taxi to the office (versus my regular reading-in-the-train trip). I looked for an exciting podcast and ran into Richard Boyatzis’s interview with HBR, where he discusses what great coaching looks like. So I purchased the book and completed the course immediately after.

What do university professors have to do with coaching? What does the approach look like versus the GROW model or co-active? Will using this approach bring me a reputable certificate as a coach? Will it make me a better coach?

I will answer these questions and present the model briefly and in detail in what follows.

How is it different

What do university professors have to do with coaching?

The fact that university professors created this coaching approach gives it a unique advantage over other coaching frameworks: they base the approach entirely on research, especially on the neuroscience of coaching.

They had the means and resources to examine what makes coaching effective and how to drive long-lasting change. The resulting approach is included in a book and a Coursera course (the course is much faster paced if you’re not into reading 🙂 ).

According to the professors, changes stick if they are intentional, internally motivated, and not imposed from the outside (which explains why it’s hard to create behaviours in our kids).

Coaching with compassion focuses on helping the coachee identify or set goals that drive this internal motivation. It starts with the coachee articulating their ideal self or vision for herself.

Starting with discussing an ideal, the dreams the coachee wants to accomplish, anchors her psychologically and emotionally, what coaching with compassion calls Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA). PEA is essential for this coaching approach: according to the authors’ research, a higher dosage of PEA (versus NEA – negative emotional attractors) is essential to create long-lasting behaviour change. Both PEA and NEA are necessary for growth, but the dosage makes the difference between embracing change and resisting it.

Apart from having the coachee focus on the ideal version of herself, coaching with compassion has at its core the resonant relationship between the coach and the coachee (similar to the co-active coaching approach), but, it doesn’t limit the ties there. Instead, the coach encourages the coachee to build resonant relationships with others and create a social identity group that will support the coachee in her growth and change (the coach is part of this group, ideally).

In coaching with compassion, the role of the coach – in a nutshell – is to help people find and do what they love (their ideal self), engage them in conversations that inspire and enable people change (grow into who they want to be) and continue to do so.

The ideal coach in this context (1) serves as a source of inspiration (you have to walk the talk), (2) shows genuine care and concern for the coachee, (3) provides support and encouragement (keep the acknowledgement coming!), and (4) facilitates discovery and the pursuit of dreams, passions for the people they coach.

I mentioned above that having a resonant relationship at its core is one of the similarities between this approach and co-active coaching. Another similarity I see is the focus on a bigger picture, a better version of the coachee (both look into values, vision, etc.). Coaching with compassion also uses the theoretical background of listening levels from co-active (I will not expand them here again, see the co-active blog post for details on that). I see these two frameworks as interconnected. I do like the simplicity of the coaching with compassion approach.

This approach will make you a better coach, but it won’t get you a reputable certification to show for it (if that’s what you’re looking for). I hope to see their research used in coaching training around the world, though.

Internal motivation drives change.

According to Boyatzis and team, people change behaviours when they want to, driven by an internal desire to change.

The ideal self is a primary source of positive affect and psychophysiological arousal, helping provide the drive for intentional change. Many current frameworks or theories examine only portions of this model and, therefore, leave major components unaddressed. The ideal self is composed of three major components: an image of a desired future; hope (and its constituents, self-efficacy and optimism); and a comprehensive sense of one’s core identity (past strengths, traits, and other enduring dispositions).

The ideal self as the driver of intentional change, research by R. E. Boyatzis and Kleio Akrivou

Following the above findings, Boyatzis created the Intentional Change Theory (ICT), which states that significant behaviour change is not linear but appears in spurts, which he calls discoveries (presented here in my clumsy sketch in an attempt to practice my sketching skills):

Discovery 1: Ideal Self

In this stage, the coach will work with the coachee to create their Personal Vision and a Shared Vision (family, work, group, more significant social cause), if appropriate.


The coachee will reflect on her core values, core identity and her calling or purpose in life; she will answer questions like:

  • Who do I really want to be?
  • What do I really want to do with my life?
  • What am I passionate about?
  • What is the legacy I would like to leave behind?

The coach has to make sure that the coachee focuses on who she really wants to be (leaving aside the “ought to” statements that direct our lives so many times: what our parents want from us, what society wants from us, what our managers wish to from us, etc.).

Discovery 2: Real Self

At this stage, the coach works with the coachee to discover where she stands right now about the ideal self. The conversation is not only about strengths and weaknesses, but it intends to holistically and authentically identify the coachee relative to who she wants to be (defined in the personal vision).

The coach will help the coachee identify areas where the authentic self and the ideal self are aligned => strengths, areas where the ideal self and the authentic self are not aligned => gaps, and how others see them => build self-awareness.

Getting regular feedback from others on what we do well and what we don’t do so well is an instrumental tool for building self-awareness. According to Boyatzis, a good indicator of self-awareness is:

The coach will help the coachee “tune in” and effectively read how they are perceived by others with a simple process:

  • the coachee will do a self-assessment on the things they do well and things they don’t so well
  • the coachee will predict how others make the same assessment of themselves
  • the coach will approach others to get feedback for the coachee and will present it to the coachee

Another good exercise, in this case, is for the coachee to create a Personal Balance Sheet:

One key factor for the success of the coaching conversation is to first acknowledge and leverage their strengths. The compassionate coach won’t immediately jump into improvement mode but will leverage the coachee’s strengths to design the next stage.

Discovery 3: The Learning Agenda

In this stage, the coach asks the coachee to revisit her strengths and consider how she can leverage them to close any gaps between her ideal self and the real self.

The coach’s objective is to help individuals understand that if they continue to do what they’ve always done, they will get the results they always got, and they will continue to be who they’ve always been.

In crafting the learning agenda, the coach will continuously keep an eye on the coachee’s commitment to her ideal self (so that they don’t slip into something they “ought to” be) and will help the coachee design experiments with new behaviours, and test-practice them.

This stage is about planning these new behaviours that will be put into practice in the following stage.

Discovery 4: Experimenting with and practising new behaviours

The mantra of this stage is straightforward: Practice! Practice! Practice!

The coach encourages the coachee to continuously and consistently practice the new behaviours she committed herself to in order to create lasting change.

The key to a successful fourth phase is for the coachee to continue experimenting and practising until she finds something that works for her. At that stage, the coach will help the coachee shift from experimentation to practice (which consists of the second half of this discovery stage).

This stage is also about creating a process or a system to adopt a new behaviour that the coachee can always return to whenever they want to change or adopt a new behaviour.

The coach will try to push the coachee over the point of comfort with the new practice towards mastery.

How long does it take to adopt new behaviours?

  • 21 days, according to Maxwell Maltz in PsychoCybernetics 
  • 10.000 hours, according to Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers
  • 18-254 days, according to Philippa Lally & colleagues from University College London, in a study in 2010

The coach is looking for the new habit to become a default for the coachee (thus leaving space for the coachee to work on different behaviours or habits).

Discovery 5: Resonant relationships & social identity groups

As mentioned, coaching with compassion is centred on the coach-coachee relationship and other relationships that the coachee has (or will develop) that will help her achieve her ideal self.

In this stage, the coach helps the coachee understand that she needs continuous assistance from a network of trusted, supportive, resonant relationships with others (not necessarily her closest family, friends, partner, etc.).

The coach is, ideally, part of this network herself, having a resonant relationship with the coachee based on genuine care and an overall positive emotional tone. Care and positivity are what the coachee is looking for in relationships with others as well. That’s why the coachee might end some relationships during her coaching if they don’t help her achieve her ideal life.

This network of relationships acts as a personal board of directors for the coachee, supporting, encouraging, and even holding the coachee accountable at times.

The group plays one more role in the coachee’s life: they help her overcome her blind spots, showing the things she doesn’t see, a reality test.

Underlying principles

Coaching with compassion drives its knowledge from research, especially neuroscience research. Consequently, there’s a strong focus on how a coach can help people drive long-lasting change.

For change to last, it has to be intentional and internally motivated. Thus, it’s essential for the coach to not have an agenda and entirely focus on the coachee: their vision of how their life should be.

The coach will ask open, thought-provoking questions (e.g. “What’s important to you in your life?“) to activate the coachee’s parasympathetic nervous system (PSE), associated with emotions such as awe, joy, gratitude, and curiosity. You help the coachee enter her PEA state (positive emotional attractor).

Asking the wrong questions (close-ended, judgemental, biased) triggers a person’s NEA (negative emotional attractor), triggering hormones that activate the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), associated with the flight or fight response (fear and anxiety). People don’t change or look for improvement in this state. The coach won’t allow the coachee to wallow in her NEA and won’t enable it.

When the PEA is activated, a person’s emphatic network (EN) is activated (associated with PNS, see above); when the NEA is activated, a person’s task-positive network, the analytical network (AN), is activated.

Thus to evoke the PEA in us and others, we need to incite positive feelings and activate the EN at the same time, as the formula below:

How to trigger the coachee’s PEA

The coach starts with articulating the personal vision by asking open-ended questions, using humble inquiry, focusing on the coachee, and using empathy (not sympathy: she tries to understand the coachee and doesn’t feel sorry for her).

Other possible ways to help others enter the PEA:

  • ask about a person’s dreams and vision
  • use compassion
  • use emotional contagion (be aware of your own emotions, as the others will pick them up)
  • practice mindfulness (meditation, centring, yoga, etc.)
  • invoke playfulness: play, joy, and laughter stimulate the PNS
  • walk in nature
  • develop a resonant coaching relationship

The coaching process in a glance (TL;DR)

I know this post is long. If it were to be summarised to only focus on the coaching process, this part would be it; it’s a TL;DR (“too long, didn’t read”) summary of the process for coaching with compassion.

I am using as information the Coursera course, Conversations that Inspire workbook: Coaching Personal Learning Journal. It has a good summary of the course, explanations, and templates for all the coaching exercises (how to draft a personal vision, personal balance sheet, etc.).

So here’s the content of the first five sessions of coaching with compassion:

Session 1. Getting Started

  • Get acquainted
  • Provide an overview of the coaching process
  • Discuss the coachee’s desired outcomes, and roles & responsibilities (also expectations from coaching, I would add)
  • Schedule the other 4 coaching sessions
  • Homework for next session: “Craft Your Personal Visionexercises

Session 2. Focus: Ideal Self and Personal Vision

  • Confirm the objectives of the coaching relationship and roles & responsibilities.
  • Discuss “Craft Your Personal Visionexercises and draft a personal vision or use the time to complete them together if not done in advance.
  • Homework: (1) “Personal Balance Sheetexercises and (2) update the personal vision statement.

Session 3. Focus: Real Self

  • Review the client’s updates to the personal vision statement.
  • Review the draft of the Personal Balance Sheet or use the time to draft it together if not done.
  • Begin exploring the client’s development priorities via questions such as: “what competencies do you wish to develop?”, “what do you have the energy to work on?”.
  • Discuss the client’s strengths and developmental opportunities.
  • Homework: (1) “Learning Planexercises – minimum 2 Learning Goals, action steps and milestones, update the vision and PBS (if needed).

Session 4. Focus: Developing a Learning Plan for Change

  • Review client’s updates to previous work if needed.
  • Review the client’s draft of the Learning Plan or draft it together if not done.
  • Discuss the client’s learning goals, action steps and indicators of success.
  • Homework: (1) “Personal Board of Directorsexercises, (2) update Learning Plan, (3) reflect upon insights from the coaching engagement.

Session 5. Focus: Implementing the Learning Plan

  • Discuss activities since the last session.
  • Evaluate what is working and what is not.
  • Discuss the Personal Board of Directors exercise or draft together if not done.
  • Discuss plans for sustaining change efforts into the future.
  • Discuss the client’s insights from the coaching experience.
  • Conclude the coaching agreement.

A detailed look into the exercises

There is a lot of information up to this point on the coaching relationship, principles, research, and the process overall. In this section I will get into the details of the exercises proposed in the book.

Crafting a personal vision

This exercise is central and essential for the success of the coaching relationship.

The focus is on dreams, not goals, as dreams are connected to our purpose or values, while goals tend to be temporary (dreams can be turned into goals).

A compelling vision contains (1) what I want to do, but also (2) who I want to be.

Crafting a compelling personal vision implies retrospection, answering questions such as:

  • Who do you wish to be?
  • What do you care deeply about?
  • What do you dream about?
  • What do you think about when your mind is not busy with work?

The time span is 10-15 years in the future, as in coaching with compassion, the coach wants the coachee to dream beyond what is possible now and really create an ideal, new self.

Here are some exercises that can be used as a basis for the coachee to write their vision statement (from my experience, most coachees don’t really know what they want from life when you ask them the question like that). These exercises can be used for the coachee to get clarity on what they value, what they dream about, and what they would do if money or time were no object:

1. Catch your dreams (or the Bucket List)

The coachee gets post-it nots and lists 27 things that they want to accomplish during their lifetime, thinking freely, without time/money constraints.

The notes are displayed on a wall (flip-chart), and are grouped in themes (career, family, adventure, etc.) by the coachee. Each theme is written above the grouping.

2. My Values (my spinoff of this here)

The coach gives the coachee a list of values (or value cards, if you have access to such).

The coachee will separate the values in 3 columns: very important, important, not important (now, as values evolve as we do).

The coach helps the coachee choose 10 most important value and prioritise them from the most important to least important.

The coach discusses with the coachee the prioritisation, creating the “story” of the coachee’s dreams and desires, based on what they value.

3. Winning the Lottery

“You’ve just won the super lottery and received $80 million. How would your life and work change?”


You had a great week. You go home at the end of one day, you pour yourself a drink, and sit down. There’s a smile on your face. You feel you’ve been doing important work and good work this week. What have you done that is so fulfilling?“.

4. A Day in Your Life… 15 Years from Now:

It’s 15 years from now. You’re living your ideal life: a location you always dreamt about, a job you always wanted (or no job), surrounded by the people you want close, etc.

A cam is attached to your shirt. What images would we see in a video stream of your day? Where would you be? What would you do? Who is there? How are the surroundings?

5. My Legacy

What would you wish to have as your legacy in your life? What will remain or continue as a result of your living and working all these years?

Note: all the above exercises are from Helping People Change: Coaching with Compassion for Lifelong Learning and Growth, by Richard BoyatzisMelvin L. Smith  , Ellen Van Oosten, Harvard Business Review Press (August 20, 2019). The My Values exercise is changed according to the one I am currently doing.

Other useful exercises from coaching with compassion

Record your emotions 3 time/day for an entire week. Where do you stand: PEA or NEA? Write how you feel, what you do, and a little explanation why you feel that way.

Who helped you (gratitude exercise)

Think of a time in your life where someone coached or helped you to reach your highest potential. Who was that person? How did you feel? What did they do? Look at different periods of your life: childhood, teenage years, student years, first 10 years of work, and every 10 years after.


The coaching with compassion approach doesn’t exclude using the GROW model into the coaching conversation itself. There is some indication on listening at level II and III (following the co-active guidance here) and on powerful questions, empathy, compassion, genuine coaching relationship, etc.

All the advice in coaching with compassion is perfectly aligned with other coaching methods. What I love about this coaching model is its simplicity and the focus on a higher level of growth, the ideal self of the coachee (versus reaching smaller goals, as coaching for performance tends to do).


These are all the resources I used to write this blogpost. I strongly suggest you read the book, it has great information and clarification on coaching. If a book is too long, the course goes faster, and the helping material is great:

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