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Beyond Empathy: Using Coaching Skills With Fierce Compassion

By Martha Lasley

A challenge isn't just about getting someone to take action on something important to them; it's a fierce form of empathy that supports people in connecting with their life force. When people experience deep empathy they usually enter a blissful state. But how do we help people take that blissful state forward and really integrate it into their lives? One example, “So you want more self love? I challenge you to embrace your inner antagonist and meditate daily to connect with what your antagonist really wants for you.”

I’ve been reviewing written coaching assessments this week which are part of the process for students completing their Coaching for Transformation training. One piece of the assessment is to offer a challenge to each of the faculty. I love reading the challenges because they open my eyes to possibilities that are beyond my radar screen. As I reviewed the assessments this time, I was a little shaken to realize that many of the challenges posed weren’t “real” challenges. How do I know they weren’t real? Because I could say “yes” without blinking. How could they have gotten this far without this exquisite coaching skill? Did I miss conveying the value of a challenge?

So I checked out our Coaching for Transformation manual and here’s how we describe the coaching skill of challenging:

Challenging – requesting your client stretch beyond perceived limitations. A challenge is more than a simple request. It pushes people beyond what they think is possible so they stretch themselves and end up doing more than they originally thought possible. Example: “I challenge you to give up doing your life alone.” Your client can accept or deny the challenge, or negotiate.

Hence the confusion. The definition is vague and the example incomplete. “Give up doing your life alone,” has all the makings of an energizing challenge, but anybody could say yes to it. A challenge must be doable! For the example to be an explicit challenge, we need to add an action, such as, “Ask ten people for help within the next week,” or “Find three partners to help you launch your project by July,” or “Ask two people to go with you on your trip to Italy by May.”

If people say yes to our challenges right away, then we’re probably not challenging them – we’re making simple requests. If they gasp, sit up taller, or fall out of their chair, we’re probably zeroing in on their deepest desires.

“I challenge you to spend more time with your kids,” isn’t specific. How much is more? A challenge is an expansion of making a clear, positive doable request, but there's another element - the person feels deeply seen by the challenger.

But the real essence of offering a challenge is about so much more. The beautiful first step of offering a challenge is to identify the lost parts of soul that a person is ready to reclaim... That’s what makes a challenge so much fun! From the place of supporting them to move toward being more of who they already are, we can take great delight in challenging old beliefs or assumptions, jolting them out of playing small or unleashing their passion. We can hold their highest dreams and what’s possible that they might not yet see for themselves.

A challenge is for the benefit of the receiver, not the giver. So it’s not about challenging your kids to pick up their socks, or your direct report to complete the project by Friday, because that’s about you and your needs. To make the challenge about the other, we let them know we see their dreams, their full potential and our belief in them. That’s how we take their breath away, because they start to see themselves anew.

A few more examples of challenges follow...

I challenge you to:

  • Ask three role models who share your values to mentor you – within the next month.
  • Make the time to find out what is truly important. For a week, spend an hour each day journaling.
  • Rewrite that old belief about yourself – stop telling yourself that you’re not good with money and create 20 new life-serving messages.
  • We tie the challenge to the now – the words just spoken – and also to the client’s vision and goals. “You just mentioned how much you want to adopt. So I challenge you to commit an hour a day going after it. Right now, make the space on your calendar to do the things you care about deeply.”

And now for my challenge to all of you! Come up with 3 challenges for yourself and post them here. I’d like to see some wildly outrageous, OMG kinds of challenges here. Are you game?

About the author:
Martha Lasley is a founder of Coaching for Transformation, an accredited coach training program. She creates results-oriented programs that inspire, motivate, and transform. “I surround myself with people who take risks and look for new ways of doing things; we explore both the solid ground and the edges of transformation."


Coaching is life-changing, world-changing work. The coaching programs at Leadership that Works go beyond theories and models and work with clients on a deeper level. You learn how to coach the whole person: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Whole person Transformation.

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