We’ve Forgotten How to Help, Part Two

Learning the basics so we can
choose our approach wisely

Though there is great intelligence in the Forms of Help Spectrum, it becomes even more interesting when combined with the Connection Hierarchy.

The Connection Hierarchy is based on the most up-to-date research. It ranges from Disconnected to Connected and contains four levels: pity, sympathy, empathy and compassion.

Starting at the bottom of the Connection Hierarchy, pity is the most disconnected form of connection. Think about how many of us feel when we pass a homeless person on the street. We might feel sorry for them and offer money. We might feel superior and look down on them. Or, we might just ignore them completely. When we feel pity, we judge others and create separation.

Sympathy moves us towards greater connection and is one step up from pity.  Imagine a teenager going through their first ever breakup. We might respond by saying something like, ‘Don’t worry, this is normal. Most firsts don’t last anyway – you will be fine!’ When we sympathise, we create a sense of separation and inequality. Sympathy involves feeling for the other.

One step up the hierarchy, we find empathy, a highly connected emotion. Empathy is the capacity to step into another person’s shoes and feel with them. In the case of the heart-broken teenager, we might respond by looking back at own experiences and recall them, leading us to say something like, ‘I understand how you feel. It’s really painful to break up with someone. I know that when I was your age, it took me a while to get over my first love.’

At the top of the Connection Hierarchy is compassion. Defined as ‘felt thought’, when we’re compassionate, we’re ‘being with’ another person. We are not judging, trying to fix, relying on our own personal experiences or imagining what we would do if we were them. We approach another with equality and a willingness to be with them with acceptance and presence, whether we have been in their situation or not. In the case of the heart-broken teenager, a compassionate response might look like simply sitting with them as they express their sadness or asking them how we could support them.

As a way of connecting, compassion has been seen to increase resilience whereas empathy has been shown to lead to burn out. People who empathise are inclined to take on and carry another person’s emotional challenges as their own. For this reason, we promote compassion as a useful way of connecting in the coaching context, and beyond.

Once you are clear about your chosen form of help, you can then choose the type of connection you want to have. For example, an Empathetic Consultant will be dramatically different from a Pitying Consultant, and a Compassionate Coach will be radically different from a Sympathetic one.

We invite you to consider which combinations you exhibit when speaking to a young person, attending meetings, at home with your family, or spending time with a friend.

When it comes to communication with others, it’s important to consciously choose how to help. Just because a tactic has worked previously, doesn’t mean it will always work.

We shared this in our last article on this topic, and we want to remind you of it again:

Being coach-like and taking a coaching approach requires that you choose in each moment how you intend to communicate. With this intentional approach, you are much more likely to successfully partner with your coachee through the reflection, learning and growth required for them to achieve their goals.