A Coaches’ Daily Sit-Down: an empathy journaling process

Jun 13

A Coaches’ Daily Sit-Down: an empathy journaling process
Article first published at the Scrum Alliance on June 9, 2016

1. Introduction

The first item in the Agile Manifesto 1 values “Individuals and Interactions over processes and tools.” The journaling process in this article helps Coaches, ScrumMasters and Project Managers 1 in transition develop self-awareness to be present for their teams; in the spirit of Scrum’s Daily Stand-up ceremony, these roles are invited to adopt a Daily Sit-Down as a best-practice.

When interacting with Team Members, the recommended protocol for the Coach is to listen first while holding space for team members to express themselves. Next, if it contributes to clarity for the Team Member, the Coach could empathize with what they understood. Empathy is a caring and respectful listening for the heart of the other; sometimes words are used to echo the heart dimension to the Team Member in the form of a question. This can be easier said than done because quality empathic listening requires one main ingredient: presence. A daily journaling process based on Nonviolent Communication (NVC) 2 empathy supports the Coach getting to a sense of presence.

Figure 1 shows an initial interaction between a Coach and Team Member; note that the stick people have both a mind and a heart to symbolize that the interactions contain intellectual and emotional dimensions. Ideally, Self-Empathy happens while the Coach is still at home preparing for the day – i.e. before the interaction takes place. This allows the Coach to be fully present to listen to what the Team Member is expressing; after formulating a hypothesis of the heart of what’s being expressed, the Coach might choose to offer empathy to the Team Member 2. The full ability to listen and be present for all Team Members is the desired outcome of the journaling process presented here as a strategy for Self-Empathy, shown in the upper right-hand corner of Figure 1.


Figure 1. Initial Team Member to Coach Interaction

2. Why do this?

  • To recover from “Command-and- Control-ism” inherited from Waterfall culture
  • To develop self-awareness by cultivating presence (i.e. addressing your personal backlog before facing the team)
  • Self-awareness contributes to enhanced listening skills to effectively help team members
  • To develop emotional language skills, laying the foundation for empathy and honest expression
  • To get clear with your own needs, leading to inner clarity, sense of well-being, authenticity, integrity and direction

3. Prior Works

In her foundational book Coaching Agile Teams: A Companion for ScrumMasters, Agile Coaches, and Project Managers in Transition 3 , Agile Trainer and Author Lyssa Adkins dedicates a full chapter to mastering oneself, with sections titled Start with Self-Awareness, Recover from Command-and- Control-ism, and Daily Practice; this chapter has many good suggestions and ideas to consider. The process in this article incorporates many of the concepts in Adkins’ book.

Organizational Business Consultant Marie Miyashiro writes in her book The Empathy Factor: Your Competitive Advantage for Personal, Team, and Business Success 4 , that “Leading books in the field of organization development endorse contemplation, self-reflection, conscious personal development, and individual coaching.” Furthermore, “effective leaders tend to have a high degree of self-awareness.”

There are many sources in literature that stress the importance of self-awareness; however, few give concrete steps on how to go about developing it. The process known as Nonviolent Communication 5 (NVC) does give specific steps for developing self-awareness through a process known as self-empathy. Miyashiro acknowledges NVC in her book: “NVC shows us step by step how to become self-aware as individuals;” through self-empathy, we realize that “our feelings are connected to our own internal needs. By identifying and articulating our own needs, we take responsibility for our feelings.” Thus, going through the process of self-empathy, the Coach is able to be present and curious about others, and has a better chance to contribute meaningfully to the team, business and society at large. Without it, the Coach is more likely to react by interrupting the team process based on instinctive tendencies.

4. Background

The ScrumMaster/Coaching role is often described as that of a servant leader who protects the team, removes impediments, encourages, facilitates, mentors, coaches and asks the right questions – letting the teams find the solutions. In every team, there is a time/place for “teaching” the team Scrum best practices, especially in the Forming and Storming stages. That being said, an important transition involves allowing teams to self-organize in the Norming and Performing stages 6 . Ideally, during these latter stages, the ScrumMaster moves into a coaching and mentoring role that involves a lot of listening, discerning when to speak and what to ask while giving the team space to determine their own course of action. A problem occurs when the ScrumMaster continues to direct the team like a Project Manager in waterfall, which destroys team agility and self-organization.

Repeatedly interfering with the team can be remedied by developing self-awareness. How can one determine when the team needs to be heard and understood rather than instructed with an answer? Experience shows that a Coach is particularly effective when in a state of presence achieved through journaling, self-empathy and meditation. Being present enables the Coach to experience a natural curiosity, openness and clarity regarding what is currently happening, resulting in fewer biases, fewer prejudices and reactions based on past history. This presence of mind is required for effective leadership, and is especially important for ScrumMasters and coaches.

In the spirit of Scrum’s Daily Stand-up ceremony, ScrumMasters and Coaches are invited to consider a Daily Sit-Down.

5. Self-Empathy Journaling Process


The journaling process uses the following materials:

  • an iPad with the Notability app (or similar computer system; low-tech paper/pen also work)
  • a Heart-Canvas with Feelings and Needs (click here for free PDF for personal use) 3
  • color markers or colored glass gems, or any kind of matching colored stones less than 1⁄2 inch in size (available in craft stores and gemstone shops); ideally you will have 6 gems of each color in 6 different colors – a total of 36 gems. e.g. 6 red, 6 blue, 6 green, 6 orange, 6 purple, 6 pink


Simply said, the process combines both heart and mind information to describe our inner experience. As you will see, the mind portion is described through Observations and Requests, and is typed into the iPad through the Notability app. The heart information is described through Feelings and Needs that you highlight using gems/markers on the Heart-Canvas. Each color is used to represent an Experience Thread 4 . Lastly, everything is brought together by inserting a picture of the Heart-Canvas into the Notability document.

Some time studying the Heart-Canvas is suggested for learning the vocabulary and location of the various words. The upper half of the Feelings sheet contains pleasant feelings when needs are met, and the lower half contains unpleasant feelings when needs are not met. Both halves are sorted by intensity, with milder feelings on the left and more intense feelings on the right 5 . The Needs sheet clusters similar needs together through the artistic expression of a potted flower; the bottom of the sheet has the Physical needs, the left-hand side has Personal needs, the right-hand side has the Interpersonal needs, and the top has the Transcendent needs.


Download and print the Heart-Canvas (free for personal use), placing the Feelings on the left, and Needs on the right. Tape the two sheets together as shown below.


Figure 2. Printed Heart-Canvas with Glass Gems (red gems show annotated experience thread)

• Collect and group your gems by color (e.g. all red gems together, all blue together, etc.).

Practice: Creating an Experience Thread

Note that journaling to be most effective, there must be a willingness to consider whatever is occupying thoughts or emotional energy – work, personal, etc. – i.e. anything!

1. Observations (as if recorded by a video camera)

Open the Notability app, select the icon to start a new note, and type in your first color — e.g. “Red”. Next to the color, describe the moment in time when something of interest happened to you. If you have an evaluation about something that happened, you can type “I’m telling myself <evaluation>.”

For example, I attended a session at a workshop where the facilitator was speaking longer than I was comfortable, and I had the thought “he talks too much,” which is an evaluation. The observation was closer to “the facilitator talked for the first 15 minutes of the session without asking for feedback;” write both the observation and evaluation in the journal. Getting clear with the observation allows us to get closer to the truth of our experience. Keep it brief – just list the facts!

For example, type: “Red – I facilitated an open space session titled ‘A Coaches Daily Sit-down’ at Agile Open NorCal in October 2015; it was attended by 15 to 20 people.”

2. Feelings (Emotions)

Find a glass gem or colored marker of the selected color, and mark the Feeling words on the left-side of the canvas that best describe how you are feeling. Note that feelings are neither good nor bad, they just tell us how well our needs are being satisfied.

For example: see the left side of Figure 2, which shows the red gem on “Happy.”

3. Needs (Values)

Next, using the same color glass gems or colored marker, underline or select the Needs words on the right-side of the that best describes the needs or values that are associated with the feelings. The concept of human needs were developed by Manfred Max-Neef 7 and Abraham Maslow 8 are seen as ontological – stemming from the condition of being human; they are different than strategies or wants which are related to people, places, things or actions. My favorite definition attributed to Julie Greene which defines needs as “life energy in us seeking fulfillment. 9 ” The needs flower was inspired by Jim and Jori Manske’s Needs Wheel 10 .

For example: see the right side of Figure 2 placement of red gems on “Self-Empathy, Congruence, Contribution, Collective Learning, and Community”

4. Requests (Actions)

Ponder the significance of the Experience Thread you just identified. Pay particular attention to the Needs and notice if any action requests surface. Often, when we get to this level of self-awareness, a clear and doable action – a request of yourself or others might bubble to the surface. Write anything that comes up in your Notability app in the form of a
question: “Would I be willing to <insertAction>?”

For example: “Request: Would I be willing to blog about the session, starting today at 4 PM?”

• Repeat steps 1-4 for any other experiences; use a different color for each.
• If anyone else was mentioned in your observation, repeat steps 1-4 as guesses from the other person’s perspective – this is Empathy.
• Finally, take a picture of the Heart-Canvas and insert it into the Notability document.
• Meditate 6.

6. In-Closing

This article suggests a Daily Sit-down as a best-practice for ScrumMasters, Coaches and Agile Leaders to cultivate presence. Technology in the form of an iPad running the Notability app, and a pre-defined template of Feelings and Needs called a Heart-Canvas are used to facilitate a journaling process that can be completed in 15 minutes. The journaling process is based on empathy concepts from Nonviolent Communication (NVC): Observations, Feelings, Needs and Requests. Each color-coded Observation and Request is typed into Notability and referenced to the Heart-Canvas color gems. A screenshot of a completed sample journal entry in Notability is shown in Figure 3.


Figure 3. Screenshot of sample journal entry in iPad/Notability app


Special thanks to Alara Tiernan and Konstantin Othmer for reviewing early versions of this paper. I’m grateful to Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D., who wrote the book and started Nonviolent Communication (NVC), and to NVC Trainers Jim & Jori Manske of Radical Compassion whose Needs Mandala inspired the creation of the Heart-Canvas; also contributing to their work was Manfred Max Neef’s fundamental human needs.


  1. “Agile Manifesto for Software Development” at http://www.agilemanifesto.org
  2. “What is NVC?” at http://www.cnvc.org/about/what-is-nvc.html
  3. Lyssa Adkins, Coaching Agile Teams: A Companion For ScrumMasters, Agile Coaches, And Project Managers In Transition. 2010, Addison-Wesley, Chapter 3 Master Yourself, pp. 33-57.
  4. Marie R. Miyashiro, The Empathy Factor: Your Competitive Advantage for Personal, Team, and Business Success. 2011, PuddleDancer Press, October 1, 2011.
  5. Marshall Rosenberg. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (second edition). 2003. PuddleDancer Press.
  6. Bruce Tuckman, “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups”, Psychological Bulletin, Vol 63(6), Jun 1965, 384-399.
  7. Manfred A. Max-Neef, Human Scale Development: Conception, Application and Further Reflections. 1991, The Apex Press, available at  https://web.archive.org/web/20130319153338/http://www.max-neef.cl/download/Max-neef_Human_Scale_development.pdf
  8. Abraham Maslow, A Theory of Human Motivation, 1943, originally published in Psychological Review, 50, 370-396, available at  http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Maslow/motivation.htm
  9. Attributed to Julie Greene, NVC Trainer and co-founder of BayNVC around the 1998 to 2002 timeframe though the full expression of needs as “life energy in us seeking fulfillment” was likely the result of community discussion at a NVC International Intensive Training (IIT) in Corona CA in 1998 where Robert Gonzales was a trainer.
  10. “Needs Wheel” from Jim & Jori Manske from Radical Compassion, available at http://radicalcompassion.squarespace.com/files/handouts/Needs%20Wheel.pdf

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