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Dealing With Language Traps: Coaching Across Countries, Languages and Cultural Conditioning

language traps
By Daniela Herzog

A big part of the work a coach does is attuning to what the client brings—our presenting and underlying issues, our overall “energy,” our conditioning, our mind habits, our relationship, and our speech patterns.

While engaging in this kind of ongoing “attunement” as a constant presence with our clients and an awareness about what is alive in them right now, there are traps we can easily fall into without noticing it.

This is especially true for our cultural conditioning through language. We all have language. It is a filter, a modus operandi that is so close to us, and so “natural” that most of the time we are not even aware of language as a filter through which we see the world.

We all grew up in a family, that family lived somewhere, embedded in some kind of cultural context. We all grew up in a language, representing thousands and thousands of years of ancestral conditioning. That is our biggest filter through which we see the world.

A different language always means a different way of representing the world through language. As coaches we have to stay aware of this, because it can cause huge disruption.

I encountered this kind of “trap” when I first started coaching. My mother tongue is German. My first clients were from Italy and from India, and our “meeting” language was English.

English has no grammatical gender since about 1100 AD. In German there are three grammatical genders: female, neuter or male. Every noun has a definite or indefinite article that always specifies the gender. Sun is female, for example. Moon is male. Child is neutral. Peace is male…

Not so in English, where we just use the much more open “the.” Not so in Indian culture or Italian either. In Italy sun and moon for example are just the other way round: Sun is male. Moon is female.

You’d think this is not such a big thing in coaching. Just pronouns. But when you have guided your client deeply into some kind of inner space, and they are connected to a process that is alive (and often challenging and vulnerable) for them, it can be enormously disruptive when the coach, in an effort to guide the client deeper asks a question using the wrong gendered pronoun.

Based on my own language background and blissful ignorance thereof, I have at times jolted my clients right out of their process. These things happen, and they can take the client right out of the connection with their body, their feelings, their innermost truth… and bring them back into the analyzing mind: “What did the coach just say? Why does she say that? Why does she say it that way? What does she even mean?”

Sample dialogue of a language trap...

(Through a guided meditation the client has come in touch with her inner child. The image she is getting is that of a graveyard. There is an open grave, and she is hesitating to go over and look for what might be in the grave. After a long pause and being encouraged by the coach she finally walks over to the open grave and looks down. She sees a pale moon, lying dead in the grave, representing her beautiful innocent child that she has not been in touch with since childhood. The client reports a strong impulse to pick up and comfort and hold the moon.)

Coach: So I invite you, Maria, to just check in with him, if that is what he wants—being picked up, being held…. And remember that you are still in your protective suit and that you are not alone, I am at your side and you are safe. We’re doing this together.

Client: What did you just say?

Coach: I invited you to check in with the moon to see if this is what he wants. Being picked up and held…. And I reminded you that you are safe and I am right here with you…

Client: Aah. Okay. I just got confused, for a moment I did not know who you were referring to when you said “he.”

Coach: Oh, I am sorry, I meant your moon-child.

Client: Yes….

(At this point the client’s strong connection with the inner image has been lost and has shifted to thinking about rather than being with her inner image. The change in the client’s process and energy is palpable and it is my job to get the client back in touch with the powerful image before her thinking mind shuts down the connection.)

Coach: You know, it’s a language mistake from my side. In German we refer to the moon as male. That’s what confused you. I am sorry that this jolted you out of the connection a bit. Can we try to go back to the image together... and see what that beautiful moon-child might need from you right now?

Client: Yes… I think I already know what she wants... I just got it. She said she is very cold and alone. And all she wants is being held…

Coach: Oh how wonderful, Marie. And you are finally here to reach out to her... to warm her and to keep her company... So just take a deep breath... and when you are ready reach down and pick her up, gently, gently….

If you are coaching across languages and across cultures there is no way to avoid issues like these. By now I have coached people from more than ten different languages, and we all “meet” in English. There is no way for me to learn enough about another culture or language to avoid this kind of “trap.” So what to do?

  1. I address our language differences in the very beginning, during our discovery session. I let them know that I coach in a language that is not my mother tongue, and that I sometimes struggle with finding the right words. Sometimes I will need to ask for clarification, if I do not “get” what they try to express. I invite them to let me know immediately when they do not understand me or I’ve made some grave mistake that jolted them out of the process, or when I say something that does not make sense to them.
  2. During a coaching session I stay aware of my wording, especially when I am taking my client into deep and vulnerable spaces they may be exploring for the first time.
  3. During the coaching process I stay vividly attuned to the slightest changes in my clients’ energy... Are they closing up, walling off to something I just said?
  4. When in doubt, I ask! It is the best way to learn and grow with my clients! If I have addressed shared language issues in the beginning, it can be a fun way to learn from each other and grow in cultural competence.

Being open and outspoken about your own limitations regarding language helps establish trust in your clients. Openness also models what you are aiming to create together with your client: a sacred and transformative space—an open space for them to explore who they truly are, underneath all language and all conditioning.

About the author:
Daniela Myozen Herzog cares deeply about the "wounded healers" that we all are. As a coach she is a travel companion. She takes her clients on a journey beyond their conditioning and supports them in seeing and embracing themselves in love. She travels with people whose fears and conditioning keep them from making the life changes they long for. Carefully taking them deeper—to places that hurt, places they fear to go to alone, places that need their healing attention—she supports her clients in owning who they truly are. She is an ambassador for the unique being every client is and for the gifts only they can bring into this world. Read more about her here:

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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One heart at a time.

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