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Cross Cultural Competency

Originally published in Coaching for Transformation: Pathways to Ignite Personal & Social Change by Martha Lasley, Virginia Kellogg, Richard Michaels and Sharon Brown.

“I think we have to own the fears that we have of each other, and then, in some practical way, some daily way, figure out how to see people differently than the way we were brought up to.”— Alice Walker

When we think of competence we typically think of mastery. In the case of cross cultural communication and coaching, competence is less about arrival and more about ongoing learning that helps both coach and client see new perspectives and operate within a wider range of options. From this place of openness, we can support clients’ continued alignment and growth as well as our own. Alignment with values supports engagement in creative solutions. As we have explored in Section II, Pathways to Alignment, when clients become increasingly aligned, their focus shift s from what they can do for themselves to the contribution they can make in the world. Our ability to see, understand and try on various points of view of other cultures equips us to make an even greater contribution in the world—one in which collaboration leads to synergy.

Sue and Sue (2008) describe multicultural competence as follows:

“Multicultural competency is not a destination. It is a process of ongoing learning— inviting self-awareness and assessment of inherited biases, stereotypes and viewpoints of others as well as increasing awareness of the cultures and experiences of others who are different from us culturally.”1

Sue and Sue go on to define a culturally competent helping professional as one who:

  • Is actively in the process of becoming aware of his or her own assumptions about human behavior, values, biases, preconceived notions, personal limitations and so forth (attitudes and beliefs component).
  • Actively attempts to understand the worldview of his or her culturally different client (knowledge component).
  • Is in the process of actively developing and practicing appropriate, relevant and sensitive intervention strategies and skills in working with his or her culturally different client (skills component).2

By extension, cross cultural coaching competencies have three components: self-awareness (about attitudes and beliefs), knowledge (about others who are culturally different) and skills (to support connection across cultures).

Milton Bennett proposed a 6-stage model for the development of intercultural sensitivity and competence.3 The developmental stages represent increasing sensitivity to cultural difference. Bennett suggests that we develop cross cultural capabilities by moving from ethnocentric stages (individual’s own culture is central) to ethnorelative stages (individual’s culture is experienced in the context of other cultures). Philippe Rosinski proposed a 7th stage, leveraging difference, which he suggests is consistent with the coaching notion of unleashing people’s potential.4 As we move through the stages, we increase competency in cross cultural contexts. These stages are situation dependent—you can be in one stage in one situation and in another stage in another context.


  1. Denial (deny that cultural differences exist; disinterest; avoidance)
  2. Defense (acknowledge cultural differences—construct defenses against them; view them negatively; us vs. them mindset; “we know best”)
  3. Minimization (acknowledge cultural differences but trivialize them; assume similarities outweigh differences; “we are tolerant and color-blind”)


  1. Acceptance (recognize, respect and value cultural difference; more skills needed to implement)
  2. Adaptation (cultural awareness plus intercultural competence demonstrated; cultural differences are discussed with appropriate openness and trust)
  3. Integration (integrate aspects of own cultural perspectives with those of other cultures)
  4. Leveraging difference (make the most of cultural differences; synergize)

We can use this model to help clients assess how they relate to cultural differences and identify opportunities to try on other perspectives, empower others or take collaborative action. Rosinski suggests that it will be hard to coach clients effectively beyond stages the coach has yet to master. As coaches, we bring clients to a place of alignment with themselves where they can create powerfully and creatively. In order to get to powerful alignment, clients need to bring every part of themselves to the coaching. They do that most comfortably in high trust, culturally aware and competent relationships. This requires us as coaches to do our own cultural work.

A newly formed diverse global team who had previously worked as separate local teams, worked through the stages of cultural development defined by Bennett with the help of a coach.

A major company with local operations in a number of countries began globalizing their teams and standardizing approaches. Work teams became increasingly diverse. For one global IT team, their success, survival and on-time completion of projects became dependent upon their ability to overcome differences and learn to trust each other. The team started out at Level 2 (Defense) on Bennett’s scale. They acknowledged cultural differences but clearly were not happy about being organized into a single team. Trust was at an all-time low. The Europeans did not trust the Americans to get the job done. The Americans did not like the rules coming down from the corporate headquarters in Europe. The mindset was clearly “them” vs. “us.” The global head organized a series of face to face team building meetings to work through the issues of trust and to create opportunities for cross cultural learning and sharing. These meetings took place in

Switzerland, Germany, France and the UK so team members had the chance to experience a variety of local cultures as part of these events. Those were some of the richest and most memorable experiences of that team’s work life. The team included Americans (black, white, Chinese and Filipino), Germans, French, Swiss, English, Australian, Christian, Muslim, male, female, young, middle-aged, slim, overweight, athletic and non-athletic. To get to know each other and support each other in the challenges that some could do more easily than others, they learned to let go of the need to control and began to listen and include. Their face-to-face team building experiences for the first several years of their global teamwork led to a high level of trust and friendship. They started with sharing their stories and learning about each other while working on physical and intellectual challenges, while taking long hikes, and over laughter and drinks in the bar.

The trust equipped them to work together around the clock, like a well-oiled machine, using the time differences around the globe to keep the projects moving. They learned to leverage their cultural differences to collaboratively complete projects on time by valuing each team member’s contributions—knowing everyone could be counted on. In addition to their work-related collaborations, they expanded their connection by organizing video conferences simply to gather together to help team members in another country celebrate a life event.

1. Sue, Derald Wing & Sue, David (2008) Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons

2. Sue, Derald Wing & Sue, David (2008) Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons

3. Bennett, M.J. (1993). Towards ethnorelativism: A developmental model of intercultural sensitivity. In R.M. Paige (ed.), Education for the intercultural experience (pp.21-71). Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press

4. Rosinski, Philippe, (2003). Coaching Across Cultures: New Tools for Leveraging National, Corporate & Professional Differences. London, UK: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

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