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Why is Cultural Awareness Important?

Originally Published in Coaching for Transformation

“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

As coaches, we co-create a relationship with our clients that invites their authenticity, discovery, aliveness, alignment with core values and courageous action. This is not always so straightforward with people from outside of mainstream cultures who have learned to hold back parts of themselves in order to make it in the world. We can call forth those hidden parts by building trust, creating open, vulnerable partnerships and by giving and inviting authenticity. This does not mean simply saying culturally different clients are free to bring everything to the coaching and putting the responsibility on them to do so. What you say and how you say it (or even what you fail to say) can impact the relationship. For example, if a coach says, “Race and culture don’t mean anything to me. I just see you as a person,” the client may experience alienation. Even with the best intentions and lack of malice, we can send the message, “Your experience, your struggles and where you come from aren’t important,” or “I don’t want to go to those messy, sensitive or hard places with you.”

How we connect and build trust with people from a different culture (including those who we assume are from our own culture or identity group) in authentic, respectful and meaningful ways influences their willingness to share their deepest concerns. Cross cultural communication invites us on an ongoing journey of self-assessment, experiential learning and skills development that facilitate genuine heart connection across cultures and power differentials. As we grow in our ability to look at our own privileges, biases and preconceptions that can impact our coaching effectiveness, we equip ourselves to serve our clients more authentically. Culturally competent coaches find ways to create a safe environment and actively invite the less comfortable parts of people forward.

We also do this work for our own empowerment as coaches. To call out the power of our clients requires us to stand in our own power. Doing the internal work—whether it is addressing our privileges or our internalized oppression—helps us liberate ourselves to be of service to our clients as well as our communities.

Ultimately, coaches support expansion of awareness not just for the sake of learning, but to help clients determine what they want to do. Instead of allowing clients to remain disconnected from their power while thinking of themselves as victims of sexism, racism, heterosexism or other hurtful behaviors, we help them make a choice. They may come to the coaching session angry, sad or deflated—hoping to make sense of their interactions, process their anger, understand their pain or heal the past. Then what? We can coach them to discover and acknowledge their feelings, and determine how they want to move forward. We can role play conversations so that they can practice transforming their initial reactions into productive, compassionate or fiercely courageous responses. Our role isn’t to diagnose or label behavior, but rather to help clients develop support systems and create action plans that honor their authentic voice and cultural heritage.

Questions for Reflection
  • Reflect on the various cultural influences in your upbringing. How would you describe the cultural groups you belong to?
  • Think of someone from another culture that you interact with. How can you deepen your awareness of her or his culture?
  • How can you support managers, leaders and other coaches to expand their cross cultural awareness?

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