Originally published in Facilitating with Heart.
Do we have to do anything special when we coach people who are different from us? In any coaching relationship, the client chooses the agenda, so how can our differences possibly matter? We’re all human beings, right? So can’t we just focus on the similarities?
Differences don’t matter, unless you’re the one who is different. Let’s start by looking at the micro-inequities experienced by people who are not part of the dominant culture – white, male, straight, Christian, or able-bodied. From MIT, Mary Rowe has been studying micro-inequities since 1973, and defines them as “apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be ‘different.’” (Rowe)
Some examples of micro-inequities that impact women:
All of these inequities are meaningless as single events, but the cumulative impact takes its toll. Heightening their sensitivity to the subtle ways that men are more valued, women begin to doubt their capacity to lead and internalize the oppression by believing in their own inadequacy. As a result, their performance diminishes and their sense of self worth erodes.
Of course, women aren’t the only ones who experience micro-inequities. Every day an Asian is mistaken for another Asian, even though they don’t look alike. A Mexican American goes out to eat and is assumed to be on the wait staff. Out of the blue, a gay man is asked for fashion advice.
Over and over again, people from the dominant culture make little or no attempt to pronounce an immigrant’s name. A teen is regularly asked, “How do you wash those dreads?” The person in a wheel chair doesn’t get invited to the dance. Or the white man is overlooked for a senior position in a Japanese-owned company. Wherever people are perceived as different, micro-inequities run rampant.
Coaching to Challenge Inequities
So how do we coach people who experience these inequities? Rowe believes the only way to deal with micro-inequities is to bring them to the forefront to discuss them. As coaches, we can support clients in addressing these well-known inequities that lead to low productivity, impaired performance, low morale, relationship issues, low esteem, absenteeism and turnover. The coaching process can help clients who question their abilities stemming from continuous, hurtful micro-messages. As unfair as it seems, employees who think they are excluded are expected to take responsibility for addressing the issue. However, when they do speak up, people of color are frequently told by white people that they “think everything is about racism” or feminists are told, “You’re taking things too seriously; that’s not what I meant.”
We can miss big coaching opportunities if we assume organizations are gender-neutral, or that racism no longer permeates institutions. Ancell Livers from CCL says, “White coaches who do not perceive inequitable treatment or are unwilling to investigate if it exists may miss a key element in their coachees’ experiences and thus set a coaching direction that misses the mark. In addition, white coaches who are reluctant to explore their coachee’s perception of their environment may irreparably harm the coaching relationship.”(Ting & Scisco) The difficulty in coaching clients to confront bias in the workplace is that we also need to know when to challenge their assumptions of racist, sexist behavior.
Working on Ourselves
To start with, we can challenge our own skepticism about our client’s claims of bias and let our clients know we’re prepared to look inward. For instance, we can ask for further clarification, find ways to deepen shared awareness of power and privilege, and unlearn our own biases. When we dive into the complex world of unlearning “isms” our word choice determines the level of candor and intimacy with our clients. Our voices and body language send subtle, nuanced messages that impact the quality of the relationship, and if we aren’t actively working on dismantling our judgments, anyone can tell from the way we look, gesture, speak, or don’t respond at all.
When we listen deeply to our client’s stories, we help people find their voice. Instead of challenging our client’s perceptions, we can say, “Tell me more,” and get curious. Ancella Livers from the Center for Creative Leadership suggests six coaching strategies for working with leaders of color:
Men are more inclined to
These differences are not absolute – most of us don’t come close to fitting the mold. And yet, many cultures strongly reinforce gender differences, so how do we coach men and women differently? Kate Ludeman says, “I encourage my clients to shift from blaming to claiming and step into a higher level of accountability. The most powerful step in taking responsibility is assuming that whatever gets created out there is the direct result of something I have done or failed to do and is not somebody else’s fault.” To change the power dynamics, women need to increase their visibility. Peggy Klaus suggests women break out to their cultural norms by learning how to toot their own horn and share authentic, meaningful stories about themselves. (Klaus)
Some other ways we can expand awareness or create a shift in women are by asking:
When we coach men we can expand awareness or create a shift by asking:
As coaches, we listen, attune to the aliveness, and support clients in understanding what they want and getting their needs met. Inevitably, trust gets broken in any close relationship, but that only gives us the opportunity to rebuild trust and deepen shared awareness. For instance, I felt discouraged when an African-American coach said, “How white of you,” in response to a comment I made while discussing a project proposal that I thought would support coaches of color. But I’m very, very happy that we have that level of trust where she feels free to confront me. In their book about challenging racism in organizations, Tina Lopez and Barb Thomas explore issues like “capping”, when the person from the dominant culture repeats what the racialized person said, even though she spoke with perfect clarity. (Lopez and Thomas) They devote an entire chapter to how they deal with their own racialization in both their professional and personal relationship. I find their transparency bold, refreshing and inspiring.
The COEUR Facilitation Model
It takes a lot of heart and fierceness to facilitate people who seek social change. At the root of the French word coeur (heart) is the word courage. It takes courage to sit in the fire with people as they uncover their passion and rage, and rise out of the ashes to co-create a better future. We start by creating a safe place for people to come together to connect across differences and make choices that benefit all of us. I trust that people want to open their hearts to each other, even when they claim they don’t. This is not business as usual, because we engage people at a deep level, using more than just their brains. We breathe magic into the process just by focusing on the wisdom of our hearts. Our role as coaches is to step into the fire by creating opportunities to:
Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a transformative approach to coaching that changes the culture in the workplace. Using NVC, we can support clients to connect with their hearts, and translate assumptions about racism, sexism, or homophobia into what actually happened and what they want to do about it. The process sounds like this:
Another model that contributes to our collective understanding of multicultural coaching is from the work of Philippe Rosinski. He suggests four steps in his book, Coaching Across Cultures:
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