Cultural difference in the coaching relationship

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Written by Salma Shah on 14 October 2020

Coaching is helping someone see clearly where they are today, then find ways to support and help them move forward towards their goals. The focus is on the present and future.

However, in my many years of coaching experience, the past in the form of our life stories like Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak is often felt in those sessions. Very often as clients connect their dots to life choices, thought patterns, toxic relationships and future goals the more they don’t want to look back the stronger the pull.

Occasionally during the coaching a past poignant event is triggered and a deeper learning, a letting go, a moving on then takes place. The situation may not even have been experienced directly by the coachee but an unconscious part of their story has been blocking them at a secondary level.

An acknowledgement, an intrinsic connection with a deeper level of empathy is all that is required from the coach for the coachee to move on, feel they belong, start owning all parts of themselves to move forward and achieve fulfilment and their goals.

As a coach we hold the space for the coachee through our presence and safety. Coaching dynamically is often described as ‘dancing in the moment’ with our client. The question we need to pose is, what kind of dance are we doing? Is it bhangra, ballet or a break dance?

Coaching is about being in the present and helping the coachee move forward. Yet our lives are a culmination of whispers of past losses too.

If there is a wide cultural and systemic difference between the coach and coachee there is a significant risk the dance may be one of awkwardness as we avoid stepping on each other’s toes and have a superficial coaching session.

In 2020, an event which has shaken the world was the murder of George Floyd, 46, who died after being arrested by police outside a shop in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Footage of the arrest on 25 May shows a police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeling on Mr Floyd's neck while he was pinned to the floor.

This horrific crime has left many people emotionally triggered and significantly impacted. Some would describe its consequences as secondary systemic trauma. Strong emotions out of nowhere from the past have surfaced.

These complex feelings in the hands of professional skilled coaches can be supported during coaching. The coaching community needs to embrace this and other complex scenarios through a wider than normal coaching lens.

What we really need is a Smörgåsbord of coaches with an affinity for a variety of dancing in the moment styles. Where the dynamic between the coach and coachee is one of ease, a systemic connection beyond having to explain ourselves to feel understood.

The boundaries between coaching and counselling are clear. Coaching is about being in the present and helping the coachee move forward. Yet our lives are a culmination of whispers of past losses too. A diverse pool of talent needs a diverse pool of coaches who have a systemic empathy for what ‘belonging’ really means.

An empathy if your past story has centuries of gasping down trauma. The broken attachments of the Windrush generation, the immigrant story or the legacy of working class struggle. For coaches it’s about an education on intersectionality, the meaning of privilege and uncomfortable conversations.


About the author

Salma Shah is an executive coach championing diversity and inclusion.


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