Education Opinion

3 Strategies for Effective Coaching Across Difference

By Elena Aguilar — April 18, 2018 4 min read
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This is part two of a series of blogs written by Noelle Apostol Colin, Bright Morning Consulting associate.

I’ve learned a lot since that moment I froze in front of my African-American client who said, “You wouldn’t understand. You’re not from this community.” I was part of a team of coaches who had time each week to reflect and learn together, which was essential to my growth and commitment. I built up my own emotional intelligence, learned about systemic oppression, resistance, resilience, and developed a bank of strategies that have allowed me to be a more effective coach for my clients of color. While I know I won’t be perfect—there is more to learn and more uncomfortable feelings (“done” is a long way off on this journey of undoing 300 years of racial oppression)—I have made progress and I want to share some of the strategies I’ve learned thus far.

#1: Curiosity and Compassion

In part I of this blog post, I talked about the importance of a curious and compassionate mindset to develop self-awareness. Now I’m suggesting it as a mindset or way of being in conversation with our clients. It’s useful to ground our own feelings and thoughts, and it allows us to access expanded choices for responding. When we show up with curiosity and compassion, we help people feel seen, heard and cared for. This is a foundational condition for building trust and deep understanding. Let’s go back to my difficult moment with a client and imagine the scenario with a coach grounded in a curious and compassionate mindset:

Client: You wouldn’t understand. You’re not from this community.

(Coach allows for a pause in the conversation. Within about ten seconds, the coach notices feelings of hurt and insecurity that pop up. Notices the urge to defend herself. Takes three breaths. Wonders what the client is feeling. Reminds herself that the client is most likely experiencing something uncomfortable or painful, too. Reminds herself of the role that schools have played in our 300 years of systemic, racial oppression. Feels sad. Feels empathy for client. Coach wants to connect.)

Coach: No, I’m not. But I really want to be here, working with you and within this community. I care about you. Would you be willing to tell me more about what’s coming up for you right now? I’d like to understand.

In this scenario, the coach was guided by a curious and compassionate mindset. This way of being works like a filter that we move input through. It helps create more space inside ourselves and makes it more likely we’ll respond in a way that aligns with our values and our purpose.

#2: Develop Your Own Emotional Intelligence

In a recent workshop, a table of white women said, “we noticed all of us felt shame about our whiteness when we thought about our identities and it’s really uncomfortable.” To have these conversations, we have to develop our own emotional intelligence, because they bring up feelings that make us want to turn away or defend ourselves. I told them, “that’s great. Naming the feelings is important. Now find compassion for yourself. Then remember your values.”

If I ever get stuck in guilt or shame about my unearned racial privilege, I take a deep breath and think about compassion and how systemic oppression dehumanizes all of us. Then remember that I value justice and connection. That helps me move through the feeling. Then I can more easily focus my whole being on the work of coaching, transformational change, and dismantling systems of oppression.

I have a printed chart listing emotions that I look at to help expand my vocabulary and awareness of what I’m feeling in different moments. Try printing this out and looking at it throughout the day and finding language to match your current emotions. It’s great practice and it’s fascinating to notice the range of feelings that we experience throughout a day.

Here’s a mind trick that helped me; the phrase “just feelings.” In moments when I’ve felt, triggered, sad, frustrated, or defensive - I say to myself, “just feelings. This works as a reminder that while feelings are uncomfortable, they can’t really hurt me. I don’t have to give into them, solve an immediate problem, fix anything, push anyone or anything away. “Just feelings.” Breathe. Stay present.

#3: Invite Conversations About Differences

Invite people to tell their stories about who they are, what they value, what makes them proud, what they struggle with, and how they experience the world. Don’t let the differences become the elephant in the room that leads your client to burst out like mine did with, “I shouldn’t be talking to you about this. This is just how it is for women of color in this district.” This client felt it wasn’t safe to share painful parts of her work experience with me, yet the experience was keeping her from becoming the leader she wanted to be. As a transformational coach, this was troubling. What I learned is that you can invite a client to talk, acknowledging differences, with prompts like:

  • What do you need me to understand about your identity as your coach?
  • What would you like to know about me that would help you to work with me?
  • Tell me a story that will help me understand a part of your identity that you feel impacts you at work.
  • What might be challenging about us working together? What can I do to support you when those challenges arise?

We can’t ever make assumptions about someone’s identity and experience. Questions like this let our clients know that we’re comfortable acknowledging difference and we affirm who they are.

In writing these two blog posts, I realize there needs to be a Part III, possibly Part IV, and possibly more. There are more strategies I want to share! Please check back for more on this topic soon.

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