Coaching cross-culturally

February 1, 2016

As a client-centred coach, I believe that the key to an effective coaching relationship is to have a deep level of trust and rapport. The client must believe that I really understand their world. At its most pure, this means being able to sense my client’s meaning as if I were the client. People refer to this as ‘walking in the client’s shoes’.

Even when the coach and client come from the same cultural background, it can be challenging to ‘walk in the client’s shoes’. When the coach appears to be “like” the client, there is an ever-present risk that the coach can transfer his/her feelings onto the client. The coach needs a high level of self-awareness and to be constantly checking whether it is “her stuff” or the “client’s stuff” that is emerging.

When coaching a client from a different cultural background, the risk of projection is lower. However, it is trickier to really understand the client’s world from his/her perspective. Some would say that it is impossible to do this without becoming deeply immersed in the culture of the client and clearly this isn’t pragmatic if the coach has a multi-cultural practice.

So you may be asking yourself whether it is appropriate to coach someone from a different cultural background to your own. I believe that such coaching relationships can be very effective provided the coach recognises that coaching in a cross-cultural context is different from mono-cultural coaching. One size does not fit all when coaching cross-culturally.

It does help for the coach to have lived in different cultures as you become more sensitive to cultural differences. Having a deep curiosity about the importance and impact of a client’s cultural background is key.

Take the time to explore the client’s cultural identity putting aside any pre-conceived notions or stereotypes. The client needs to feel that you are making a genuine effort to understand the world through his/her eyes. If you, as the coach, have unhelpful cultural stereotypes, it is important to deal with these in supervision so that they do not get in the way of building an effective coaching relationship with the client.

It is really important that you understand the impact of your own cultural background on your thoughts, emotions and behaviour. This is something that you can and should understand to a very deep level if you plan to coach cross-culturally. Just like your client, you may not be aware of the degree to which you are impacted by these cultural norms. For instance, as an independent-minded Kiwi professional woman, I have strong beliefs around the power of having choices, self-determinism and the importance of having a voice, irrespective of organisational hierarchy. Many of my Asian clients have diametrically opposed beliefs where destiny, collective good and respect for hierarchy are expected norms. I need to work hard to put aside my own beliefs in the coaching relationship so that I can truly ‘walk in my client’s shoes’.

Be upfront with your client about your differing cultural backgrounds and the fact that you will not necessarily instantly understand the world through his/her eyes. Get his/her permission to explore areas where cultural factors may be at play. Often your client will really enjoy talking about their cultural norms and through doing this the coach (and the client) can get a better sense of what areas are particularly important to the client.

However, sometimes clients can use cultural factors as an excuse to avoid changing patterns of behaviour. When the client pulls the “culture” card the client could be saying that they are uncomfortable dealing with that part of their life. Only through gentle exploration can the coach assess whether or not to “go there”. Often there is ample ground to explore how the cilent’s behaviour can change whilst still remaining congruent with deep-seated cultural norms.

Be careful about putting too much import on the precise words your client uses particularly if you are coaching in English and this is not the client’s native language. It can be harder for a client to express emotion in a foreign language even if they are fluent in that language. Paying even more attention than usual to non-verbal cues is critical to allow the coach to pick up on the underlying patterns of thought, emotion and behaviour.

Sometimes the corporate culture that the client works in is a bigger driver of his/her beliefs & behaviour than their cultural background. This is particularly the case when coaching individuals in multi-national companies that have a strong corporate identity. Be sure that you understand the company’s corporate norms in addition to the cultural factors at play in the coaching relationship.

I have found that being culturally different from my client is often an advantage in the coaching relationship. Once the client trusts that I understand their world, they are often willing to explore ways to change their beliefs, emotions and/or behaviours whilst still remaining congruent with his/her cultural identity. If, as a coach, I had been of the same cultural background as my client, it is less likely that I would be able to see that there are alternatives to these deep-seated cultural norms.

Finally, accept that it is likely to take a bit longer to ‘walk in your client’s shoes’ when coaching cross-culturally. It is worth the effort as, in my experience, cross-cultural coaching relationships can be deeply enriching both for the client and the coach.

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