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Coaching Across Differences:
Addressing Micro-Inequities

By Martha Lasley
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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:

  • people are more likely to interrupt women, roll their eyes, look away, or cross their arms.
  • women tend to get left out of the information loop, aren’t introduced, or don’t get invited to lunch.
  • even when a woman speaks with confidence, her idea is frequently ignored until a male repeats her idea verbatim and then the rest of the group gets on board.
  • people often attribute women’s ideas to men, completely unconsciously.

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:

  1. Inspire trust.
  2. Find similarities.
  3. Appreciate the social context.
  4. Understand the organizational context.
  5. Name the difference.
  6. Challenge the coachee. (Ting & Scisco)
Trust comes first. The coaching relationship doesn’t go anywhere if the coach behaves in ways that contribute to perceptions of inequity, by making assumptions, reinforcing stereotypes, or not seeing the client’s full potential. Some ways to mitigate these tendencies are to do the inner work to build awareness of how we as coaches use power and privilege, listen fully to the client’s story, ask curious questions about cultural differences, and request feedback on the ways the coach empowers or disempowers the client.

Once we establish trust, we can deepen the awareness of what our clients can and cannot change. If we ask for permission to discuss differences, the client often responds with a sigh of relief that they can finally open up about the real issues, and they say things like, “It’s about time,” or “Bring it on.” When we bring up the topic of differences with sensitivity, we have the potential to deepen trust and intimacy. The masks come off. Only then does it make sense to coach people to identify what behaviors of their own they wish to change. If a woman asserts that she wants to be heard more fully, the coach can listen as she describes the exclusionary behaviors of colleagues, recognize what is outside her locus of control, and then help her look at how she can address the issue by changing her behaviors that will lead to the desired change.

Building Awareness of Differences
Awareness of gender issues and solutions helps us offer meaningful, personalized challenges to our clients. Let’s take a look at some of the behaviors that influence how we coach men and women differently. Eddie Erlandson and Kate Ludeman have been coaching male and female executives for decades and provide an overview of gender differences.

Women are more inclined to:

  • seek help as well as give support
  • partner and collaborate
  • express appreciation of others
  • value relationships and networking
  • pay attention to how people feel
  • be consultative and inclusive
  • like endorphin-producing activities such as conversation
  • underestimate their capabilities

Men are more inclined to

  • feel comfortable giving orders
  • value analytical systems thinking
  • feel comfortable with conflict and competition
  • delegate and influence upward
  • be directive and task oriented
  • like the adrenaline of rapid-fire, high risk situations
  • see themselves as exceptionally competent

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:

  • How can you choose confidence?
  • What choices can you make to break the pattern?
  • How can you take responsibility for making the change?
  • How can you look at this more systemically?
  • How can you influence upward?

When we coach men we can expand awareness or create a shift by asking:

  • What emotions have you avoided feeling?
  • Who can you ask for help?
  • How can you express appreciation of your team?
  • How can you create a more inclusive culture?

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:

Connect – create awareness of our shared humanity
Objective – clarify the shared purpose or aim
Empathize – discover the feelings and needs of each contributor
Unify – open to the collective desire for transformation
Respond – take actions that meet the needs of the group (Lasley)
Several other models have contributed to my awareness of coaching across differences, including Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, Rosinski’s four steps for Coaching Across Cultures, Hofstede’s Five Cultural Dimensions, and Trompenaars and Hamden-Turner’s research on the Seven Dimensions of Culture. I share an overview here, but recommend their books to anyone interested in multicultural coaching.

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:

What happened?
What are you making up about that?
What did the person actually do or say?
How do you feel?
What do you want?
What requests can you make of yourself or others to get what you want?
The NVC process, developed by Marshall Rosenberg shifts the way people think and offers critical skills for communicating with compassion that change the culture. (Rosenberg) Instead of stereotyping some leaders as “clueless white guys who need to be changed” we can use NVC coaching to connect. Rather than judging them, we start by assuming that all behavior is an attempt to meet a need. As clients learn NVC skills and measurable diversity models are put into place, they begin to appreciate the steepness of the learning curve that results from a team approach to cultural change. Because they feel heard and understood, they co-own the change process and become effective allies for cultural change. Even people in positions of power want to shift from the domination to the partnership paradigm, when they come to realize they ultimately have more power when leadership is shared.

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:

1. Recognize and accept differences – acknowledge, appreciate and understand that acceptance does not mean agreement or surrender.
2. Adapt to differences – move outside one’s comfort zone, empathize (temporary shift in perspective) and understand that adaptation does not mean adoption or assimilation.
3. Integrate differences – hold different frames of reference in mind, analyse and evaluate situations from various cultural perspectives, and remain grounded in reality; it is essential to avoid becoming dazzled by too many possibilities.
4. Leverage differences – make the most of differences, strive for synergy, proactively look for gems in different cultures an achieve unity through diversity. (Rosinski)
Exploring Hofstede’s Five Cultural Dimensions helps us move away from ethnocentricity and toward curiosity of other’s cultures:
1. Power Distance – the extent that power is distributed unequally and expected and accepted by both leaders and followers.
2. Individualism/ Collectivism – the degree to which a society values individual or collective achievement
3. Masculinity/ Femininity – the degree to which a society reinforces a gap between men’s values and women’s values.
4. Uncertainty Avoidance – the level of tolerance for uncertainty vs. structure.
5. Long- term Orientation – the degree to which a society embraces, or does not embrace, long-term devotion to traditional or forward-thinking values. (Hofstede)
Trompenaars and Hamden-Turner have expanded on Hofstede’s work and have researched Seven Dimensions of Culture:
1. Universalism vs. Particularism – rules vs. relationships
2. Individualism vs. Communitarianism – self vs. society centered
3. Specific vs. Diffuse cultures – analytic vs. holistic
4. Affective vs. Neutral cultures – emotion vs. cognition
5. Achievement vs. ascription – active vs. passive status seeking
6. Sequential vs. synchronic cultures – singe vs. multi-tasking
7. Internal vs. external control – self-determinant vs. cooperation (Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner)
Going beyond models, when we step out of our comfort zone, we support the growth of our clients and ourselves. Working with diverse clientele, when we do our own inner work about biases, develop curiosity about other’s experiences, and unpack our assumptions, we accept life’s challenge to deepen awareness, connect across differences and change our behavior so that everyone shares power.

Hofstede, Geert; Hofstede, Gert Jan. (2005). Cultures and organizations: software of the mind. McGraw-Hill,
Lasley, Martha. (2010). Facilitating with Heart: Coaching for Personal Transformation and Social Change. Lulu Press.
Lopez, Tina & Thomas, Barb. (2006). Dancing on Live Embers: Challenging Racism in Organizations.
Passmore, Jonathan. (2009). Diversity in Coaching: Working with gender, culture, race and age. Kogan Page.
Rosenberg, Marshall. (2003). Nonviolent Communication. Puddle Dancer Press.
Rosinski, Philippe. (2003). Coaching Across Cultures: New Tools for Leveraging National, Corporate, and Professional Differences. Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Rowe, Mary. Journal of the International Ombudsman Association, Volume 1, Number 1, March 2008.
Ting, Sharon & Scisco, Peter. (2006). The CCL Handbook of Coaching: A Guide for the Leader Coach 2008. Jossey Bass.
Klaus, Peggy. (2004). Brag!: The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn without Blowing It. Business Plus

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