Palena Neale's picture Submitted by Palena Neale July 12, 2020 - 6:29pm

I recently attended an IOC Huddle on Diversity and Inclusion, in which we shared our experiences in relation to coaching. We explored topics ranging from what coaches can do to support leaders with diversity and inclusion to how to help clients navigate the current social climate. There was an interesting exchange, particularly around intersectionality, multiple identities and identity mapping – but for me, what occurred in the chat was even more fascinating, striking a chord on two different, related levels.

The first relates to my own personal experience of working in the global development arena and the way we intervene, which can appear as the ‘white savior’ rushing in to rescue people. The second relates to the basic principles of professional coaching, placing the coachee at the centre. This, I feel, is our north star, helping us to navigate the current social climate. If we believe that our coaching role is to accompany people to achieve their goals, this determines how we interact, as coaches, in the diversity and inclusion space.  

The Power and Privilege of Aid

I spent more than 20 years working in global health and one of my most powerful lessons was back in 1998. As a young, white, female professional, I landed in Ghana at one of the local organizations to discuss what we were ‘doing for’ them and were ‘prepared to give’ them. Our ‘partners’ were not delighted by our conditional aid and distantly-crafted solutions for their local problems. They needed space and support to articulate what assistance and support meant for them. This was a powerful lesson about the power and privilege of ‘aid’ and its capacity to close, rather than open conversations.

Good Intentions are not Enough

As we contemplate how we will support diversity and inclusion in our coaching interventions, I am reminded that good intentions can have a disempowering impact. Regardless of the current climate, as coaches, we have been entrusted to hold spaces open for our clients to fill and not to assume that every person has a diversity and inclusion issue they want to discuss with us, at this moment in time.

As we learn together, what stands out for me is our role as coaches – and what that means to us when we show up as coaches. More specifically, how we show up – in terms of directionality. We are all on the coaching spectrum, somewhere between Nancy Kline’s staying with the ‘not-knowing’ and more directive coaching approaches – influencing or even setting the agenda. So, does the coach introduce diversity and inclusion, or wait for the coachee to introduce the topic?

Regardless of your directiveness disposition, professional coaching is based on the idea that a coach supports or accompanies the coachee, unleashing their resources and potential. Two of the major accreditation bodies include client-centred agenda-setting as a key competency. As coaches, we do need to be well-informed, self-aware and trained in diversity, inclusion, and how to deal with privilege – but it is still up to the client to bring these issues to the table or not. We need to create and hold the space – not fill it.

So, how do we support our clients and leaders with diversity and inclusion, in this social climate? I don’t have any definitive answers, but I did extract some ideas and sentiments from our IOC huddle.

Key Takeaways:

  1. The journey starts with us – and our own self-awareness. Work on yourself first. Understand your own biases, fears and privilege, and how they show up for you and in your practice. Ask yourself, as a coach:

    1. What does diversity, equity and inclusion mean for me?
    2. What are my biases and fears, in working in diversity and inclusion? Can I name them?
    3. Where, and how, do these show up?
    4. To what extent do I understand how norms, values, and practices in society/institutions advantage white people and ways of working, to the exclusion and oppression of others?
    5. Do I feel safe enough to have diversity and inclusion conversations with my clients?
    6. What were my most significant experiences of working in diversity and inclusion to date, and what was it that made them significant?
    7. What do I need to learn more about, so I feel able to open space for diversity and inclusion conversations?

    We can facilitate our increased awareness by understanding history, attending webinars and training, or through reading, films and discussion. This requires intentionality and honesty on our part, including recognition that this is likely to be a messy process of inquiry and learning.

  2. Be a coach – not a hero. We all know that the coaching role is about accompanying and facilitating – not providing road maps or solutions for people. That said, in heightened times of social injustice, it is easy to get sucked into the dreaded drama triangle in which we intervene to rescue or feel better about ourselves, particularly when we see ourselves as part of the problem. Guilt, good intentions, or a desire to effect positive change can all propel coaches into wanting to ‘rescue’ and ‘solve’ instead of facilitating discovery and growth. It is not our role to tell our clients how they should be showing up, or what they should be doing, in terms of diversity and inclusion. This may not be the coachee’s desire. And as coaches, it is important that we respect their agenda and their timing. As I saw in the field, and we saw in the chat: we are being asked to take a supporting role, not the lead role.

As coaches, we understand the importance of creating safe spaces for our clients, and we do need to be mindful of opening up space for diversity and inclusion issues. But coaching is not just about opening space – it’s about being brave. And as coaches, our bravery comes from understanding ourselves, our privilege, and our vulnerability. We have the flexibility to move from a safe space to a brave space.