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Empowerment in Coaching

“When are you going to tell me what we are going to talk about and what I need to do to improve?”

I could hear his frustration and to be honest, I was feeling it too. I had been working with my client for 3 months now and despite having gone through contracting, describing the coaching relationship multiple times, and not giving in to his many requests for the answers, he continued to ask questions like the one above. I was starting to consider that coaching just might not be the right thing for him. No matter how much I explained that his own solutions would be better suited to him than mine, we weren’t getting anywhere.

My work is to train coaches and I know that this is something people who coach come up against regularly. In the past, I have put it down to a misunderstanding from the client about what coaching is about or about not contracting well enough. There is a sense that if you say it enough, your coachees will finally stop asking and accept what coaching is and if you set up a strong enough agreement, coaching will fall into place.

Sometimes that is the case, and it works when you set a strong coaching agreement and ensure a good understanding of coaching, but it got me to wondering why it is that some coachees continue to expect us to tell them what to do and give them our answers.

What if it’s not simply about accepting what coaching is, but understanding that cultural perspectives are also playing a part in this?

How this relates to Intercultural Worldviews

To understand how cultural perspectives may be at play here, let’s take a look at the 3 worldviews that are the lenses through which we see the world and influence how we think, speak and act in our daily life. We call these the Three Colors of Worldview.

All of us have a unique blend of each of these three worldviews which makes up our own personal cultural preference:

· Innocence-Guilt – doing the right thing

· Honor-Shame – doing that which brings honor, and

· Power-Fear – doing that which brings control, power and influence

People and societies with Innocence-Guilt as their primary driver will first and foremost focus on doing the right thing. Often, education in these societies focuses on critical thinking and questioning. They like to have rules and contracts in place that set out what is right and what is wrong.

The Honor-Shame worldview focuses on doing that which is seen as honorable or that which brings honor to them, their family, tribe, organization etc. Communications and interactions are highly relationship driven with the crucial objective being to avoid shame and to be viewed honorably by other people.

Finally, those who have a predominantly Power-Fear driver are concerned with authority and hierarchy and they learn to align themselves with the right people to build their influence and power. Those with power can choose to use that power to empower others or to become more powerful and instill fear in those around them.

This means that a coachee with a stronger Innocence-Guilt driver will be happy to accept and may even embrace the use of coaching contracts. For the other worldviews, however, contracts hold less importance than the relationship. For the power-fear dynamic especially, where we are in the hierarchy will be important to them.

Innocence-Guilt oriented people grew up in an educational system that encouraged critical thinking and questioning. This may not be the same in a power-fear culture, where people often respect someone who is an expert telling them what to do. In fact, they may welcome this approach and could feel a lack of safety and security without it.

The coaches’ dilemma

Herein lies the coaches’ dilemma!

No matter what our own cultural makeup is, the coaching systems and coaching schools where we have learned coaching are probably built upon an Innocence-Guilt framework, which influences how we coach.

We have been taught that the coaching relationship is equal, the coach is not the expert and by letting the coachee come up with their own solutions, we are empowering them. We have been taught to be non-directive coaches who do not have all the answers. We’ve been taught that it’s especially important to set up a strong coaching contract at the start co-designed by both the coach and coachee, for coaching to be successful.

So, what do we do when our coachee finds authority and hierarchy more important than contracts, rules and individual accountability?

How do we remain true to the essence of coaching and still help our client who finds safety in being told what to do?

Solving the dilemma

The solution is to begin by recognizing our power as a coach. When we do that, we can use our power to care for our coachees and create an umbrella of safety under our power. Your initial reaction might be that catering to this need to have someone in authority over them to tell them what is “OK” will prevent growth. However, in reality, this safe space that you create for them has the potential to unlock change in ways they’ve never had before because you can give them permission to solve their own problems creatively and to think outside the box. You are powerful over the process, so that a coachee is safe to explore their own content freely. Under your umbrella of power there is safety for them to experiment and fail so that they can ultimately succeed.

If we instead choose to deny that we have any kind of power, then we not only deny them that safety, but we are unaware of the ways our unwitting use of our power as coaches can impact our coachees. This is the paradox of power: When we acknowledge it, we can use it intentionally; when we deny it, we are unable to see its impact and often hurt others through wielding it carelessly.

The rest of the story

Going back to the story of my coachee, despite our slow beginning, happily my client and I had a very successful coaching relationship that spanned over a whole year. In fact, he started learning coaching to help his team.

Although I didn't yet have access to these intercultural tools at that time, I was able to recognize that my client came from a culture where being told what to do was the norm. By helping him to see that there was a process that I was holding for him, while he focused on his content, made his sessions work in the end.

However, it is now clear to me that I could have had a greater impact earlier had I been more aware of the cultural dynamics at play. And we hope that you will have these intercultural tools at your disposal too!

If you want to take the next step in understanding how to use your power as a coach to empower your clients, join us for our Webinar on Empowerment in Coaching on September 20th, where you will get a chance to practice using these principles.

If you would like to keep developing your intercultural coaching skills, you can join our next Certificate in Intercultural Coaching.


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