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‘No... Where are you really from?’

Microaggressions and anti-racism in coaching.


Systemic racism remains deeply embedded in our society, yet its impact on coaching remains under researched. While there is a need to broaden the evidence base and build on work such as Roche and Passmore (2022), I believe coaches can implement some simple, practical strategies to promote inclusion in their partnerships. In this blog, I will share my reflections on how I think coaches can develop their anti-racist lens and create an inclusive coaching partnership.

A group of diverse hands and arms reaching towards the centre of the image. Hands are placed on top of one another symbolising unity, collaboration and inclusivity.

Understanding microaggressions:


Microaggressions are subtle acts that perpetuate racism. Coaches who are informed about what microaggressions are and who reflect on their daily interactions, are able to be more mindful of their language choices. For instance, instead of asking, "Where are you from?" a more inclusive coach might ask, "Tell me about yourself...". Or, if you have commented on a characteristic of a client, such as ‘You’re so articulate for someone who...’, do an internal check on where this comment originated. Was it based on an assumption or a stereotype related to the client’s identity? Was the language offensive? Could the comment lead to the client feeling undervalued or discriminated against? Did it disregard or invalidate the client’s experiences? If the answer to any of these could be yes, it’s important we own it, apologise (we’re all human!) and then take steps to educate ourselves and begin actively unlearning and challenging the assumptions that contribute to racism and discrimination of other marginalised groups.


Recognising privilege:


Inclusive coaches acknowledge and accept the role of privilege in their practice. Privilege does not negate personal experiences but rather refers to the advantages gained due to certain aspects of someone's identity, such as being white or male. Coaches who are aware that their privilege may influence their perceptions and interactions with clients may still ask questions like, "What resources do you have that could help?" but are being cognisant that different individuals may have varying access to resources based on their privilege, as well as different levels of safety in accessing such resources. Similarly, if you are developing your own resources, are they reflective of a rich and diverse range of materials that are available? Is it tailored to a specific group or can it be used for all leaders/clients? Challenging ourselves in this way will reduce the impact privilege has on our practice.

Understanding the impact of privilege on bias:


When coaches reflect on how privilege affects their biases, they are more likely to engage in behaviours that create an effective coaching partnership. For example, how does interruption present for you when working with clients from marginalised groups? Research has shown that men interrupt women 33% more than they interrupt men (Hancock & Rubin, 2014). By noticing and addressing biases such as these in coaching partnerships, we can critically examine our own actions and prejudices, supporting coaches to work towards creating a more equitable coaching environment. If a client shares with you experiences where they have been discriminated against, validate their feelings, as comments interrogating the validity of this (e.g. asking what evidence the client has, or what another interpretation of the behaviour could be) minimises the experience and may lead to a deterioration of the coaching relationship as well as negatively impacting the client.


Embracing intersectionality:


Recognising that individuals can belong to multiple groups encourages coaches to create a safe and non-judgmental space where clients can share their lived experiences and how those experiences have shaped their identities. By acknowledging and valuing the intersectionality of their clients, coaches can provide more meaningful support, including identifying and challenging limiting assumptions.

Developing cultural competence:


Inclusive coaches are open to continuous learning, particularly about the history and experiences of marginalised groups. Acquiring this knowledge equips coaches with the confidence to sensitively challenge assumptions and fosters inclusivity in their partnerships with clients. When coaches make statements such as "I don't see colour," they perpetuate a system of white power. Addressing power dynamics and amplifying marginalised voices is vital for creating a true partnership in coaching. However, cultural competence is not sufficient on its own; anti-racism should transcend coaching sessions and become a guiding principle in all facets of life.


Celebrating Successes:


Genuine validation and acknowledgement of clients' experiences and achievements are crucial for strengthening the coaching relationship. As coaches, let's appreciate our clients with statements that reflect who they are as a person - how you admire or respect specific characteristics or how inspiring their values are. And if you receive a compliment, accept it and try to internalise it, even if you find this hard!


My concluding thought in this piece is the importance of coaches watching recordings of their sessions through an anti-racist lens. It can be difficult to notice and address unconscious bias in the moment and viewing recordings is a great way of bringing the unconscious into the conscious and then taking meaningful action. I hope these reflections may serve as a starting point for fostering an inclusive coaching environment, however, this is by no means an exhaustive list – it's important for us to continue the conversation and explore further ways to promote anti-racist practices within the coaching world, including issues surrounding training and accreditation. What additional strategies would you add to this list? What successful anti-racist practices have you witnessed in coaching?


References


Hancock, A.B., & Rubin, A.B. (2014) Influence of Communication Partner’s Gender on Language. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 34(1), pp 46-64.


Roche, C. & Passmore, J. (2022) Anti-racism in coaching: A global call to action. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Practice and Research, 16:1, pp. 115-132.

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