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Coaching identity, similarity and difference

Part of my coaching journey over many years has been about my own response to how I identify myself a coach. I recall those early days of drafting a profile to describe myself, and of formulating that ‘elevator pitch’ which would magically have everyone I shared it with wanting to engage with the services that it promised. The funny thing is that when I think of elevators I think of what I have experienced as typical human behaviour when occupying one of them. Namely, the awkward silence between co-occupants as people appear to be looking for a view that does not exist (unless in an outside elevator of course). In truth, the elevator pitch metaphor translates to my own reality more of feeling awkward in networking situations, rather than its intent of reminding me to be concise in describing what I do!

'Invisible Man and the Masque of Blackness' by Zak Ove. Photographed at Roche Court by Jeremy Hinks*

I found myself confounded when people said, ‘what sort of coaching do you do?’. I was ill at ease with whatever label I judged most appropriate and would often describe what I was not, rather than what I was! Looking back the truth of it was that all of the coaching typologies felt like a container which, for two reasons, did not sit well with me. I felt putting myself in a container was not inclusive and would mean that I would find myself coaching in tried and tested communities with predictable results. I am much more motivated by the thought of breaking new ground. On a more personal level being identified with a particular ‘container’ was something that felt like a constraint to me, something that I know from experience I don’t respond well to.

In actual fact, it did not take me too long to come up with a descriptor of my coaching typology that I was comfortable with. Here it is: I am able to coach anyone who is happy to be coached by me. It was a comfort to realise the truth of this. Whether your issue is one of business, leadership, life, development, career, executive, interpersonal, or creativity I am at ease with coaching you if you are happy to be coached by me. I am confident of this because whatever the focus of your coaching needs, I can guarantee that I will be curious about what is on your agenda. My curiosity will challenge your assumptions and my attention to what you are saying will help you to hear your own voice.

Implicit in my sense of who I can or can’t coach is the truth that not everyone will be happy to be coached by me. I absolutely accept that and respect those who make this decision. Even so, I will give my ego an opportunity to show itself in saying that I am happy to report that it does not happen very often. When it does, I treat it as an opportunity for learning.

I don’t treat my statement of being able to coach anyone who is happy to be coached by me lightly. I am sensitive to the underlying assumption that any visible or invisible difference between myself and my coachee will not negate my ability to coach them, provided that they decide they want to be coached by me. I would actually go further in saying that it is the differences between us that give a richness to our conversations and create an opportunity for learning for both of us. There is a mutual vulnerability created by our appreciation that we are going to have to work together to ensure we understand each other, which is both uncomfortable yet ultimately rewarding.

A recent experience that illustrates this was when I started a new coaching partnership with a client involved in supporting the victims of gang violence. We came together virtually for our first session. After some preliminary contracting it was clear that my coachee had something on her mind which I encouraged her to give voice to. She asked about how coaches and their clients were matched together and I responded with what my understanding of the process was. She paused before saying ‘how is it then you are my coach when I asked for a black woman?’ It was clear that here was somebody whose assumption was that I was not suitable to coach her, given that I was not a match for either characteristic.

My immediate course of action was clear from an ethical point of view. I made it clear that if she was uncomfortable in being coached by me there was the opportunity to be matched with a different coach. When the answer was not emphatic, I offered the possibility of looking at our differences and seeing where there was challenge and where there was opportunity. My coachee was open to this so we talked about our visible points of difference and the pros and cons of how they might play out in a coaching conversation. With her permission we then sought to explore our invisible differences. We talked about our upbringing, our influences, our exposure and experience of violence, both directly and arising from its consequences. No question there was a sense of vulnerability for me in doing so, and I sensed the same with her. While not seeking to quantify things, I believe it was apparent to both of us that the biggest points of difference where those that were invisible at the outset of the discussion.

Bringing the invisible differences into the conscious space between the two of us required courage from us both. Its consequence was that my coachee reached a place where she was happy to be coached by me meaning that, according to my own coaching criteria, I was able to coach her. We have pursued our coaching partnership with a dialogue informed, yet not inhibited, by that original conversation.

I understand why similarity may feel like the right way to go when looking for someone to be your coach. Similarity may open a door to a coaching conversation that would otherwise remain shut. Similarity has its place, its value. However, for me, difference is where the richest vein of learning can be exposed in coaching partnerships. While I never force that point of view on a coachee I do always invite them to consider its possibilities. Time and again it has led to a mutually beneficial coaching partnership. I look back on all of these experiences knowing that they all contribute to my own ability to navigate the complexity of inclusion and diversity, as a professional and as a person.

* I like using my own photographs in some of my blogs. Sometimes there is a direct relevance, sometimes I am just like the picture and am interested in what connections readers might make between the words and images. Any connection is something to be curious about.

I am grateful to Pearl John for pointing out just how relevant this picture is to the narrative. Zak Ove describes his creation as 'a work that spoke about Africa's diaspora, what it is to be an African born away from the continent". Certainly relevant to a discussion about difference. Pearl also reminded me of taking care to credit the originators of any art that I share. I realise that I have not always done that but appreciate the importane of doing so!


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