Part of my own coaching journey over many years has been a growing appreciation of how, in every coaching partnership, I benefit by learning from my coachees as we explore the territory that is of interest to them. Each and every one of them is a mentor to me as we explore a topic in which they have greater expertise – an exploration of themselves. While the agenda resides with each coachee, there is learning to be had by both of us. Here is one example. I am grateful to this particular coachee for permission to talk about this story which came up during our coaching partnership.
Some time back I started a coaching relationship with a new client. She was a young but experienced leader of a small organisation and was struggling with a loss of a sense of purpose in all that she was doing. Her family and first name spoke of a cultural origin outside of the UK and there were hints in language and accent of that background too. As we shared something about each of our backgrounds I carefully asked about her origin to find that she had arrived in the UK to complete her undergraduate, Masters and PhD degrees before starting her career here. By the time we were speaking she has lived, studied and worked in the UK for about 50% of her life.
We had an open and friendly introduction to our coaching partnership. We talked about where she originally came from and about the challenges of learning and working using a second language. My enquiries were respectful and complimentary. At least that was my intention and there was no evidence to suggest that my coachee felt any different.
Later on, as we moved onto talking about what she wanted to think and feel about in the coaching conversations she started to talk about the challenges she was sensing in her senior position. She talked about how there was a sense that being a lady meant that ‘I need to prove myself over and over again’. Adding to this burden was, as she put it, ‘the deep seated feeling of always needing to prove myself because I am an immigrant; a feeling that is fuelled by the daily micro-aggressions that I suffer each and every day which remind me of that immigrant status’.
I had not heard the term micro-aggressions before, or had not connected with its meaning. I chose to share my lack of knowledge and we talked in more detail about what microaggressions were for her, and the consequences of being exposed to them. While not a dictionary definition a microaggression is a question or an observation, made directly to a person or in relation to a third party, which implies ‘a subtle, indirect discrimination against a marginalised group’. My coachee talked about her experience of years of microaggressions and the consequences on her. While acknowledging that in nearly all cases there was no malice or racism intended, her lived experience of these accumulative microaggressions was showing up as self-doubt and a growing belief that she was a risk to her organisation’s ability to attract investment.
We concluded our first conversation with mutual appreciation and a firm foundation for what developed into a great coaching partnership. However, I left the conversation feeling ill at ease too. I was uncomfortably aware that several of my early enquiries were microaggressions. While all well intended and coming from a spirit of curiosity I had asked things like ‘where are your family roots?’ and ‘your English is brilliant’ and ‘it’s fascinating how accents change on particular words isn’t it?’ Whatever my intention with these words, it was clear to me afterward that their underlying subtext could be received as ‘YOU ARE NOT PART OF MY TRIBE!’
I decided to follow up with an email to my coachee with my reflections on that part of our conversation. I shared my awareness of how my comments might have been received and offered my truth that they were not intended. I also made an enquiry that was challenging, and which was to become something we were curious about in our later conversations. ‘As a coach it is a fascinating and challenging area in that your experience of microaggression in relation to your gender, age and cultural heritage are undoubtedly real. Yet how does one challenge choices in response to micro-aggressions without implying a recommendation of acceptance of them?’
My coachee came back with the following reply:
Thank you so much for yesterday! I really enjoyed our conversation and it's given me so much food for thought. I didn't see your questions as microaggressions, but I do appreciate you checking. The openness in admitting you're not sure is it all it takes to completely shift the conversation. I really enjoyed reading your piece too. I have to admit that I've viewed coaching as something similar to regular yoga practice or getting a personal trainer - probably really good for you, but reserved for those with certain privilege that working class me would find inaccessible, and I'm glad to have been proven wrong! But I'm sure that is a barrier for those from similar backgrounds to mine.
I was struck with the comment ‘the openness in admitting you're not sure is it all it takes to completely shift the conversation.’ It put into words something that is so important in coaching: the importance of being prepared to be vulnerable. Her comments were also a reminder of the risk of coaching being seen as an exclusive offer. The coaching community needs to be mindful that its communications and actions are not received as micro-aggressions. Coaching will only be perceived as being inclusive if there is compelling proof to demonstrate that it is!
I am hugely grateful to this coachee, as I am to all of them. I have taken the learning about microaggressions and applied it in work and social situations. I have not become hypervigilant to the extent that I stop communicating for fear of causing offence. Instead, I am alive to the possibility that my differences with another person will present challenges to our ability to communicate effectively. More important for me is that these same areas of difference are something to be curious about. In exploring them together there is a real opportunity to learn and to apply that learning productively in your everyday behaviours.