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Addressing biases helps coaches connect with clients

When coaches address their own implicit biases, they can ask better questions, leading clients to explore how their unique life experiences impact their ability to set and achieve goals.


Implicit bias can impact coaching-client dynamics


Coaches can address their own implicit biases


Self-awareness helps coaches ask better questions

Wisdom Weavers

Self-reflection and humility allow coaches to examine their own biases

Dr. Michael Cavanagh

In order to help people flourish, coaches need to see people for who they are and appreciate each client’s individual life experience. This process begins with a coach’s ability to address their own implicit biases—attitudes toward and stereotypes of others—that often arise without conscious knowledge. 

Wisdom Weaver Sharon Ehaz asks: “Our coachees have identities. I give myself as an example: I am a mother, I am a woman, I am a military officer. I want to be seen as a multi-faceted person because those things represent who I am, the values that I bring, and the things that I hold dear. To tell me that I am just a human being downplays what I bring in my own uniqueness, and so there’s a danger there of just viewing people as, well, we’re all humans.” Sharon observes:

“It seems, at times, that there’s a process, right? It’s you bring somebody and you put them through the coaching process and they come out the other end better for it. But in the process of that, do we actually meet people where they are and see who they are?” 

Sharon Ehasz

Unfortunately, bias is part of the human experience, and implicit biases can be particularly disruptive to the coaching process. Sharon suggests coaches increase their self-awareness by asking: “what are we bringing into [the coaching] environment? Whether it’s understanding of the other person or whether it’s experiences that we’ve had with maybe an identity that we associate with that person.”

To overcome bias and connect authentically with clients, coaches must ask clients what they are experiencing. When coaching people with differences of any kind, bias may be a huge factor influencing their lives and impacting their ability to achieve goals. Coaches must be willing to help clients explore these possibilities by asking the types of questions that allow clients to identify how bias—implicit or otherwise—shapes their lives. 

Sharon suggests that when “coaching people with disabilities…there are limitations—physical limitations—that they may have or societal limitations based off of how they are viewed or treated. And if you don’t acknowledge those, how do you effectively coach [clients] to become better because you don’t recognize the context within which they live?”

Coaches can address implicit bias in the coaching relationship by:

  • Educating themselves on implicit bias and attending implicit bias training
  • Asking questions that allow clients to discuss their experiences of bias and difference

Coaches address the complexity of client experiences

Wisdom Weaver Dr. Richard Boyatzis expands the conversation about implicit bias and the role of identity by explaining that traumatic experiences alter a person’s sense of self. Coaches “have no idea from looking at someone [when] they have felt traumatized in the past and what they feel marginalized about.” Richard continues, “I’ve met one person in something like 6,000 students over the 34 years [of teaching] who didn’t feel marginal. We all do, but you don’t necessarily know what it is because it may not be visible … and they may vary from experiences like living through a horrendous tsunami, earthquake, or hurricane to fighting a war.”

Wisdom Weaver Scott Taylor counsels that coaches must also consider how a client’s identity influences the way they receive feedback. While it is unhelpful to stereotype whole groups of people as having one type of response to trauma or experiences of bias, coaches can benefit from observing how their clients receive feedback and adjusting their approach accordingly. One person may ruminate over critical feedback, whereas another person may “blow it off.” Scott explains that coaches must consider “the implications for coaching in a very real kind of practical way,” taking care to ensure that feedback is processed in a constructive and productive manner.

Richard points out that these aspects of identity can be multi-dimensional:

“[The] intersection of gender differences and cultural differences or gender differences and cultural differences and racial differences, that the effects aren’t just additive we suspect … the effects are multiplicative, which means that the stress and burnout which is really burnt up is huge and if we’re ever going to coach people in a way that helps them deal with all of these things, it’s going to take some heavy-duty work because it’s not as simple as dealing with one form of stereotyping bias.”

Dr. Richard Boyatzis

Context informs the coaching process

In order to account for the plethora of hidden and explicit aspects of a client’s identity, Wisdom Weaver Dr. Andromachi Athanasopoulou advocates for coaches to consider the importance of taking context into account. Andromachi explains that “by focusing so much on the groups of women as one group or one culture…we miss the individual and the importance of sort of customizing interventions to the needs of the individual.” The solution is to “find balance between the two” through practice and a constant awareness of the context of the client.

Ultimately, coaches help clients reflect on their lives to discover their own pathways and passions. By being attuned to both their own implicit biases and the complexity of their client’s experiences, coaches can foster the types of relationships that help clients better achieve their goals.

Coaching and the United Nations Global Goals

The coach has a constant responsibility of implicit bias awareness and refining the coaching experience to avoid tarnishing the overall coaching process. The coaching model has been in place for centuries, but constant growth and discussion are necessary to ensure the coach is best assisting the client. This conversation heavily relates to the United Nations Global Goal 17, which aims to strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development. As coaching continues to grow and develop, constant discussion allows for steady improvement to best benefit the clients. 

About this Convening

Forty-one Wisdom Weavers from across the globe gathered to share their thoughts and observations on Shaping the Future of Coaching across three separate Future of Coaching Convenings in September 2021. Learn more about the participants and topics covered in this Convening.

For the complete report and research recommendations, see Boyatzis, R.E., Hullinger, A., Ehasz, S.F., Harvey, J., Tassarotti, S., Gallotti, A., & Penafort, F. (2022). The grand challenge for research on the future of coaching. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. DOI: 10.1177/00218863221079937

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