Cross cultural coaching

Written by
Changeboard Team

21 May 2010

21 May 2010 • by Changeboard Team

Mentoring philosophy

Despite numerous books and articles on coaching being available in the market place, we consistently find that many people come on to our coaching programmes with a generalised version of coaching which is far more in line with mentoring. This is also a prevalent view of coaching in a number of different cultures we have recently experienced this, for example, when working with Singaporean coaches.

Some cultures have a mentoring philosophy, which is based upon cultural wisdom. This is the wisdom of sharing knowledge and experience, often passed down from generation to generation, older to younger, respectfully and with honest, paternalistic intent. It is quite normal in many Middle/Far Eastern societies for the old and experienced to mentor and guide the young and inexperienced. Passing on knowledge and wisdom is seen as a duty.

Differences between coaching & mentoring

Many organisations in the UK and the northern hemisphere have adopted coaching and mentoring programmes, but here seniority and age are not necessarily criteria for qualifying as either. Where coaches from the UK and the northern hemisphere are looking at engaging in coaching relationships with coachees from the Middle/Far East, this element needs acknowledging and exploring as part of the initial discussions.

It has proved essential to establish a clear understanding of the expectations of the coaching relationship up front and that the prospective coachee (and their organisation) is comfortable with this. This is obviously particularly the case if younger coaches are being proposed for older, or more senior, coachees.

This tussle with the definition of coaching as being different and separate to mentoring,  and being willing and able to coach accordingly, is one which seems to be universal to coaching, and not specific to any particular culture. However, it does seem to be more deeply entrenched in certain cultures, and therefore is the one area we feel is important to highlight here. Coaching is positioned as a process by which the coach enables the coachee to find their own solutions to their issues. Mentoring is about using your knowledge and experience to give your mentee your ideas about what might work for them.

Developing coaching expertise

The key question that coaches ask themselves when teasing out the difference between the two activities is:

  • How do I put aside all my experience, age and knowledge and not tell people what they should or shouldnt do, when I know.
  • Dont I have a moral obligation to do this?
  • Isnt this where my value to them lies?

We have found that it takes a focused piece of personal development to explore this issue for yourself as a coach, and to become confident that the other things a coach can do for a coachee are equally important, maybe more so, and above all, different. This can involve developing a solid understanding and expertise in the coaching process, rather than relying on your initial personal resources and experience.

If the expectation of a more mentoring purpose for a coaching session is in place from a cultural perspective, it's vital that this assumption is surfaced, explored and resolved before the coaching work starts for real.

Cross cultural coaching: self-awareness

1. The need for the coach to have a very clear understanding of their own culture, and how this could play out in a coaching relationship

All coaching relationships are a dynamic relationship between two people. As the coach, it is your responsibility to manage your own state, so that whatever is going on for you in terms of your responses to the coachee, this doesnt get in the way of the coachee achieving what they want. It's important, therefore, for the coach to have a sufficient level of self-awareness around their own cultural issues so that they dont get caught out with an inappropriate instinctive response to something the coachee says or does.

Cross cultural coaching: the bigger picture

2. The need for the coachee to be willing to explore their coaching issues in relationship to any cultural issues which are part of the bigger system

The coach needs to take responsibility for drawing the coachees attention to the bigger picture in which they operate. It can also be useful to remember that the coachee will always be the expert on their own culture, not you so its perfectly ok to ask for information. It is then the coachs job to help the coachee make the connections between what they want from the coaching and how the cultural aspects of their context need to be accommodated.

Cross cultural coaching: cutural differences

3. Developing a coaching environment where different perspectives from different cultural insights becomes useful and informative, rather than provocative and confrontational

This is about how the coach sets up the relationship at the outset, by acknowledging any cultural differences, and contracting with the coachee to use these as sources of information, rather than competition around which set of beliefs is the right one. The coach needs to genuinely believe that the coachee would not be better off seeing things from the coachs own cultural perspective, and that there isnt a hidden coachs agenda.

Cross cultural coaching: establishing rapport

4. The paramount importance of building the coaching relationship and establishing rapport

If the relationship is solid, everything else can be managed. The coach can help with this by checking out their own intent towards the coachee, especially in relation to the previous point. Mutual respect for differences is highlighted in the cross-cultural coaching arena, even more obviously than is same-culture coaching relationships.

Cross cultural coaching: contracting

5. The importance of contracting around the whole of the coaching work

All of the above points can be acknowledged and explored before being summarised by the coach and coachee as part of their initial contracting around the coaching work. This then gives a point of reference, and permission to re-visit it, if things get complicated later on.

Coaching supervision

6. The importance for the coach of being in supervision with an experienced cross-cultural coaching supervisor

As a coach, there is only so much you can prepare for and anticipate. Cross-cultural coaching can be a rich mine-field of potential challenging moments. To stay resourceful as a coach, and thus of maximum value to your coachee, it is essential to be able to share any experiences which have you confused, unsettled, puzzled, or any of the other emotions that a coach can start to carry around with them.

Coaching supervision is the place to take these things, and a supervisor with cross-cultural experience can be particularly useful in these situations. It's worth noting, however, that it's coaching supervision you are looking for, not cross-cultural mentoring from someone with experience of the particular culture you are working with. That might be helpful as well, but it is not the same thing.