I returned from Rwanda in the past week where I found myself coaching a senior Kepler (Kigali) University staff member. The trip left me wondering about culture and its impact on coaching – it did not seem to interfere.
Later I learnt that the woman’s husband was killed in the 1994 genocide, an all too common story in the region, and yet her daughter is now a director of the university, a demonstration that leaders can be nurtured from any culture, even one is such a state of flux.
I do believe that culture is important, particularly as we can easily make assumptions. For example, I coached another woman who was going for interview on her pitch for the job, to make it more succinct and impactful. But Rwandans do not prioritise such succinctness and I only came to realise that later as my understanding of the culture deepened.
However, that which is most personal is most general. We can transcend culture by exquisite listening and empathy.
This requires more than active listening. It requires listening for thoughts with respect, listening for feelings with empathy and most of all listening for intentionality. What is behind this narrative. What is the structure of the experience. At this level all men are created psychologically equal. We all need to be heard, understood and witnessed. We all want to feel that we matter. I care and you matter. To listen like this we need to pay enormous attention. Nothing can distract. We have to train our brain to maintain a single point of focus.
The brain does not like to be tied to one point, it wants to wander. So we need to practise mindful meditation to develop the focusing part of the brain.
To witness the concern for excellence of the Rwandan widow, and her resilience in the face of unspeakable suffering was a privilege. The profundity of her experience transcends culture. The coach needs to tread softly and gently in the precious interior of peoples’ lives.
It is a privilege not accorded to many and many coachees will talk to coaches about subjects that they have never spoken of before.
There is a great relief in having an understanding other listening carefully to us. The effect can be as powerful as the best pharmaceuticals and neurobiology experts are now starting to understand the power of words and primal empathy.
Do we need to be clinical psychologists to do this? NO!
We need to have the intention to be useful and the discipline to know how best to do this. Often the best way to be useful is to listen without interruption.
Giving advice is often counter-productive. Knowing that you are not going to be interrupted allows the mind to search without constraint. And people usually have all the resources they need to be effective.
It is merely a question of accessing such resources. How? By asking positively oriented, open, neutral questions such as what would you like to happen? How might you achieve this? Any other ideas occur?
It is a question of getting out of the way to allow the coachee time to think – the most precious time of all.
If you are coaching in a very different culture, acquaint yourself with local norms. Consult experts. But most of all trust your attention and intention to transcend any cultural misunderstandings.
Pushing the edge for a coach is necessary for development. Trust your client to meet you half-way. And the result will be a kind of magic!
Andrew McLaughlin is a Programme Director on the IMI Diploma in Executive Coaching and IMI Diploma in Organisational Behaviour. He is an experienced executive coach who has worked with national and multi-national companies including Revenue Commissioners, Departments of Industry and Commerce and Defence, OECD and EU. Andrew is a Master Practitioner and certified trainer/consultant of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Andrew regularly volunteers to work in Africa in a university setting.