Coaching Across Language, Gender and Race Boundaries: Lessons from South Africa for Europe By CRAIG O’FLAHERTY — Centre for Coaching Switzerland
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Coaching Across Language, Gender and Race Boundaries: Lessons from South Africa for Europe By CRAIG O’FLAHERTY


Stone Lighthouse - Craig O'Flaherty ©

Stone Lighthouse – Craig O’Flaherty ©

DNA research is causing us to look at history in new ways. From its very beginning Europe has been a seen as a ‘melting pot’. It’s a history that up to now, has been believed to be founded on waves of migration, invasion and colonisation from its earliest times.

This pattern started with groups of hunter-gatherers from Africa as early as 60 000 years ago and continued as separate groups of farmers and herders from the Middle East made their way north. Recent theorists are contesting this and suggesting that there was a single, genetically similar population sprawled across the continent, from Russia, to the Middle East to northern Europe.

So, early history is unclear and under debate. What is much more clear are the new waves of migration and settlement of people from Africa, the Middle East and Australasia into Europe. Unlike previously, they do bring embedded genetic, cultural and language differences that need to be bridged for co-existence and integration to happen. Many professions, such as engineering or medicine, are being challenged by this as the immigration (especially resulting from the recent ‘Arab Spring’ and events in Syria) is bringing marked differences in language and culture that need to be bridged. And coaching is one of these professions.

Coaching in a country such as Switzerland, and in particular in cities such as Geneva, means that you are coaching people from global organisations and representative bodies from the furthest reaches of the globe. And the one mantra that coaching needs to live by is ‘meet the client where they are at’, not from where you are, or how you see the world. So, what do we need to do as coaches to build this capacity and coach from this place?

Some ideas are shared below to consider certain key questions:

  • What are the multiple dimensions to take account of?
  • What are coaches from multi-cultural contexts doing to bridge these?
  • How might we apply them in our coaching in a rapidly changing Europe?

What are the different dimensions that need to be traversed?

Coaches working in an international context such as Europe need to formulate a holistic model as part of their framework and that model needs to have a way of integrating diversity issues effectively. As The Centre for Coaching, founded 15 years ago and allied to The University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, we met this challenge from day one in South Africa, with its vivid multi-cultural society. From there our work has spanned Africa, as well as the world. One of the philosophies that has underpinned our work was research conducted by Professor Steve Burgess in South Africa. His work highlighted the emergence of ‘tribes’ – a typology of 16 South African groups that had discernible patterns of consumer and public behaviour. His core finding:

“Although racial identity has an influence, there is no evidence to suggest that it is a pre-potent influence on behaviour. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that racial identity is a very weak influence on behaviour in most situations, even in a country where it is artificially exaggerated by one of the most powerful social engineering and propaganda campaigns in human history”1

The essence of his findings was that ‘social identity’ was a more powerful determinant and predictor of human behaviour than race. In coaching terms this brings us back to a powerful question: If we are coaching, can we use a process and models and flow that tap into deeper issues such social identity, rather than more superficial layers such as race?

How are coaches from multi-cultural contexts working?

In order to accommodate this diversity and ensure that we as coaches are able to bridge the differences in culture, we have been using a framework called Integral Coaching developed by James Flaherty at New Ventures West in San Francisco. It’s a process which invites the coach to ascertain and coach from within the coachee’s Structure of Interpretation (SOI). SOI is an embodied way in which the client engages with the world, embodied because it’s embedded into how the client acts and behaves in the world around them. It informs how the coachee:

  • Thinks – interprets the world around them to create meaning
  • Feels – the emotions they attach to events, people and circumstances
  • Acts – the behaviours they engage in in reacting to what’s occurring around them.

How coaches are using this way of working with their coachees is extremely powerful. It means that Integral Coaches are:

  1. Helping clients to build a new way of interpreting their world
  • Using Structure of Interpretation to interpret how the client is behaving and acting in the face of challenges that confront them. Typically, clients are reacting, acting or speaking in a way which they are not alert to and which may be having undesired consequences for those they engage with and themselves. An example would be reacting aggressively or defensively when challenged at work. The Integral Coach would work with their client to:
    • Help the client to frame this into an Existing Narrative©a ‘story’ that captures the role the coachee is playing in the context of the world as they interpret or see itg. ‘Fighter – one at odds and at war with one’s surroundings’
    • Work with the client to design a New Narrative©a story that could capture how they could show up differently in the world, e.g. ‘Connector – where the client aspires to and builds the competencies to engage with themselves and clients in a new way that generates different outcomes.
  1. Working with the client to design a way forward to build new awareness & skills
  • Working with the client to design some Self-Observations© – a daily way of watching and observing themselves that the client can engage in to help them understand just what triggers their behaving in a certain way e.g. “Fighter Triggers” – an observation where the client stops two or three times a day to notice who or in what circumstances they get triggered to react in an aggressive or reactive way
  • Building some Practices© with the client that build competency e.g. ‘Pausing – a practice that the client does on a regular basis during the day, where the client pauses whatever they are doing, gets a sense of where they are and what they are doing, breathes deeply and then decides if they want to continue the same way. This will, over time, build the client’s capacity to pause when something happens and respond in a considered way versus just reacting.
  • Working with the client to build some Reflections© – something they do at the beginning or end of each day to assess how things went, what they are learning and what they might do differently
  1. Helping the client understand that they are journeying to the new narrative

At each follow-up session working with the Integral Coach the pair would decide what insights are emerging, what capacity for a more considered and thoughtful way of engaging with their world the client is building and what is resulting, and what other practices, observations and reflections the coachee might engage in to help them to respond to their life from deeper within the new narrative they are building towards.


Coaching across boundaries of language, culture and race requires deep sensitivity and appreciation. But more importantly it means working at a depth that is common and unites us fellow beings. In line with the most recent research which hypothesises a ‘genetic similarity’ to the original settlers of and wanderers across the European continent so long ago, Integral Coaching provides a way of working with the unique Structure of Interpretation that each of us as individuals have and avoids the danger of classifying people by definitional category such as race or culture. It is not that these do not exist but Integral Coaching is looking for things that unite rather than separate us. This allows coach and client to build bridges across their differences and work on the deeper qualities and capacities of what it means to be a human being.

1. Burgess, S M (2002) SA Tribes – Who we are, how we live, what we want from life, David Phillip, Cape Town

Further reading: Diversity in Coaching: Working with Gender, Culture, Race and Age, edited by Jonathan Passmore (2008)

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