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Culturally competent coaching meets clients in their context: Christian van Nieuwerburgh

An experienced coach adapts to meet the contextual needs of their client.  In his talk on coaching in Islamic countries, Christian van Nieuwerburgh describes how changing the language, process, and goals of coaching allowed him to better serve Muslim clients in the Middle East.

Wisdom Weaver

Cultural competency in coaching requires active listening

Cultural competency has been a priority in helping professions since the 1980s and encompasses a variety of cultural domains, including racial and ethnic culture, regional culture, family culture, and even professional or organizational culture. When a coach understands an individual’s relationship to a structure, belief system, or set of experiences, they can better guide that person to make sustained change in line with their identity and values. Christian van Nieuwerburgh and his colleague Raja’a Yousif Allaho developed the “Coaching Alignment Wheel” framework to guide coaches in more culturally responsive work.

While the term cultural competency may not be explicitly stated, coaching bodies agree that understanding a client’s values is foundational for finding sustained change. Core competencies for the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC) document that new coaches must understand their clients’ “values, beliefs, and behaviors.” In 2019, The International Coaching Federation (ICF) updated its Core Competency framework to weave cultural competency throughout every element of coaching practice. The ICF framework calls coaches to listen to, understand, and apply information about a person’s “identity, environment, experiences, values, and beliefs” to help clients “integrate new awareness, insight or learning into their worldview and behaviors.”

“I think there’s a risk when we’re coaching as we’ve been saying ‘difference.’ There’s a risk that we could start off with a disrespectful view of that difference, so this is really crucial trust and respect being in place and part of that respect is the respect to allow people to be coached within a worldview that they adhere to a belief system or worldview that’s important to them.”

Dr. Christian van Nieuwerburgh

Active listening and humility are essential for coaches looking to partner with clients from another culture. Individuals are rarely a perfect representation of a single culture and often have overlapping identities that guide their actions. Asking the client how their values come from their experiences and culture puts their needs at the center of the coaching conversation. An adaptive coach also reflects on how their own experiences and culture contribute to personal bias. With these skills, coaches are uniquely equipped to help multi-cultural teams practice curiosity and open questioning. In an international team, this may include exercises to help team members better understand how their culture guides communication and collaboration.

Adapting coaching to align with client values

Van Nieuwerburgh’s work in the Middle East highlights how he could only use coaching tools by framing them in a way that made sense in context. For example, the word coaching does not exist in Arabic, so his team had to find ways to explain the role and purpose of coaching using Arabic terms. Another change involved re-prioritizing different aspects of the coaching process. Van Nieuwerburgh explains, “Some of the western models were not, it wasn’t that they weren’t helping, that sometimes they were getting in the way of, you know, the relationship they had with people and with their faith.”

Working with Muslim clients, van Nieuwerburgh found that intentions and relationships were more important than outcomes.  Other cultures may highlight productivity, personal insight, or respect for hierarchy as top priorities. Beyond an individual’s internal reality, adaptive coaches must understand the interpersonal relationships of their clients and how they interact with their family, community, or society. Looking at interpersonal dynamics, van Nieuwerburgh has published multiple articles and book chapters on how coaching can adapt to serve in education or multi-national corporations.

Coaching and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

Culturally competent coaching is about partnering with clients to create their own standards for success. In a globally connected world, coaches who understand how culture shapes both their clients’ and their own experiences can strengthen collaboration and elevate diverse voices in decision-making. Sustainable Development Goal 10 to reduce inequalities, strives for an equitable world both within and between countries or territories. Coaches are uniquely equipped to guide individuals, organizations, communities, and policymakers to reduce inequalities through mutual understanding.

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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