Research Paper By Glenda M Francis
(Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
The International Coaching Federation (ICF) has recently updated its core competencies model for responsive, ethical, and professional coaching, which will take effect in 2021. ICF is widely recognized as the premier global self-governing, accrediting coaching body. Itsupdatedmodel has preserved much of the original core since the organization’s founding nearly 25 years ago and integrated some new themes and elements. One of the significant themes of import to this paper is the increased focus on “cultural, systemic, and contextual awareness.”
This past summer, against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter global movement against racist police violence and a national reckoning on race in the United States, ICF issued a statement condemning racism and systemic inequality. Part of the statement reads, “As coaches, we consider our clients’ context, identity, environment, experiences, values, and beliefs as we partner with them in unlocking their potential. However, we cannot help our clients reach their greatest potential unless we also work against entrenched conditions that limit it. The continued perpetuation of systemic inequality is at odds with our shared values and vision as ICF. As coaches, we know that change often begins in moments of discomfort. Change begins with tough conversations. Change begins when we open ourselves to feedback about where we are getting it wrong and to guidance on what we can do to get it right. We must act.”
Act, we must. This paper explores the promise of mindful, antiracist coaching in creating safe coaching spaces for and adding much-needed value to the lives of Black women who have been historically burdened and marginalized by intersecting oppressions. Even the most broad-minded, skilled, client-centered*coach can unknowingly perpetuate racial bias and insensitivity in coaching. The ICF model offers neither explicit guidance for how coaches can detect their own implicit racial bias nor a framework for eradicating it once it’s detected. Mindful, antiracist coaching—as a mindset and practice—offers us a viable path forward.
*Throughout this paper, I’ve chosen to reference the term “coach” using the gender pronouns of she/her.
Cultivating “trust and safety” is a bedrock competency of professional coaching. ICF defines this competency as “partner[ing] with the client to create a safe, supportive environment that allows the client to share freely. Maintain[ing] a relationship of mutual respect and trust.” Central to this tenet is understanding the client within a context that includes, among other considerations, identity, environment, and beliefs.
Context, indeed, matters for both the client and coach. For example, how might a white coach who is uncomfortable with the topic of race pursue safety when her Blackclient expresses anger, sheer exhaustion, and frustration about the racial discrimination and microaggressions she experiences in the workforce? What would equip the coach to “hold the trauma of current and historical racism without defensively deflecting it?”(Clausen 2020).
Unfortunately, the United States of America has yet to reckon with its centuries-old original sin of slavery, which it codified as a racial hierarchy, and where racial discrimination remains systemic and pervasive. To be color-blind, dismissive, or patronizing, closes off the possibility for the professional to remotely understand the whole of her client, which is essential to cultivating trust and safety. Consequently, then, the professional fails to widen her own view—in fact, she holds and operates from an implicit racial bias—and performs a gross disservice to her client.
Consider this excerpt on the ripple effects of the twin traumas of race and coronavirus on Black people:
“The truth is, many Black people have been experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for decades, many most likely even undiagnosed.
“The traumatizing role [of] slavery, racial oppression and violent hatred toward Black people has been embedded in our minds, making it difficult for us to mentally manage additional stressors. But still we do it—day after day. While many people associate post-traumatic stress disorder solely with being the result of experiencing war, it’s actually a chronic psychiatric disorder that occurs in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event—such as a global pandemic and racial injustice.
“But what happens when they occur at the same time? How do we compartmentalize the pain and trauma we’ve been experiencing since birth?. .”(Wilson, 2020.)
There’s a growing body of literatureon the subject ofracism and racial bias towards Black clients in the helping professions ofpublic health, therapy, psychology, and coaching (Bernstein, 2019; Clausen, 2015; Pon, 2009; Williams, 2013). This grievous behavior not only fracturesthe aforementioned sacred agreement, but also causesBlack clients to feel deeply violated, newly triggered, and at a loss. Because it obviously bears repeating, let it be known that Black people deserve to be treated with basic human dignity and respect,and to receive care commensurate with the ethical standard of care afforded to others; they also deserve caring, competent professionals who will work to understand and remedy their “pain and trauma” rather than compound it.
Historically, in the Black community, it has been stigmatizing to seek professional help and as a result, many suffered in silence as “strong” people do, while being subjected to “weathering”. Black people tend to not “air their dirty laundry” for fear it may be used against themto paint a portrait of rampant cultural pathology or to further discriminate against them in laws and institutional policies. This belief is slowly evolving as more high-profile Black celebrities and athletes openly discuss their experiences with professional help. Still, it’s not an easy decision for Black folks to seek care and, when they do, they tend to preferprofessionals who look like them.
Alas, given the disproportionate ratio of white to Black helping professionals—about 82.5% to 7.8% as per 2019 Labor statistics—it is almost inevitable that a Black person seeking support will likely hire a white professional. Naturally, this decision can set off a chain reaction of anxiety and dread of being misunderstood and unsupported. While there is no immediate elixir to the problem of racial insensitivity and bias in coaching, I believe that adopting a practice of mindful, antiracist coaching can shift how coaches engage with and partner with all clients, especially Black clients who experience anti-Black racism and racial trauma. because I am passionate about supporting Black women
in my coaching, I will explore how this type of coaching practice offers hope towards the quality of coaching they rightly deserve.
Black Women, Self-Care, & Safe Coaching Spaces
Black women are typically the backbone of Black communities. As primary caretakers, they resourcefully find ways to maintain their families and community institutions, and care for others whilst also fighting on the frontlines for social change. Caring for others, trying to survive in a world that devalues them (e.g., unequal pay gap of 61 cents per every dollar made by white, male counterparts), and battling systemic oppressions have taken an alarming toll on Black women’s health (BHWI, 2020). Some Black women are finally learning to prioritize themselves and their self-careas radical acts of self-love(Eltahir, 2020), which may includetherapy and coaching care.
As they increasingly seek professional care, many Black women will undoubtedly want a coach who looks like them or can relate to their lived experiences without the burden of having to translate cultural contexts or over-explaining. Coaches who are interested in being of service to Black female clients should make it a priority to market themselves as coaches committed to mindful, antiracist practices or, at a minimum, communicate how a practice of mindfulness can serve all clients regardless of their contexts or identity.
Black women deserve safe coaching spaces where they are seen, heard, believed, valued, and accepted for who they are. They deserve safe coaching spaces where they can be their full, authentic selves as they seek a path of growth and transformation. They deserve safe coaching spaces where they trust that their coaches will act with the highest levels of ethics and competency. They deserve safe coaching spaces where they can begin to lay down the heavy baggage of pain and trauma caused by systemic and internalized oppressions and begin the healing work of envisioning bold, new possibilities for their lives.
A Practice of Mindful, Antiracist Coaching
“A commitment to the cultivation of self is essential to earning the right to support others in their own journeys…Familiarity and competence with your inner world is both a consequence of and a prerequisite for mindful coaching…” (Silsbee, 2010)
In his seminal work, The Mindful Coach, Silsbee defines mindfulness in this way:
“Mindfulness is the state of being aware of our own sensations, thoughts, feelings, and judgments. As we become more self-aware, we learn to identify and acknowledge our own habits of mind and so prevent ourselves from becoming trapped by them; as we see and accept them, they tend to dissipate, giving us a clearer view of what is around us. Mindful self-awareness is the essential starting point in serving our clients well.
Indeed, a coach who become outrightly defensive when her Black female client discusses the impact of race on her life is likely unmindful of the coach’s own inner landscape and consequently,defaults to her personal agenda at a detriment to the client. Perhaps had she been mindfully engaged, she might have noticed the trigger, the rising sensations in her body, or her internal dialogue, and in so noticing, chosen to release her internal attachments to become fully present with her client. Had she been mindful, she might have self-monitored by asking, for example, What alternative can I choose in this moment to best serve my client? Presence can only be accessed when we are mindful and it is this quality that enables us to be resilient and open to new possibilities.
This is the ideal we strive towards in mindful coaching, stretching us towards a more ethical and competent alliance. It’s the underlying practices of rigorous self-observation and self-monitoring that catalyze self-awareness; self-awareness is the linchpin in mindful coaching and entails“noticing and suspending one’s own habits and agendas.”This is an important requisite because what it conveys is that all coaches, regardless of their training and levels of expertise,embody patterns of thought, habits, beliefs, and cultural ways of seeing. These ways of accompanying them into the coaching space and influence how they coach and what they attend to. With self-awareness, the coach is gifted an opportunity to choose how to respond, either from conditioned habit or a new possibility that may serve the client.
There is no one-shot inoculation for learning how to attune to one’s inner landscape or to be antiracist; developing a practice of mindful, antiracist coaching requires a sustained, lifelong commitment to self-inquiry and cultural humility. It also demands a rigorous, honest assessment of the role that race has played in American culture, and for many white Americans whose culture is rooted in white supremacy, racism, and privilege, this can be a jarring reckoning (DiAngelo, 2018).
It would appear, then, that a sustained practice of mindfulness holds enormous potential for serving allclients well and so one might wonder why the pairing with an antiracist stance.Given the legacy and pervasiveness of systemic racism in the U.S., I believe it’s important to centralize this practice as an essential coaching competency. It is the focus on antiracism that reminds the coach of this broadercontext of racial hierarchy and cultural conditioning, of which client and coach are implicated, that requires specific attention and redress.
It is the antiracist aspect of the mindful coaching practice that enables the coach, post-session and beyond, to engage in radical honesty and self-reflection about her own white racial identity and subjectivity that might have surfaced in the coaching space, potentially undermining the interests of her Black clients. Moreover, as part of the coach’s next steps, she might even consider sharing her reflections and insights with the client at the start of the next session. The client might very well appreciate such a disclosure, which holds the possibility for furthering the coach’s perspective and growth.Similarly, the coach’s willingness to be transparentwith her client may contribute to greater trust and intimacy in the alliance.
In choosing to broaden the parameters of the foundational coaching agreement, the mindful coach for thrightly broaches the topic of race and cultural identity as a possible context for understanding her client, partners with the client to determine if and how she would like to be coached around related topics, and where appropriate, self-discloses where she falls within the white identity development model (Helms, 1993)and what her antiracist coaching commitments entail. In addition, the coach also negotiates norms for handling any perceived cultural miscues or implicit bias. Adopting such a proactive approachat the outset establishes the coach as vulnerable, open to learning, and a collaborative partner. This stance also signals powerfully to the client that the coach recognizes her humanity and will strive to facilitate the quality of service she rightly deserves. (By the way, this approach is also applicable tothe white coach-white client relationship.)
Mindful coaching is equally essential for the coach who shares a similar cultural background with the client. While there may be a presumption of shared experiences, it is helpful to recognize that culture and identity are experienced in individual and unique ways and that culture is neither static nor monolithic. Therefore, it’s just as important that the coach maintains mindfulness to avoid projections as well as any presumed knowledge or interpretations of the client’s contexts and worldviews.
By virtue of human socialization and conditioning, all coaches possess patterns of thought, habits, judgments, and cultural lenses that can potentially interfere with effective service to their clients, especially racial minority clients who are subject to racial bias. A practice rooted in mindfulness enables the coach to self-observe and self-monitor these influences, which stimulates the self-awareness necessary to be fully present in service. Mindful, antiracist coaching makes it more likely that Black women’s humanity is valued and they are afforded the care they rightly deserve.
Anderson, Carly. 2020. “Racism Antiracism and Coaching.” https://carlyanderson.com/racism-antiracism-and-coaching
Bernstein, Ariel Finch. 2019. “Race Matters in Coaching: An Examination of Coaches’ Willingness to Have Difficult Conversations With Leaders of Color.” Columbia University. https://academiccommons.columbia.edu/doi/10.7916/d8-g8er-t242/download
Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI). 2020. “Index Us: What Healthy Black Women Can Teach Us about Health.”
Clausen, Margaret M, PsyD. 2015. “Whiteness Matters: Exploring White Privilege, Color Blindness, and Racism in Psychotherapy.” Psychotherapy.net.
DeVita-Raeburn, Elizabeth. 2013. “Arline Geronimus: Q&A About Weathering, or How Chronic Stress Prematurely Ages Your Body.” Everyday Health.
DiAngelo, Robin. 2018. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism. Massachusetts: Beacon Press Books.
Eltahir, Marwa. 2020. “Why Self-Love and Self-Care are Radical for Black Women,” American Urban Radio Networks (AURN). https://aurn.com/why-self-love-and-self-care-are-radical-for-black-women/
Helms, Janet, Ph.D. 1993. “White Racial Identity Development Model.” https://coatescbc.files.wordpress.com/2016/07/helms-white-racial-identity-development-model.pdf
Hutchison, Christine. “How do White Female Therapists Address Racism?” Psychedin SanFrancisco. http://www.psychedinsanfrancisco.com/white-female-therapists-address-racism/
ICF Releases Statement Condemning Racism and Systemic Inequality. June 2020.
International Coaching Federation. 2019. Updated Core Competencies Model. https://coachfederation.org/app/uploads/2019/11/ICFCompetencyModel_Oct2019.pdf
Pon, Gordon. 2009. “Cultural Competency as New Racism: An Ontology of Forgetting.” Journal of Progressive Human Services, 20:59-71.https://refugeeresearch.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Pon-2009-Cultural-competency-is-the-new-racism.pdf
Rodriguez, Adam. 2015. “In Search of Someone Who Will Understand: How to be a Culturally Sensitive Therapist.” Psychedin SanFrancisco.http://www.psychedinsanfrancisco.com/search-culturally-sensitive-therapist-minority-clients/
Silsbee, Doug. 2010. The Mindful Coach: Seven Roles for Facilitating Leader Development, New and Revised Edition. California: Jossey-Bass.
Truong, Kimberly. 2018. “We Need to Talk about Black Women & Therapy.”Refinery29. https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/black-women-mental-health-therapy
Williams, Monnica T., Ph.D. August 2013. “How Well-Meaning Therapists Commit Racism.” Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/culturally-speaking/201308/how-well-meaning-therapists-commit-racism
______.June 2013. “How Therapists Drive Away Minority Clients.” Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/culturally-speaking/201306/how-therapists-drive-away-minority-clients
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic. 2019. “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey.” https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat18.htm
Wilson, Kimberly. June 2020. “The Long-Term Mental Health Effects for Black People Living Through Coronavirus and Racial Trauma.” Essence. https://www.essence.com/lifestyle/health-wellness/mental-health-effects-black-people-coronavirus-racial-trauma/
Following decades of research in and with high-poverty communities, in 1992, researcher Dr. Arline Geronimus coined the term “weathering” to describe the “physiological process that accelerates aging and increases health vulnerability. It is spurred by chronic toxic stress exposures over the life course and the tenacious high-effort coping [that] families and communities engage in to survive them, if not prevail.” Weathering helps us understand how “lived experiences such as racial inequality and gender discrimination become biology.”