Cross-Cultural Differences in Coaching

John and I have just returned from running a module of a leadership programme in Brussels. Participants attended from the EMEA region and so there was a great international feel. As part of the module, two Olympic athletes told their stories about setting courageous goals, receiving feedback and managing setbacks. This was incredibly interesting in its own right, but there was one comment over dinner which was particularly interesting about the cross cultural aspects of coaching, relating to how different cultures view challenge.

In chapter 9 of “Challenging Coaching” on applying the FACTS, we discuss the cultural differences and gave the example of people from the Netherlands having a very direct communication style. To me as a Brit this can be refreshingly honest, but can also be a shock. The directness of the delivery can be a ‘slap in the face’ and act as a wakeup call.

I accept that this is a national stereotype and must be taken with a pinch of salt. Everyone is different, but I also know from examples of cultural norms for various psychometrics profiles that there are subtle differences which are more than simple stereotypes.

Over dinner in Brussels a Belgium person also commented on the directness of Dutch people. He explained it by saying that for centuries the Dutch have been fighting to hold back the sea and so do not have time to be anything but direct in their style. The threat posed by the sea attacking the Dutch dykes and the low lying land beyond creates an urgency which has led to a style of communication which is straight to the point.

This was a very interesting comment coming from such a close neighbour of the Dutch. I cannot comment if this opinion is shared any further than this one person and I leave the interpretation to you, but merely want to report the comment.

However, this encouraged me to think about the thoughts and feelings behind a message and the impact this has on the delivery of the message. The intent versus the impact. A ‘communicator’ may have a particular intention in mind when delivering the message, but the impact on the ‘receiver’ may be completely different. In a previous blog I talked about different perceptual filters and this is another example of this. Also, as a ‘communicator, I am blind to how the message is received, and as a ‘receiver’ I am blind to the intention behind the message.

Consider the Dutch fighting to hold back the sea, I can appreciate that if an individual is ‘battling’ against something there will be an edginess, urgency, anxiety, abruptness and possibly a loudness around the message. The physical challenge posed by the sea makes it essential that the message is communicated and received with urgency.

But there are more than environmental challenges. We do not hear or read reports about the Netherlands being overwhelmed by the sea, and with modern engineering I guess the dykes hold fast for the majority of the time. However, people around the world are threatened by more than the elements. There are the huge economic challenges we are facing, the threat from competitors, the pressure of potentially missing a deadline, the competition from peers, the threat of redundancy, the pressure to pay the bills, the threat of not living up to expectations. Maybe there are many people battling to hold back the sea, but of a different nature.

These mental battles happen alone. The fight is in the person’s own mind rather than out in the open on the dykes. This is where a coach can be an ally. The coach can both support and challenge the individual. The coach can help the individual with their ‘fight’ so strategies, plans, and approaches are identified. But also the coach can challenge, “Is this the only interpretation?” “Is this really a battle?” “Who are you fighting against?” “If you viewed it as win-win rather than win-lose, what would that be like?” The coach can help the person re-frame matters.

Things are rarely a battle, but may be a competition. But if it is a ‘challenge’ then work to lower the tension to a level which produces optimum performance and the greatest resourcefulness.

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