I have not read Richard Lewis’s book ‘When Cultures Collide’ but I know it is highly respected and I was reminded of its title this week when engaged in cross cultural coaching as part of a pioneering ‘east meets west’ leadership programme in Istanbul. The participants comprised Russian and British senior leaders in a global FTSE100 plc. Just as the coaching team joined the programme the company announced a reorganisation which threatened traditional power bases and upset the participants leading to a hostile climate of mutual suspicion and distrust – ironically aggravating the very ‘east meets west’ culture divide we were planning to bridge.
What a volatile melting pot in which to contemplate a coaching assignment? And as cultures collided how would they react to the challenging coaching style?
Now don’t get me wrong I am very passionate about everything Ian and I have written about in challenging coaching but there is a time and a place for every coaching tool and technique. As I waited to meet my Russian coachees for the first time, something told me that providing challenging feedback, holding accountability, raising the tension even further and taking risks to share my intuition and hunches might not be the best of starting points. In contrast, I was very grateful for the good old-fashioned traditional coaching skills In which I was immersed during the early years of my coaching career.
And so it was back to basics. I sat and listened and listened and listened. I asked open questions and I looked for some immediate common ground where we might build rapport. I attended to their personal agendas and went wherever they wanted to go. I mirrored body language. I paced their language and tone. I reassured and recognised. I empathised with difficult issues. I played safe at every turn. At one point I even found myself reaching for the comfort zone of the beloved GROW model!
It was a salutary experience since it reminded me how valuable these core skills of coaching can be. Immediately, the tension relaxed and tentative signs of trust and respect emerged. Amidst a climate of perceived threat and insecurity, the safety blanket of person centered coaching was a soothing balm. The yin of coaching was a great antidote to the yang of the immediate situation.
Who knows for how long this stance will feel appropriate. It will vary for different individuals in different roles but for all I think it will take some time to build the strong foundations of trust that is the essential foundation of a more challenging approach. For me the experience was proof that coaching is an art not a science. First and foremost we must show up as authentic human beings not as mechanised coaching drones. There are always many choices to be made in the moment. It is the challenge of flexing across a broad range of clients, organisations and cultures that makes coaching such a fascinating activity in which there is always more to learn and always more to let go of. Long live traditional coaching – across cultures and at home!
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