Are We Ready for Cultural Sensitivity Coaching?

Fully embracing cultural sensitivity in the coaching field.

Posted Jun 05, 2020

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It has been profound to witness how the deaths of Ahmaud Aubrey, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor (to name a few) have sparked an international call to action to end oppressive, unjust treatment, institutional racism, and police brutality against people of color, in particularly Black men. 

Because of these events, coaches are becoming increasingly aware of how negative cultural engagement and social identity threat can impact goal attainment and hinder facilitating the coaching process. This is leading to a worldview awakening and practice necessity for coaches to wear an ally hat in conjunction with their coaching hat.

The behavioral and social science fields have already known about the influence of cultural experiences and social identity in all facets of our lives (e.g., work, institutions, social interactions; Steele, 2011). Furthermore, many companies are modifying their policies on inclusion and diversity, and have submitted open letters to the public on social media denouncing racism and implementing ways to transform how we engage through the lens of culture. They understand discrimination, racism, and bigotry are bad for business. Communities and families are having deep conversations about how to address racism and bigotry for a better world.

Now, more than ever, it seems the masses have had enough double racial standards, often at the expense of people of color, and want to do something tangible to change the status quo. Unfortunately, it’s unclear how the field of coaching can address the influence of cultural experiences in facilitating the coaching process (Reid, 2020). 

With his thought heavy on my mind, I took most of #BlackoutTuesday (and a few days thereafter) to contemplate and reflect on how I can engage conversations within the coaching community. Moreover, I meditated on how I could shed light on the true purpose and meaning of Black Lives Matter, and enlist allies, using my business, coaching skills, and personal antidotes as a coachee and as a coach. I wanted to look closer at how coaches can create a useful framework that encompasses sensitivity around culture.

I visited the International Coaching Federation's (ICF) website for support. Many of us who are members of ICF understand we are held to high ethical standards and are obligated to develop professionally. But I was slightly disappointed that the ethical standards and core coaching competencies seemed light on principles pertaining to cultural sensitivity. And, other than diversity and inclusion training that may include some coaching components, the industry is somewhat silent in directly addressing this issue. I concluded there was a gap in this area. Meaning, while the psychology field has clear guidelines and standards that speak to cultural sensitivity when engaging clients, the coaching industry does not—at least not as succinctly as our sister field, therapy/counseling. This is a gap to me that I want to close.

So, I decided understanding the concept of cultural sensitivity as a coaching approach is where I will focus. While I could not immediately see a clear, direct message or guideline about cultural sensitivity, I do not believe it was purposely left out. Many coaches likely assume being culturally sensitive is a given.

Unfortunately, the assumption to be culturally sensitive can be taken for granted, even if you have the best intentions. In fact, ICF studies present data that find people of color, particularly Black Americans, are an exceedingly small minority within the broader industry; not just as clients (ICF, 2017), but also as coaching professionals (ICF, 2016).

This discovery led me to further consider coaching’s sister, counseling/therapy, as a source to leverage ways to approach cultural sensitivity in the context of coaching because there are a plethora of research on this topic. As such, I looked towards the American Psychological Association (APA) and the behavioral and social sciences body of work as my guide to close the gap in the coaching industry surrounding cultural sensitivity.

Through my brief investigation, I was able to coin the term Cultural Sensitivity Coaching (CSC). Since cultural sensitivity as a concept has been established via behavioral and social science, it was easy to create the groundwork to support my theory and a model for CSC. Diversity and inclusion training underpins CSC (Myers, 2018; Washington & Patrick, 2018).

Likewise, APA has laid a strong foundation for multicultural openness for which clinicians abide by in their practices. For instance, the APA (2017a) provides guidance to clinicians on being culturally sensitive, and ethical standards (APA, 2017b) on how clinicians must engage with multicultural groups. From the APA’s guidelines and mandated standards, I was able to draw on key principles that coaches can effectively implement in their practices (albeit we are not clinicians), and the core coaching skills we must apply in a session to support cultural sensitivity in coaching.

As an example, when a client shares a negative experience about feeling anxious to perform in a space where the client is the only person of color, the coach can take a direct, purposeful approach to embrace the client’s experience. This means the coach must hold space for the client to define culture and social identity on the client’s terms and not intervene in how the client processes the experience. The coach also takes an ally role and creates an environment where the client feels safe in sitting with the anxiousness if cultural experiences or social identity threat poses a barrier to the client's goal attainment.

The importance of this approach is based on understanding how coaches currently and/or previously dealt with such experiences. Typically in a scenario like this, some coaches who I have informally surveyed expressed they would take the role of devil’s advocate and challenge the client on where the anxiousness is coming from, ask coaching questions around the narrative the client is telling him/her/their self, or use coachable moments as a way to change the client’s perception as if the experience is more imagined than real.

This approach demonstrates “cultural insensitivity.” The coach is taking the view to hold space so the client can “see the experience differently” because as one coach shared with me, “it might be in their mind and not really happening.” It is important for the coach to actively listen to the client and assess what the client needs in that moment if culture comes up during a coaching session. Therefore, understanding the significance of cultural sensitivity in the context of coaching is instrumental for a coach to create trust, a safe environment, and leverage the client's beliefs, values, and experiences within an allied-base coachable moment, especially if the client identifies with a marginalized group (APA, 2017a; Hayes, 2016). 

How do I operationalize the term? Again, I turned to diversity and inclusion training, cultural sensitivity training, and aspects of mindfulness development to create awareness and determine CSC’s application. However, coaching scholar-practitioners must continue to refine the concept of cultural sensitivity within coaching, and as a methodology, as we help CSC mature. That maturity encompasses how coaches professionally develop and learn to recognize the impact negative cultural experiences have on how some clients' motivation to accomplish goals, pursue aspirations, or take action.

Nonetheless, I based CSC's definition on the ICF’s definition for coaching, APA guidelines, and the work of Hayes (2016) and Steele (2011). CSC can be defined as a method of coaching that incorporates cultural sensitivity to facilitate the coaching process and holds space for how a coachee defines and experiences their social identity or culture in order to optimize the coachee’s full potential.

I am likely to fine-tune the definition the more I test my theory, and of course, obtain peer-review from my colleagues. For now, I feel this definition fits based on my current understanding and research on help-seeking behavior (See: Understanding Help-Seeking Intention and Awareness of Martial Support Resources in Married African Americans, Reid, 2019) and the resources I’ve mentioned so far.

It is important to note, CSC involves being keenly aware of how the client’s experiences and worldview (as seen through the lens of the client’s cultural uniqueness and social identity) affects the client’s decision-making and goal attainment. As I stated in a blog post on my website, “The output of these experiences may impact feelings, and/or emotions and by association, behavior” (Hayes, 2016; Reid, 2020; Steele, 2011).

As such, when strong feelings about culture come up during a coaching session, the coach must immediately create a safe, non-judging space. That space is for the client to step back, observe, question, and/or experiment with the feelings and thoughts that come up in the coaching sessions. The coach uses their role as coach and ally to help the client create meaning and an action strategy to move forward. The coach acknowledges bigotry, racism, oppression, and social identity threat are real to the client and does not minimize the client's feelings or experience.

The focus is more on what's valuable, what's important to the coaches, and how to be with the experience in a healthy way. The coachable moment is in identifying how the client can choose to use the information captured during the coaching session as a catalyst for transformation and self-actualization. Whatever the client chooses, the coach serves as an ally, not devil's advocate, in supporting the client’s objectives.

Does this mean the coach cannot challenge the coachee? No. But it means the way by which challenging occurs must be sensitive to the coachee's culture and experience. In addition, both the coach and client can discover a new appreciation for culture and social identity by sharing their authentic selves. In doing so, the coach can help the client strengthen self-efficacy and courage to decide how to respond to anxiousness derived from the client’s negative cultural experiences.

I am sure other researchers will put their own ideas and studies together and expand on this concept. I look forward to seeing how CSC will take form as it matures in the coaching industry. I think by starting here and giving coaches a starting point, the discussion on principles, best practices, and standards for CSC, we expand.

 I also encourage greater research in the efficacy of CSC as we discover more about it through our various coaching practices. I theorize that CSC can support coaching relationships and safer coaching environments where the client identifies with multiple social identities. 

Hayes (2016) as already provided us with a great model, ADDRESSING, to use as a template to understand what social identity is most important to the coachee. Likewise, the APA has given us guidelines and ethical standards that we can modify to fit within the context of coaching. Coaching scholars-practitioners have an extraordinary opportunity to usher in cultural sensitivity through CSC and create a new application that supports social change.


American Psychological Association. (2017a). Multicultural guidelines: An ecological approach to context, identity, and intersectionality. Retrieved from:

American Psychological Association. (2017b). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Retrieved from:

Hayes, P. (2016). Addressing Cultural Complexities in Practice: Assessment, Diagnosis, and Therapy, (3rd ed.).  American Psychological Association: Washington, DC.

International Coaching Federation (2017). Global Consumer Awareness Study. Retrieved from:

International Coaching Federation. (2016). Global Coaching Study. Retrieve from:

Myers, D. (2018). Making progress on our diversity and inclusion journey. Retrieved from:

Reid, D. (2020). From the ashes arises the Phoenix: An Essay On Creating Space for Cultural Sensitivity Coaching. Retrieved from:

Steel, C. (2011). Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Issues of Our Time).  W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York, NY

Washington, E., & Patrick, C. (2018). Three Requirements for Diverse and Inclusive Culture. Retrieved from: