Bringing a diversity lens to coaching – and why it matters

Coach Salma Shah’s new book is an in-depth exploration of the complex issues that coaching with a diversity lens can bring up – and why it can be transformational.

African American businesswoman with colleague

 

The coaching profession needs to be more diverse so that different voices can be heard and different experiences acknowledged and understood, according to a new book out next month.

Based on her own coaching work, Salma Shah has written a book about the need for a diversity lens in coaching work. While she thinks that expanding the diversity of coaching itself would be a big step forward, she thinks it is also important for all coaches to understand the issues involved in coaching people from underrepresented groups.

She felt a book on the subject needed to be written by a person from one of those groups. “It’s not that a person who is from a minority group could not write it, but it felt important that it had that voice,” she says.

Her book, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging in Coaching, outlines the sensitivity needed to coach with a diversity lens. The main skills are an ability to be open, to build trust, to listen and to take a wider lens, taking into account not just people’s career issues but also multi-layered identity issues and people’s lived experience of juggling multiple systems of belonging.

The book also shows the kind of issues coaches should be aware of, such as the need for people to feel they are in a safe space to explore what may be painful issues to do with belonging, their survival strategies and experiences of trauma. The book also covers the need for allies and the complexity of issues such as authenticity and resilience if you have been used to having to hide your identity or have not been able to admit vulnerability as a result of racism.

Dysfunctional resilience

Salma [pictured below] talks about ‘dysfunctional resilience’ – the kind of resilience that is a survival skill or a coping mechanism, which doesn’t allow people to open up and be vulnerable. “If you are from a minority group you have often learnt to be resilient just to function, but at some point that dysfunctional resilience will build to a point where it will explode,” she says.

Her coaching is about allowing people to step into their own space and power. “Often people from a minority background don’t feel heard or seen. We need to create a space for them to talk about their stories and to unpack and name the -isms they face so that we can move them forwards,” says Salma.

Headshot of Salma ShahShe speaks of a black woman who was made redundant by her employer and told to leave the building immediately, as can happen in corporate settings. The situation had been particularly traumatic and triggering for the woman because of past experiences of systemic racism and rejection. “There were many layers of pain around that that needed to be unpacked,” says Salma. “It’s really complex and requires a lot of patience and sensitivity.”

She adds that the same is true of microaggressions which can trigger huge layers of trauma. In some cases Salma will signpost people to therapy, but in most she says what is needed is just to allow that trauma to be articulated.

Salma says some people who she coaches can be fairly defensive and may feel that they are being sent to coaching because of performance issues. They may think it is just another diversity and inclusion initiative. “People are relieved that it is not diversity training,” she says. “The feedback I get is always that it is better than people thought it would be. People feel that it has helped them to connect with a part of themselves that has not felt belonged.”

She adds that allies are vital to promoting greater diversity across organisations and in coaching and says she has often found great allies in white working class people. “They really get what I am doing, that sense of belonging,” she says. But she adds that anyone can feel like an outsider, for instance, a mum returner.

For Salma coaching is about more than helping someone in their career. It is truly transformational. “Coaching is life changing,” she says.

*Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging in Coaching will be published by Kogan Page on 3rd April.



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