Coaching for inclusion

Salma Shah’s new book, out this week, outlines how taking a diversity and inclusion lens to coaching can have a transformative impact on individuals and, by extension, workplaces.

Salma Shah


Salma Shah describes her book Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging in Coaching as a model for coaching people’s lived experience. It is a guide for coaches and managers offering tools and knowledge to build their skills to support and coach through a wider lens of inclusion, belonging, equity and diversity.

While inclusion tends to refer to under-represented groups, Shah makes the point that what is good for under-represented groups is about fairness for everyone. She says: “Being inclusive is not being scared to turn everything on its head to see a different point of view and creating a bit of chaos. It’s about being open to putting ourselves into an uncomfortable situation; recognising that for many of us who are from under-represented groups we may feel constantly ‘other’ and uncomfortable.”

She adds: “When working with someone who is very different, we may get drawn into playing it safe and lose confidence to ask powerful and challenging questions. I want you to have the skills and ability to be fully conscious and create spontaneous relationships with all your clients, employing a style that is open, flexible and confident.”

Coaching not therapy

Her book takes a systemic lens to diversity and inclusion in coaching and is divided into 12 chapters which deal with different aspects of the coaching process. In the introduction she outlines what she is trying to achieve and why and includes information about her own lived experience, in the interests of openness. This is explored more in the first chapter where she outlines how much people’s personal experiences affect how they are at work. She says coaching differs from therapy, however, since therapy focuses more on the past while coaching is more about the present and future, such as individuals’ professional development.

The second chapter explores people’s intersectional identities and how our sense of who we are is complex and affected by so many different factors. Salma encourages coaches to be open, take time and build trust.  In the next chapter on belonging she outlines how feeling you don’t belong in a certain space affects confidence, individuals’ ability to speak up, their need to fit in, to make others feel comfortable and so forth. She talks about the need for coaches to be aware of these issues. In the fourth chapter she discusses the need to be ‘radically inclusive’, to create a space of psychological safety where people can talk about experiences of racism, including everyday microaggressions, and where coaches can explore sensitively the background to these.

Other chapters explore how, through active listening, coaches can help people who get ‘stuck’ in certain patterns of responding to situations at work and how they may hide their true selves as a form of protection and go into a form of survival mode. She talks about dealing with layers of trauma as a result, for instance, of racism from an early age, and how coaches need to meet people where they are and seek to understand this background through creating safe spaces and trust.

In a chapter on resilience, Shah talks about the recent focus on resilience as a trait to be valued. She says that can shut down people’s ability to admit the struggle they have endured to get to where they are, resulting in what she calls ‘dysfunctional resilience’. She mentions, for instance, the ‘strong black woman’ trope which she says doesn’t allow people to be vulnerable and tackle the trauma that they have endured so they can move forwards. 

Authenticity is another tricky concept in diversity coaching, says Shah, particularly at a time when there is so much talk about being authentic at work. Coaches need to understand that being authentic if you have faced trauma and bias is challenging and complex, she says. It involves risk. Switching identities – being different at work than at home, for instance – is exhausting, but it is something people learn to do from experience in order to protect themselves. Being authentic is very different if you come from a more privileged position.

Transformative change

The final chapters deal with attitudes to coaching – why some people may see being referred to a coach as being equivalent to questioning their performance, which might make them more defensive. Good coaching needs to offer individuals a greater sense of control, says Shah, adding that greater equity comes from acknowledging privilege and how that affects how people are at work, particularly in terms of their confidence levels. The last chapter is on allyship and addresses developing allies who have gone through the coaching process themselves who can promote it. For Shah coaching is more powerful than mentoring and has a transformative power and an ability to change how people feel about themselves. By extension, it can also to transform the workplaces in which they operate.

This is not just theory. It springs from Salma’s everyday experience as a coach with employers including British Transport Police and Pearson. Basirat Agboola from Pearson has been on Salma’s diversity and inclusion coaching programme, Mastering Your Power Coach Training. She says the programme helped participants to change the narrative and gave them skills they can use at work and in the community. The book enables that work to get out to a much wider audience and increases its impact. Basirat says: “Coaching has a multiplier effect. It unlocks coachees’ potential. It’s a really positive, dynamic spider’s web of potential outcomes.” 

*Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging in Coaching: A Practical Guide is published this week. 

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