Many of our coaching clients are working for international companies or interact with colleagues, partners and clients from around the world. Some of them might have moved to this country from abroad and are finding their way in a UK working environment.

Some of the issues they bring to coaching might be set within this intercultural context. For example, they might describe a particularly difficult relationship with a colleague, boss or team member. As we all know there could be a whole range of different reasons for these difficulties, but they could partly be to do with different cultural preferences across countries. These could express themselves in different approaches to leadership and empowerment, ways of building trust and relationships or communication style, to name but a few. Once you hit a point of “stuckness” where a coachee does not really find a way forward it might be worth exploring this.

Jumping to conclusions

Let’s take the example of different preferences for a more direct or a more indirect communication style, something which I as a German living in the UK am negotiating on a daily basis. I have had to learn to use phrases such as “I can see where you are coming from, but have you considered what might happen if …” rather than just saying “That is a bad idea”. I have seen many coachees who have misinterpreted the behaviour or communication style of their international colleagues and imagined hidden motives or problems which were simply not there. Our unconscious bias plays a big role in jumping to such conclusions. International colleagues (and not just Germans) might be labelled as cold, blunt or difficult to work with when it might simply be a matter of different communication preferences.

Reconciling different preferences

I think it is crucial that we include these aspects in our coaching work. A question such as “Could there be some cultural preferences at play here?” might open up a different angle. Having asked the coachee’s permission, sharing some findings from intercultural research can be useful. This can lead to explorations around reconciling different approaches and finding ways of relating and working which allow the coachee to grow and reap the benefits of cultural diversity. For many coachees talking about cultural preferences to explain behaviour can be an enormous relief. Whatever was going on, it was not personal, it was cultural!

Heike Saxer-Taylor is a Executive Coach living and working in the UK. She has been working in the intercultural field for 20 years and is drawing on this experience when coaching within an international context.