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  • Writer's pictureFenella Trevillion

Data: What might we, as coaches, be choosing not to see? (skin colour, perchance?)

When you meet your coachee/client, might you ignore her facial expression, her smile, the tone of her voice? Might you not notice the texture of his facial skin, the area around his mouth? Might we overlook their hair, black and straight or perhaps curly and yellow? Maybe your attention has not been drawn to the way they sit, perhaps with their eyes to the floor? You might or might notice all of this or only 50%, yet it is all informative data. Data, a key coaching currency, usually, not easily overlooked.

Other data to notice is in the systems and context where we all find ourselves. Inside organisations there are systems of accountability, of culture and of informal power, all playing out in front of us and within which our coaches play intrinsic parts.

Regarding context, can we ignore our current one, living in a pandemic? Perhaps today, maybe for the first time since the beginning of lockdown, having worked with you on her return to the office, your client goes in. Initially she feels a sense of anticipation and excitement at seeing her colleagues; she notices her own internal buzz as she opens the door, she looks across the room - all she sees is a single person, sitting there, staring at their computer. It is very different from what she expected; this is her context, one full of the unexpected, possibly tinged with a bit of fear, a Covid context.

Then there is the context of our histories handed down through our genes, through our generations, through our bodies, through the stories we are told as we grow up and we share. As coaches we accept that ‘our present is comprised of our past and the anticipation of our future’, we know our past can’t be changed and living with it is a strong determinant of our present behaviour.

Returning to the context of the pandemic, did we notice the systemic effects of climate change juxtaposed with the awe of much reduced pollution and the prominence of nature? Many did see, feel, and smelt it. Yet, in the midst of that, how many of us allowed ourselves to see and feel the news of George Floyd’s death? The resurgence of massive emotions that erupted across the world about another black life not mattering to ‘the system’? All that activity, those sounds, and our internal sensations gave us data too.

So, when you first meet your coachee/client do you overtly notice their skin colour? Do you consciously notice their sameness or difference? One can be sure that this data does register somewhere in the brain even for those who hear the mantra ‘I treat everyone the same’. If you are black you are much more likely to notice skin colour, its shade and texture, perhaps because throughout your life you have been forced to do so, yet it is curious that as liberal white people, we find it so hard to name someone’s skin colour out loud even though it, like everything else we see and experience, it is data, part of coaching currency.

As coaches and supervisors, we talk about culture, equality, and diversity yet we seldom talk about race. The Global Code of Ethics for Coaches Mentors and Supervisors does commit members to avoid ‘knowingly discriminating on any grounds and [members] will seek to enhance their own awareness of possible areas of discrimination’ whilst it does not mention race, it does remind us however, that we ‘will challenge in a supportive way any colleagues, employees, service providers, clients or participants who are perceived to be using discriminatory behaviour’, and it provides a helpful steer for our profession to act. Integral to that process is to notice skin colour and taking an anti-racist stance.

Despite this there is often a sense of dissonance when questions about our stance on phenomena such as racism or climate change are raised within the coaching community. Should these issues be a part of our work with leaders for instance?

As coaches, we are trained to be absolutely present for our clients. In my experience, this included the underlying message that coaches are there to provide a ‘tabula rasa’, a clean slate, a data free zone with any data present being brought in to the room by the coachee. I did note that further on in my training the values we bring were brought in to the teaching dialogue and in my supervision training there was a strong focus on how our own perspectives provide important data for the supervision encounter. By shining a light on the spuriousness of coach as tabula rasa does release professionals from this pretence and gives the opportunity to take up particular positions aligned to our values such as a commitment to an antiracist stance.

Fortunately, some coaches, often those working in public sector organisations, are being invited to address the dynamic of racism. Yet, if uninvited are coaches comfortable drawing attention to it? We might see it in our client’s stories yet, how do we respond? I wonder if my fellow white colleagues when coaching NHS Doctors where 42% are of colour, raise it with their coachees?

I realised that, even though Black History Month started in 1987 I attended it for the first time this year; I learned a lot and wonder why has it taken me so long to get there? I recognise that my own imperiousness has been in the way and am now much more alert to stories of racism, racist tropes, and messages by people of colour that I have hitherto not noticed. Another personal change has been to raise issues of race within the coaching community, whilst it is met with discomfort, I have been reassured that through drawing attention it, it is being heard. This provides a sense of hope, enhanced too by Anita Sanchez’ article on ‘Coaching Across Race in Dynamic Times’ in the October AC publication of ‘Coaching Perspectives’.

Nevertheless, Robin DiAngelo’s question ‘why is it so hard for white people to talk about racism?’ is a strong reminder to coaches and coaching supervisors of the importance of taking notice of data on skin colour and race. This enables us to acknowledge the dynamic of power, privilege and racism within which the coaching relationships lie and it encourages productive challenges to ourselves and those around us about our own racism.

Fenella Trevillion October 2020

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