Coaching Across Cultures

By Roma Menlowe

Roma Menlowe trained with CFM in 2009. She recently undertook a volunteer assignment to a human rights charity in Orissa, India. Here she reflects on the challenges of coaching and mentoring in a different environment.

Capacity building

Many international development organisations stress ‘capacity building’ in volunteer assignments to non-government organisations (NGOs). They encourage volunteers to use coaching techniques to build up the NGO’s skills, encourage self-reflection, and support sustainable change.

All of my projects involved some coaching. One was to develop a series of workshops for staff on management topics; another involved discussing and editing draft research reports. My main project was to analyse an area of the NGO’s advocacy work and develop a policy statement. The work was to be done in partnership with NGO colleagues.

Some colleagues spoke English fluently; others had a good formal grasp of the language but lacked confidence in speaking. Most were eager to engage. But how would I apply the principles I learned at CFM? How much of the theory and practice of coaching and mentoring would be relevant in a very different culture? What challenges would I face?


Let’s start with building rapport. The coach has to maintain distance and objectivity while entering into the client’s world and empathizing with her issues. The need for the coach to remain professionally detached may appear strange to those who value the bond of personal friendship and who may be reluctant to discuss personal issues with a stranger. The coach who operates in a different culture needs to ensure that the extent and limits of the coaching relationship are established.

Coaching is always affected by language – by the client’s familiarity with the chosen language medium, by the coach’s skill in expressing themselves clearly, and by the ability of both parties to explore ideas and feelings in language that is unambiguous. English-speaking coaches who work in a different culture need to be particularly attentive to any language insecurity the client may have. Use of paraphrase and reflection, a good sense of pace combined with patience, and a willingness to go over the ground more than once – these can help. In India many people speak English fluently and it’s easy to assume that the client shares the coach’s feel for language and nuance of meaning. But that is not always the case.

Then there is body language. Here too the coach has to be alert – and cautious in drawing conclusions. Body language may be hard to interpret. The Indian ‘head wobble’ is well known – a gentle incline of the head in one direction signals ‘yes’, whilst a barely perceptible tilt in the other direction means ‘no’. The coach doesn’t want to get this wrong! At a subtler level, gestures which in our culture might signal to the coach that the client is under stress (for example, frequent wiping of the face) may in a different culture and climate simply be a natural response to the environment.

Process issues can also lead to misunderstandings. We are trained to see efficiency, including punctuality, as evidence of the coach’s commitment to the client and a businesslike approach. In other cultures, however, strict efficiency may strike the client as overly clinical. Being punctual may not be a high priority and the coach may have to adjust expectations and resist judgment. Several Indian colleagues were critical of what they saw as a national habit of lateness. It’s a factor the coach needs to be prepared for.

As part of good process, the coach may have to ensure that her signals – in relation to wrapping up a session, for example – are properly understood and not seen as impolite or indelicate. It may help to explain in advance how sessions are run.

Issues in coaching sessions

Various issues arise when coaching is underway. The first is around balanced conversation. In his book The Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen remarks – ‘Prolixity is not alien to us in India. We are able to talk at some length’. I intend no discourtesy to Indian colleagues or readers in observing that many people in India speak rapidly, fluently and with gusto. This can be endearing, illuminating and also frustrating for the coach, who wants the client to be reflective rather than rhetorical and to develop a habit of editing and challenging their own thoughts.

All coaches want to explore the reality of the client’s world. It can take time for the coach to become attuned to the tensions, conflicts and dilemmas that the client experiences. The coach has to resist the temptation to assume that workplace or work-related issues are the same in all cultures. The norms and expectations – relating to gender issues, work-life balance, or behaviour in the workplace – may be quite different from those in the coach’s own culture.

Coaching and mentoring often aim to develop the client’s creativity – enabling them to see their issues from new and liberating perspectives and to consider hypothetical scenarios. This hinges on the client’s willingness to challenge assumptions – their own and others’. But if the coach is regarded as an authority figure the client may be inclined to see the coaching relationship purely in terms of transmission, ‘answers’, and tips for good practice. (This can of course happen anywhere, but a coach working in a different culture needs to be particularly attentive to factors constraining the client’s thinking.)

There are other cultural sensitivities. For example, the coach or mentor needs explicitly to recognize the expertise of the client, and the complexity and richness of their culture. Any hint of condescension would be fatal to the partnership on which effective coaching depends. The point made earlier about respecting different cultural norms is also relevant. If a coach cannot sufficiently enter into the values or attitudes of the client to enable a productive dialogue, she must say so.

My last point relates to the client’s personal growth. Here in the ‘global north’ we see the client as a responsible actor and value empowerment, change and personal development. We positively luxuriate in these notions. But other cultures may place a higher value on joyful acceptance of one’s condition rather than on radical change, and on social rather than personal fulfillment. Edward Luce has interesting things to say about this in his marvelous book In Spite of the Gods.

Skills for working across cultures

So how should the coach prepare for working in a different culture and what skills are most important? I suggest that the coach should develop excellent questioning skills; perfect the art of observation; work hard at developing mutual respect and ensuring confidentiality; and take time to explore how far the client feels safe to travel. Despite the many pitfalls and risks associated with coaching and mentoring outwith one’s own culture, the experience can be very rewarding. In a complex and increasingly connected world we need to develop a better understanding between peoples, religions and ways of life. Coaching and mentoring across cultural boundaries, when done sensitively, can perhaps make a small contribution to global citizenship.

roma menlowe

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