The Cross-Cultural Conundrum: How coaches remain effective in a multi-national world

by Marissa Afton

During my 20s I was living in Vienna where I supplemented my income by teaching English as a foreign language to business executives, exchange students and others who wanted to brush up their skills. My students came from a variety of backgrounds, some local to Austria, others who were passing through. I quickly learned that one key to building rapport, developing engagement and promoting internal motivation lay in how I tailored each lesson plan to the individual. By opening myself to the unique ways each person processed and assimilated new information (often culturally dependent), I was able to tap into the hearts, minds and motivations of my students. It was an effective skill that aided in their learning transfer, and a skill that I continue to employ today in my work as a coach.

In this ever-more globalized world, coaches are increasingly asked to bridge cultures and provide tangible support to clients regardless of demographic, background or geographical location. Modern technology has made the practice of coaching across cultures increasingly straightforward; however connecting with our clients logistically does not necessarily equate to connecting with them interpersonally. Though much research has been done in the field, gaps remain in creating a formula for success in cross-cultural coaching.

We can look to Mastery #2: Perceiving, Expanding and Affirming the Client’s Potential to demonstrate how a blanket coaching approach can potentially backfire in some cross-cultural applications. For the undeveloped coach, the assumption may be that all clients will respond to recognition and affirmation in a positive way that motivates progressive change. However, in cultures where personal recognition can be perceived as self-glorifying, this unwanted acknowledgement can harbor the opposite effect, potentially breaking any trust and rapport that may have otherwise been established. Instead, a seasoned coach will still use Mastery #2, but with sensitivity towards understanding how personal recognition and affirmation will impact the client’s motivation to invest in the coaching process and create lasting change.

In addition to gaining proficiency in the Masteries (or other coaching frameworks), coaches need to develop inter-cultural competencies to ensure that coaching solutions are relevant to the ethos and values of the cross-cultural client. For example, developing an awareness of (as well as respect for) individual cultural beliefs and habits can deepen a coach’s sensitivity, which in turn will foster the trust needed for attaining successful outcomes. Additionally, increasing one’s cognizance of personal cultural assumptions (accurate or otherwise) and recognizing the associated impact these assumptions can have on the client can promote an atmosphere of mutual understanding, thereby nurturing an environment “that allows ideas, options and opportunities to emerge” (Mastery #8).

A few recommended practices that can develop a coach’s inter-cultural competencies include:

  • Adapting a communication style that aligns with the specific communication norms and language comprehension of the client
  • Creating a personal action plan for the coach to strengthen his or her cultural comprehension for the client’s benefit (such as developing a deeper understanding of the social and business customs in the client’s culture)
  • Adjusting expectations around coaching methods and evolution (such as timelines for measuring coaching efficacy, flow of coaching process, investment by client in coaching progression, and coach’s adherence to formalized coaching outcomes)
  • Doing research to improve concrete knowledge of the culture of the client—its history, politics, current events, et cetera
  • Finding areas of similarity between the coach and client culture to build rapport, trust, appreciation and acceptance
  • Recognizing (and having an compassionate understanding) that although differences between cultures inevitably will exist, values and norms of each are valid for the culture and need to be understood and respected as such, even if they are atypical by one’s own standards

Coaches who are invested in a long-term coaching relationship with a cross-cultural client may even consider joining local groups that encourage social and/or professional interaction with individuals from the client’s home country in order to gain broader understanding of their cultural customs, habits and behaviors.

By developing methods that bridge the chasm between cultures, we heighten the likelihood of successful and lasting coaching outcomes. Coaches of all cultures, backgrounds and locations can work effectively with their clients and excel in their coaching interventions by applying focused awareness on the unique concerns and intricacies of their cross-cultural client. In this way, we all can ensure that coaching continues to provide relevance and meaning to diverse international clientele.

Marissa AftonMarissa Afton serves on the Board of Governors for the IAC and is the Director of Client Solutions for Americas & Europe at Sentis—a global company dedicated to creating inventive and applied solutions to transform the safety, wellbeing, leadership and organizational performance of clients worldwide. Marissa coaches at the executive level in organizational settings throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and the Middle East. You may contact her at

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