Originally published in Coaching for Transformation
Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free — he has set himself free — for higher dreams, for greater privileges. —James Baldwin
Microaggressions are subtle and often unintentional acts or statements that reflect inherited biases based on race, sexual orientation, gender or other perceived differences. Since microaggressions are frequently unintended and delivered by people who consider themselves free of bias, we can unknowingly stimulate pain in people who are different from us. As coaches we need to be alert to the possibility of committing microaggressions, which can lead to people thinking they are unwelcome, isolated, unsafe or alienated. Alternative explanations can leave the recipient uncertain whether the “insult” is real, intended or misperceived.
The following table1 contains a sample of microaggressive behaviors and statements.
As a coach, how do you handle it when your client communicates an experience of microaggression? As a client, what’s at stake if you share your experience, and what do you sacrifice if you don’t? To develop authentic cross cultural communication and respect, it takes curiosity and diligence to address microaggressions rather than overlook, ignore or minimize them.
We can grow by becoming aware of microaggressive statements or questions and the impact they have on others. Regardless of the intent or what we think about the situation, we can acknowledge the feelings of the speaker, and give feedback to the person who communicated the microaggression. Feedback using “I” statements offers more opportunities for connection than “you” statements.
The following example is based on an exchange between two coaching students. The white female thought she was complimenting the black male when she said, “You are so intelligent and articulate.” Her statement angered him and led to disconnection. A response using “I” statements might have been, “As a black man, I feel angry when you say ‘You are so intelligent and articulate,’ because I interpret that as, ‘You are an exception.’ I need respect for all black men who are often stereotyped as neither smart nor articulate!”
When people are fully heard, insight and learning occur and relationships grow authentically. For example, when someone has the courage to share their painful experience of a microaggression, the listener is more likely to create connection by replying with gratitude, empathy and curiosity. If the coach says, “I’m not sexist,” it’s very different from saying, “Thank you for bringing that to my attention. I see how deeply that statement impacted you. Please tell me more. I really want to understand.” Note that the focus is on the person who felt injured, not on the person who hopes to explain, justify, minimize or deflect what was said.
The following is an example of how microaggression can play out in a coaching session:
Ann: One of my male colleagues on the board repeatedly interrupts me when I’m talking. I’m furious about that.
Coach: Get over it! (microaggression)
Ann: I’m angered by your response which undermines the trust between us. I experience my colleague’s actions as sexist. He doesn’t interrupt our male colleagues. I need you to hear and acknowledge my experience even if you don’t agree with my assessment or labeling of his behavior.
Coach: Ann, thank you for that feedback. Trust between us is important. You helped me see your experience from a different perspective. I acknowledge your fury with his actions and your sadness about my response because you want respect for your experience, right?
Ann: Thank you for hearing the fullness of my feelings and need for respect.
Coach: Let’s brainstorm some ways you can reclaim your power in your interactions with your colleague.
Note in this example that the coaching goes beyond the client teaching her coach about multiculturalism and becomes a platform for moving both the coaching and the coaching relationship forward. The coach can also help this client gain awareness that labeling her colleague’s behavior as “sexist” creates more distance between them. If she learns to share her feelings, needs and requests with her colleague as she did with her coach, she opens the possibility for increased connection between them.
1 Sue, D.W. & Sue D. (2008). Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice, 5th edition. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.
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