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Avoiding the Pitfalls of Coaching Across Cultures


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Today, coaching knows no boundaries, and many coaches have clients in a variety of countries around the globe. But should a savvy coach tailor their coaching to fit a culture?

In Malaysia, managers prefer to talk about their work as members of a corporate team, not as individuals. In Japan, executives can be offended by feedback. And in Taiwan, clients prefer face-to-face coaching, rather than over the phone.

So how do you navigate cultures without hitting potholes?

Two coaches from India argue that working in Asia—where coaching, especially executive coaching is booming—requires a healthy respect for culture and social hierarchy. They’ve just finished research into the topic that involved interviewing coaches across Asia, and their work has just been published in the International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring.

“The findings bring out how the deeply embedded concept of social hierarchy influences the role and status of the coach in Asian culture,” write the authors, Lina Nangalia and Ajay Nangalia of the Global Coach Trust in Bagalore, India. “Whether the social hierarchy draws its strength from Confucianism or Hindu tradition, it shapes the expectations that clients have from the coach and from the process. All the coaches we interviewed adapt their practice to align with the local culture in order to help their clients move forward.”

How do coaches working in Asia adapt?

“International coaches working with Asian clients will appreciate that they need to flex their coaching style,” the researchers write, suggesting that the essentials of coaching—including the idea that coaches “partner” with clients—come from a Western cultural ethos that may conflict directly with Asian cultural traditions.

Kelly Choi, a coach based in Hong Kong, was one of the subjects of the study. She says in Asian society, a coach does not “partner,” but rather is seen as a teacher or respected elder. “They see the coach as someone more senior, more knowledgeable, like a mentor,” said Choi. “There is a teacher-student mindset.”

The result in many Asian countries, the researchers found, is that coaches tend to have younger clients, not older. “In Asian cultures seniority is important, and I would not see a young person coaching a much older person,” said Charlie Sukrit, a coach from Thailand. “My Thai clients have all been younger than myself, possessing less life and work experience than me.”

Gender plays a role as well, with many of the coaches interviewed telling researchers male managers prefer to work with male—generally older male—coaches.

As the researchers found, this is true not just for Asian clients, but for Asian coaches as well: “Kelly (Choi) shares that while she has male clients who are from Australia, she does not have male clients who are Asian…she mentions she would feel uncomfortable with a senior male Asian client because of her cultural upbringing.”

The researchers report that, in general, the coaching relationship in Asia “is not one of equals…he or she is placed higher in the social hierarchy and thus commands respect and deference.”

As a result, coaches are often called upon by Asian clients for their advice and answers as much as their probing questions. Coach David Chen in Singapore said “my Chinese clients expect me to give answers…they see me as a solution provider.”

Cindy Chin, a coach from Malaysia told the researchers her clients “expect the coach to give them ideas, advice, suggestions—when I give them some suggestions, they are very happy.”

The coaches who participated in the study warned that while suggestions are most welcome, advice and feedback can be very tricky, putting a coach at risk of offending a client. Angela Jin of Taiwan said coaches must “cement relationships before offering any feedback,” which must be delivered “in a soft and indirect way.”

The way coaches working with Asian clients have learned to handle this area: take their time to build trust. “It takes longer time to build the trust for them—to get to know me—and believe that everything they said is confidential,” said Patrick Teo in Malaysia. “The depth of coaching takes a while before it goes deep.”

Coaching ultimately can go deep—if the coach is aware of the potential pitfalls of maintaining a strictly Western approach. As the researchers write, the rewards of cross-cultural training for coaches are profound:

“Thanks to globalization, the fastest growing economies in the world today are in Asia. One of the findings from this study is that the large majority of clients (expatriates and local) work with multinational corporations, which have set up operations across Asia. This means that there are tremendous opportunities for international coaches in Asia. However, international coaches need to be aware of the local ethos, and adapt their style to be culturally congruent. A process that works for them in their culture may not be as effective in another culture; hence, they may not be able to help their clients in the best way possible.”

What experiences have you had as you’ve worked with clients in different cultures?

How have you learned the cultural nuance you needed to avoid offending a client, and to propel yourself into a new market with success?

About the Author

Mark Joyella is an Emmy-winning television news reporter and anchor who has worked at television stations in Colorado, Georgia, Florida and New York. A firm believer in the power of coaching, Mark has been on both sides of the coaching equation, as a client, and as a coach, helping aspiring journalists excel in writing, reporting and storytelling. Mark lives in Connecticut with his wife and daughter. Follow Mark on Twitter at

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There are 7 Responses so far...

Dee on March 22, 2010

Very interesting article, thank you.

The most notable impact on the actual coaching process (or at least its duration) I’ve noticed with clients from different cultures is in regard to high context / low context communication. In other words, how soon is it ok to come to the point? Coaching sessions of 30 minutes or less, I found, don’t work so well with high context clients, who prefer indirect feedback (which takes me, a direct German in America, some more time to formulate) and need a longer time to tell me what it is they _really_ want to work on. Bringing MBTI(r) into the mix, clients with an extravert preference are also likely to talk more which makes time pass so much faster.

I wonder how the IAC or ICF and their Asian chapters handle the culturally different approaches to coaching. After all, we go through such effort to differentiate between coaching, training, mentoring etc. – is it still called coaching if it’s more directive / teacher-student?

»Add your response
Billy C H Teoh on March 22, 2010

There is generally less clarity of how coaching is defined when working with Asian clients/coachees.

‘Coaching’ is often DEFINED by both parties i.e. the coach and the coachee, and agreed upon what constitute coaching. More often than not, Asian clients/coachees would expect some element of ‘directiveness’ and expect the coach to be able to dance between many roles – mentoring, advising, teaching, training, counselling, assessing as well as coaching during the coaching session itself.

So, is there a wide disparity between how coaching is generaly defined or should coaching actually or exclusively be defined between each coach and coachee privately? What makes sense?

Billy C H Teoh

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Billy C H Teoh on March 22, 2010

The challenge with ‘coaching’ is that there are less clarity between the alignment of what coaching is defined in theory versus what coaching is defined in practice?

Clients/coachees ultimately measure ‘coaching’ on the results/impacts/outputs/outcomes that ‘coaching’ brings about.

So to me, ‘coaching efficiency & effeciveness’ is the result of the coaching processes and interactions, whether it may be purely or generically defined or ‘privately defined’.

It is the results/impacts that matter; not whatever ‘tools’ (coaching, consulting, training, etc. etc.) that are being applied.

We need to be pragmatic, don’t we as coaches?

Billy C H Teoh

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Billy C H Teoh on March 22, 2010

With reference to ‘feedback’. Some examples of how coaching is applied via ‘feedback questioning techniques’ (our coaching “PCC Feedback Model”) are:

‘What drives your need to confront ‘problems/issues’ upfront and your ability to see and persevere till resolution?’ (POSITIVE feedback – acknowledging coachee’s contributions).

‘So you agree that you are being rude to Margaret on that instance, what if you could be more polite, what could then happen?’ (CONSTRUCTIVE feedback – leveraging coachee’s acknowledged undesirable behaviour via direct behavioural suggestions).

‘So you disagree that you are generally a rude person, however, the 360 degrees assessment, and your personal evaluation at the ‘XXX’ personality test you took recently, and your acknowledgements during the post assessment feedback, turn out evidences that showed otherwise, what do you say to that?’ (CORRECTIVE feedback internal – correcting the coachee’s behaviour from the coachee’s own perspective) or ‘Permit me to tell you a story about the ‘Rude Priest & God’,…….. in what ways does the story ring a bell with you?’ (CORRECTIVE feedback – external, where the coach relates a story that teaches the moral of the story so that the coachee ‘get it’).

What are your experiences with ‘coaching feedback techniques via questioning’ that you are currently using?

Billy C H Teoh

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Zarine Jacob on March 23, 2010

A very interesting article indeed. I ‘know’ this in my heart & have made adaptations along the way, and good to see it articulated so well. I like the table with how Western-trained coaches can adapt. Practical. I find that a clear and thorough ‘intake conversation’ sets the scene well and clarifies expectation on both sides. My natural style is somewhere between the US American ‘tough love, incisive feedback’ style and the overly indirect, barely in your face style… I just cannot ‘hint’ at things delicately. But my relationship building skill as a coach covers a multitude of other sins, and paves the way for good conversations. Love to see some coaching case studies from India, China and other parts of the globe.
CoachZee – based in UK mainly, India some.

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Maureen Bridget Rabotin on March 25, 2010

Great discussion – thank you Billie for your input especially the PCC coaching feedback model and Dee for the indirect/implicit vs direct/explicit communication style to take into account.

In my opinion, as a global executive coach working primarily in global organizations, I need to remind myself how much my own culture influences my expectations. To what extent am I too results-oriented? comfortable with just talking for the sake of airing issues? while still be in a coaching engagement that includes a sponsor – either HR, a manager or stakeholder other than just the coaching client. Knowing that some of my clients have a deductive thought process vs inductive, I need to take that into consideration in my powerful questioning process – do I break down the complexity or build it up to enable them to see the interconnected aspects of the issue / discussion? Another example has to do with the perception of time : In the Hindi language, similar to the word Namaste, the word for yesterday is the same as today – so how does our conversation focus on the future? Understanding the context, one’s own culture, and then the general overview of the country-specific culture of the client is an indication not an acceptation of who she/he is. In global organizations, a global mindset is the goal. Knowing how HQ or other team members/stakeholders perceive our coaching clients behaviors is key to enabling them to reflect on how their culture impacts perceptions and expectations.

Regarding the role of a coach and a client, I’d like us to quote & translate from an excellent book – L’esprit des religions by Hesna Cailliau: “remember that philosophy is a Western approach to finding THE answer or the ideas- the right one whereas there are no philosophers in Asian cultures. There are wise-men and Wisdom does not seek answers and does not privilege any above the others. The philosopher takes a position, gives reasons for it, arguments, disapproves to finally approve it. The wise-man observes, and speaks little – he/she adapts to the situation, to the moment, always ready to turn from one perspective to the other. The best example is given by Buddha – To the question asked by three people – Does God exist? He answers three different answers: Yes when asked by an atheist because Buddha wants the atheist to reflect, No is the answer to the believer so, in turn, the believer will question more in depth his beliefs, and to the third person, he does not answer because someone who seeks the unknown answer, silence is enough to make him/her reflect”

Which best describes the role of the coach?

wishing you well,

»Add your response
Maureen Bridget Rabotin on December 2, 2010

Thanks for the very interesting post which is helpful for coaches who have never practiced outside of their own cultural comfort zones. For more information; Philippe Rosinski’s book Coaching Across Cultures is very informative.

My experience as a Global Executive ICF-certified coach with clients primarily in France who work in multinationals is that the coaching contract describes roles and responsibilities, sets the parameters and expectations prior to engaging into a coach-client relationship. This is presented after a ‘chemistry call’ whereby both the coach and the client decide if they can and want to work together. You can not impose coaching nor a coach on someone. The comment : “cement relationships before offering any feedback” is relevant across cultures.

I studied coaching(and continue to do so)first in France in 2005 then with a group from around the world. When I went for my ACC in 2009, I had to adapt my coaching style to fit the half an hour laser coaching style of the ICF certification – an American style, time pressured approached. It was an interesting experience that I am continuing to perfect with ReciproCoach.

Nevertheless, it is extremely important to explain to our clients the difference between training, coaching, consulting and mentoring as well as psychotherapy. I believe not all coaches can definitely define these boundaries and the confusion comes from crossing these lines. I describe them at the beginning, define them in my coaching contract and remind clients when and if their requests go beyond what I am providing. With 13 years of experience as a Cross Cultural Training Consultant, I will, in answer to a specific question from my coaching client say- “Let me put on my training hat for a minute because I think some insights might be helpful for you” then share with them a cultural dimension or research that they might find useful in understanding their American boss’ behavior.(an example)
A lot of my coaching is values-based which brings cultural differences into the forefront allowing me to see what drives my client – their hopes and expectations – as well as reminding me where I may differ as well as the corporate environment they find themselves in.

Wishing you all great coaching adventures in 2011 and beyond,

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