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Coaching with Cultural Awareness

I started working at a gym in a culturally diverse neighborhood and I am really looking forward to the experience. However, I grew up in a small town without much diversity, and I want to be aware of how my perspectives and experiences could impact my client relationships.”

The coaching perspective and skills are invaluable in helping you work well with clients of diverse backgrounds, especially when your client’s race, gender, cultural, or religious background differs a lot from your own. Of course, coaches bring a beginner’s mind to all clients: no judgment or expectations, combined with a large dose of genuine curiosity. Coaches know they often benefit as much as clients from the coaching experience. When clients have backgrounds that are different from yours, the need for a beginner’s mind and the opportunities to learn are especially important.

Seek to learn about other cultural traditions

In North America, most people are familiar with mainstream Christian cultural traditions, and much less aware of other cultural traditions and major holidays, such as Yom Kippur in the Jewish tradition, or Eid al-Fitr in the Muslim tradition. Seeking knowledge and awareness of cultural traditions outside of one’s own is not only important for scheduling and logistics, but allows you to better appreciate important cultural events and traditions in the lives of your clients. Not all cultures have the same perspective on setting and achieving goals. For example, while some cultures place a high value on the pursuit of individual goal achievement, others place a high value on group contribution and collaborative achievement. Some cultures encourage people to cultivate a sense of personal pride around achievement, while other cultures encourage humility more than pride. Cultural norms influence the why, what, and how a client wishes to set and pursue goals.


Be present, open, authentic, and warm, greeting your client with a welcoming smile and real eye contact. This is the place to start. How you connect in the first few seconds sends the message that you are all here, accepting, curious, and that you respect your client and you care. Cultivate and sustain a calm, warm, patient, and respectful tone of voice throughout your time together. Be mindful and adjust if you notice that you are straying from a calm and respectful tone, or internal biases come to mind. Warm connection, rapport, and respect serve as a universal language for human relationships.

Slow down

If you and your client don’t share a common language in terms of background and circumstances, it’s important to slow down your thinking and speech to be sure that you are communicating well. Be thoughtful, intentional, and clear about each word you choose and how you deliver your questions, reflections, and messages. Check frequently that you and your client understand each other, and you are on the same page. Reflect what you heard, choosing your words carefully, to be sure you “got it.” Ask your client to confirm his/her understanding and listen carefully to be sure you keep getting each other.

Avoid slang

While your cultural slang and metaphors work fine with clients who have similar backgrounds, they can be confusing to someone who is not familiar with your “dialect.” Appreciate that phrases such as “six-pack abs” or “getting ripped” or “clean bill of health” may not be familiar or meaningful.  Interestingly, there is no direct translation for the word “mindfulness” in Spanish. Many everyday concepts may not be understood, so check on your client’s understanding. Then clearly define the word, concept, or message as needed. Pause to be sure your explanation has been well translated and well understood.

Be Curious

Accept that you are a novice in learning not just about your client’s culture and traditions, but also about your client’s inside world—his/her perspectives, circumstances, history, desires, and ideal path forward. Of course, even if your clients all looked the same on the outside, their inside worlds would be unique.  Diverse backgrounds add even more domains of uniqueness that call you to be ever learning, working hard to understand and appreciate diversity. Keep your questions simple and open. What would be important for me to know about you? What brings you to this fitness project today? What do you hope will happen? How can I best help you? What has worked for you in the past? What concerns do you have about my ability to help you? What will success look like for you?

Working with clients who bring cultural backgrounds and experiences that differ from your own is a welcome challenge. They call you to be more present, respectful, purposeful, and engaged, ever mindful of your own internal assumptions, biases, and judgments toward other cultures and perspectives. These experiences take you a step closer to becoming a global citizen, someone who is at home wherever you go and with whomever you meet.

Republished from ACSM’s Certified News:

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