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How to Navigate and Include Difference

  • POSTED ON JUNE 26, 2024
Group of diverse individuals holding hands, symbolizing the importance of navigating difference.

People are different from each other. In fact, each person is their own microcosm. That’s what makes leading and coaching others so complex and difficult and interesting. Since people don’t always act or think the same, their beliefs and opinions may not align with each other. Yet when included, these differences can birth new ideas and creativity - and help organizations understand their people and their clients better.

Wouldn’t it be perfect if we could download another person’s lived experiences so we could understand and relate to them fully?  

Examining Ourselves: Unmasking Our Biases

In an interview with Jimmy Fallon, Hasan Minhaj, an American comedian, captured this conundrum in a story he shared. The story was about how his Caucasian therapist did not understand him culturally.

“It’s like watching Game of Thrones with your dad, only you start at Season 7, and he asks, ‘What are White Walkers?’”

Minhaj then says, “How do I get you up to speed?”

So how do we get up to speed with our clients and navigate our differences? We can start by examining our own filters, biases, and assumptions, because these are the lenses through which we view people and events. Based on these viewpoints, we form opinions and make our decisions about how the world is or should be. 

When our lenses do not align, we might prevent ourselves or the other person from bringing all of themselves to the table. Many times, without this examination, we are not even aware that we’ve shut each other down. 

Come to think of it, isn’t that exactly what we aim to do in coaching? We partner with our clients so they can step back and become aware of their filters, biases, and assumptions about themselves and the world around them.

This fosters our client’s ability to dream beyond what their parents or teachers or society tells them is the most they can reach for. To make conscious choices rather than fall in with others’ expectations or values. And be cognizant of their triggers so they create the experiences and lives they wish rather than live in patterns based on their ancestral past that might be restrictive and limiting.

What follows are some ways we can include differences.

4 Strategies for Including Differences

  1. Recognize and Set Aside Our Own Lenses

    The most important concept for inclusion is self-management. Let’s do our own work to learn about the systemic forces that shape our society so our clients don’t have to take on the additional emotional cost of educating us about the world we live in. We tend to surround ourselves with people who look like us, work with us, have attended the same schools or live in the same neighborhoods. With this lack of diversity, we might be living in a bubble and not seeing what people from different backgrounds face in their everyday lives that is just not part of our lexicon.

    Our clients have rich lived experiences based on where they or their parents grew up and their culture, gender, socio-economic status, race, and other identities. These experiences have shaped them and form the lens through which they view the world.

  2. Listen with Curiosity and Ask Powerful Questions
    Once we set aside our own lenses, we can listen with curiosity to their view of the world, their struggles. We stay open so that we don’t add our lens on top of theirs.
    “What is really going on for you?”
    “What does this mean to you?”
    “What is important about this?”
    As we ask these powerful questions, we hold up a mirror so our clients uncover their assumptions, beliefs and saboteurs. This opens them to consciously choose the belief or mindset that would help open up new ways of thinking and tap into creative ideas so they can find the solutions that will work for them.
  3. Don't Buy Into an All-Encompassing Static Viewpoint
    The third way to include difference is to avoid the trap of colluding with these perspectives. They are all-encompassing and “just the way things are,” and so we might buy into them along with our clients.
    I'm a coach who has emigrated twice and is a woman of color. Many clients choose to work with me because they think I will understand what they are going through either because of their gender or color or the fact they or their parents were immigrants. Yet it is up to me to make sure I’m not colluding with them or buying into an all-encompassing static viewpoint that then has my clients able to access only a limited set of actions and behaviors. My work is to keep my viewpoint on any topic as clear as possible, so I can support them to go deeper and ask themselves questions such as:
    “Even if it has always been this way. Is this the way for me?”
    “What do I value?”
    “What do I really want?”
    “How does this part of me fit into the bigger picture?”
    By listening with curiosity and no judgment to which part of the client is speaking at that moment, we can help the client become aware of whether the story is helpful to move them forward or making them stay stuck.  

  4. Withhold Any Judgment
    Many times, the world views your clients through a filter that can either give more or less access to opportunities. They might be facing headwinds or tailwinds, and holding them to what we assume is available to everyone does them a disservice. Offer them the gift of believing their experiences without them having to prove these systemic forces exist. Allow these perspectives to be shared without colluding to keep them in place.

    Challenge yourself to hear their experience without questioning its expression. Avoid being the tone police.”
    ― Dolly Chugh, The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias

    For our clients, the impact of being heard in this way is self-awareness and the choice to step powerfully into their self-authority and envision how they want to show up in the world. This inspires them into the right action and accountability.  

Nurturing a Safe, Inclusive Space

I remember a few years ago when I was struggling with the sense that I didn’t belong in an organization. I had such different points of view and my take on world events seemed miles apart from my colleagues.

I wondered “Is it me? What are they seeing that I just don’t get?”

My coach asked me to sense where this way of seeing was coming from. I had not connected the dots until I looked back at my history. Of course, I thought differently from my colleagues! I was of Indian ancestry, born in Kenya, lived in England during my teen years, and now lived in Canada. I realized that it was not me or them. When I shared my different points of view and where they came from, our discussions became a rich exploration of what lay underneath the positions and stands we took. Although we didn’t agree on everything, this sharing allowed us to hear each other - and I felt a sense of belonging.

Coaching can offer a safe space for clients to bring all of themselves and set aside the masks that they might have to wear elsewhere. It takes vulnerability and courage to show all of oneself to another and to be fully seen. When we include the whole person, it allows us to access wisdom from the different parts of the self and include it rather than brush it aside.

Let’s create this safe space by being open to not fully understanding, respecting, and including our differences while withholding judgment.

Nimrat Dhariwal
Written By

Nimrat Dhariwal  

Nimrat Dhariwal is an executive coach with over twenty years of experience in coaching leaders to build trusting relationships, engage their employees and develop clear visions in order to thrive in fast-paced, complex and changing environments. She uses a variety of methods from neuroscience coaching tools, relationship systems mapping to engaging the right brain with metaphors and movement. She has coached leaders at all levels of organizations in the high-tech, pharmaceutical, retail, healthcare industries and local and federal governments. Clients say her warm and direct style provides them with the encouragement, different perspectives and new ideas to help them with significant paradigm shifts to achieve powerful results.  

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