Begin Your Journey

Let's create a new language of leadership, together!

For the last 30 years the Co-Active Training Institute (CTI) has been offering the gold-standard in coach training and leadership development for individuals and organizations. Now we are creating a new language of leadership. Let's do this together. 

Raising Awareness of Unconscious Bias as a Coach

  • POSTED ON JULY 03, 2024
 Different people standing together symbolizing awareness of unconscious bias

What Is Unconscious Bias?

Here is a riddle I have shared with many people recently:

A dad and his son had a terrible car accident. The dad dies on the spot, and the child is rushed to the hospital for surgery.

Once in the operating room, the doctor says: “I cannot operate on this child — he is my son!” 

How can that be?

Take a moment to ponder….

The answer is simple: the surgeon is his mom. And yet many people are startled by this question.

This is a beautiful example of how unconscious biases work.

When we speak about unconscious biases, we refer to automatic attitudes, assumptions, and judgments that we hold about others. 

They stem from our embodied brain’s natural tendency to categorize information to make processing more efficient. This tendency is part of a survival mechanism that helps us make quick decisions, but it also leads to the formation of stereotypes and prejudices that can occur even when we do not consciously endorse them. 

Unconscious biases are shaped by various factors, such as our lived experience, cultural norms, beliefs held by the collectives we belong to, and even media portrayals. They operate beneath the surface of conscious awareness, influencing our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They are like an unseen force that shapes our interactions, decisions, and perceptions — often without our noticing. 

Unconscious Biases in Coaching

As Co-Active coaches, we are all highly committed to partnering with our clients to facilitate their personal growth, transformation, professional development, as well as to support them to cultivate wellness and live fulfilling lives. 

We commit to approaching each client without judgment, but the truth is that, as in any other human interaction, we are susceptible to unconscious biases.  

Here are 5 different types of unconscious biases that can show up in our coaching practice:

  1. Confirmation bias: This bias speaks about how we unintentionally seek out, give more weight to, or remember information that confirms our preconceived notions about a person, an event, or the potential context. One way this may show up is when we direct the client’s attention to goals based on our own belief about what the client needs and focus on progress that aligns with our assessment while overlooking areas where the client is expressing interest.
  2. Attribution bias: We may be fast to jump to conclusions about ourselves or about the motives of other people’s actions. For example, we might consider positive changes in a client’s behavior a consequence of our coaching strategies and interventions, while attributing the failure to achieve desired changes to the client’s resistance to change or not putting in enough effort.
  3. Availability heuristic: The word heuristic means “involving or serving as an aid to learning, discovery, or problem-solving.” Availability heuristic bias involves relying on information that is readily available in memory when making judgments about a person or situation. When we are driven by this bias, we might focus on easily observable changes in a client’s behavior, which are more memorable, rather than subtler, but equally important, changes. This can result in overlooking significant aspects of the client’s development.
  4. Halo effect: This is a cognitive bias where an overall impression of a person, typically based on one prominent characteristic, influences how we perceive and evaluate their other traits and behaviors. When this bias is present, we might, for example, believe that clients who are punctual and well prepared are more committed to the coaching process than those who may be equally committed but express it differently, in a manner outside our experience or value system.
  5. Microaggressions: These are subtle, often unintentional, discriminatory comments or behaviors that can have significant negative impact on another person.

One example of how this may show up is when we embrace the perspective of “everyone has challenges,” dismissing the client’s struggles or suffering in a way that minimizes their unique experiences. Another is when we focus excessively on a client’s race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or other aspects of their identity in ways that are not relevant to what the client is working on. This can make the client feel reduced to that single aspect of their identity.

Our biases can manifest in different ways when we’re coaching clients. When they do, they can limit our ability to meet clients where they are, cultivate empowered relationships, self-manage, hold space, listen, or be truly curious. 

Mitigating the Impact of Unconscious Bias

The good news is that once we humbly accept that these biases are naturally human, we can address them in various ways. The great news is that the Co-Active model itself offers us support to reduce the impact of our biases. Here are 4 ideas that may serve you in your journey:

Develop Self-Awareness:

Mindfulness practices and reflective exercises can enhance self-awareness and emotional regulation, reducing the influence of automatic biases. By promoting a non-judgmental awareness of our thoughts and feelings, mindfulness can help us pause and reconsider our initial reactions.

It is important that we get curious and engage in ongoing self-reflection and introspection to identify our own biases and prejudices. One powerful resource is that of Implicit Association Tests (IATs). These tests can shed light around biases we unconsciously hold, enabling us to step into different perspectives.

Educate Yourself:

Engage in regular training on diversity, equity, and inclusion to understand different types of biases and their impacts.

 Develop cultural competence by learning about other cultures, traditions, and social contexts relevant to your clients.

Empower Your Relationships with Clients:

Include your awareness of unconscious biases in your designed alliances with clients by showing genuine interest in understanding each client’s unique background, experiences, and needs.

Actively listen to clients and validate their experiences without judgment.

Match your client’s language and preferences rather than using general language or substituting their language for yours.

If you are making an assumption, articulate it as such rather than expressing it as “truth.” Then get curious to encourage clients to express their own thoughts and feelings around what you have offered them.

Use inclusive language and be mindful of cultural sensitivities in your communication.

Be transparent and acknowledge your mistakes.

Be open to adjusting your coaching style based on ongoing feedback from clients.

Seek Supervision and Mentorship:

Seek mentorship from professionals who excel in cultural competence and inclusive practices.

Enhancing the Overall Coaching Relationship

As we become aware of our biases, we expand our power to choose how we relate, communicate, and behave in our coaching relationships. This helps us cultivate more inclusive, safe, and courageous spaces that enhance the overall coaching experience and promote better outcomes for everyone involved.

Written By

Pilar Rueda 

MCC, CPCC, Integral Associate Coach Pilar is wildly committed to supporting her clients to live lives that are bolder in humanity, authenticity, sanity, integrity and joy. For more than 15 years, she has worked with individuals, partners and teams both in and outside the corporate world. She supports clients willing to work with mind, body, emotions, shadow, spirit, the mysteries of being and being in relationship, in order to transform their habits and realities. Holding a sacred space of curiosity for her clients to listen and experience without judgement, she empowers them to fully engage with their process of growth in all its forms: when it is smooth and comfortable; when it is challenging or even painful and when it is filled with sparkling joy. Pilar is dedicated to delve deeply into coaching and integrates embodiment, mindfulness, trauma and AD(H)D informed approaches into her practice - which she likes to say is Co-Active at heart and Integral in its muscles.  

View Website

This website stores cookies on your computer. These cookies are used to collect information about how you interact with our website and allow us to remember you. We use this information in order to improve and customize your browsing experience and for analytics and metrics about our visitors both on this website and other media. To find out more about the cookies we use, see our Privacy Policy.

If you decline, your information won’t be tracked when you visit this website. A single cookie will be used in your browser to remember your preference not to be tracked.