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  • Jane Porter

Coaches Don't Judge: The Implicit Bias Factor

Coaches Don’t Judge – May 2019

Many coaches happily claim to be ‘non-judgemental’. I've made the same claim on numerous occasions. The more I learn about coaching (and myself), the more I question this claim, including my own version of it. Is it really humanly possible to be non-judgemental?

Fresh from a recent break, I find myself smiling wryly at this concept. I spent a lot of time with family and friends over this period, which I’m fortunate to say was largely a positive experience, but was I ever truly non-judgemental during this time? Not a chance! Whilst I was not in the role of ‘coach’, as a way of dealing with the family mayhem I would find quiet moments by becoming present with myself and observing myself in the dynamic. My challenge to myself during these moments was ‘ok let’s just see how non-judgemental you really are’. You can probably predict the result of my experiment.

Picture the scene…a large gathering, relations of all ages from zero to 80 something, it’s hot, it’s noisy, kids, food and dogs everywhere, and my brain was busying itself with all sorts of interesting thoughts… ‘What is A wearing? B is quiet today. C can’t keep those kids under control. D looks well… I could go on…and on…and on. Earlier in the piece I did say that it was largely a positive experience, so what was it that was causing my brain to engage in so much judgement? Let’s take a look at what’s happening through an explicit, and then implicit lens.

On an explicit level I’ll happily tell you I’m non-judgemental and I had a great time with my family during this time. Not dissimilar to the coach who claims to be ‘non-judgemental’.

On an implicit level, my conscious and sub-conscious biases were also having a great time. Siri Carpenter deals with this topic in an article in Scientific American (2008) entitled Buried Prejudice. Carpenter explains that, “…implicit biases grow out of normal and necessary features of human cognition, such as our tendency to categorise, to form cliques and to absorb social messages and cues…”

He also states that often, such associations exist outside conscious understanding, hence the term unconscious bias. The good news is, it’s quite normal, the other news is, we are doing it all the time. If you don’t buy into this idea, have a go at Harvard Education’s Implicit Bias Testing, it’s humbling.

So, there it is; we are judging all the time. In fact, we can't switch it off.

So, what does this mean for coaching? As a professional coach I have a choice, I can claim I am non-judgemental, say that I don’t take judgement into sessions with clients, I can claim I am something akin to superhuman, or I can embrace my well-practiced judging capability, and see it as an asset to my role as coach.

What would it be like for coaches to claim their discerning inner judges and name this as a coaching strength?

  • Coaches would then be leveraging effective judgement about the coaching approaches they bring to each session to best serve their client.

  • When ethical dilemmas present, discerning judgement would be available to decide whether and how the coaching will continue.

  • Coaches would judge what they think they heard, and then make decisions on how this might be used to craft the next powerful question.

  • Coaches would judge what to share of what they notice about a client and their framing.

  • Coaches would effectively judge how to manage the time in a session, to ensure effective action and outcomes.

  • Coaches would have heightened awareness of their own biases, and how they are showing up in coaching sessions and relationships.

We go as far as asking whether a coach would lose impact if they stopped judging.

All judgments are not made equal, depending on who and what the judgement is serving. For example, if I am judging the coaching action that you committed to as ‘useless’ it’s simply my opinion and is self-serving. If I judge that the action you committed to doesn’t seem to align with what you said you wanted, I can use this information to ask a question such as, ‘As you imagine yourself taking that action, how do you see this moving you towards your stated coaching objective?’

So where do you stand on this?

Is there something here that would be useful to claim and integrate into our practice?


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