In the realm of professional coaching, there’s growing recognition of the need to integrate justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) principles into coaching practices. BACP’s Coaching for Social Impact 2022 report1 establishes that coaching is particularly well positioned to support individuals through challenging and rapidly evolving societal needs, including the need for belonging and inclusion in our workplaces and communities.

At the RoundTable Institute, we have seen increasing demand from coaches seeking innovative approaches to integrate inclusivity within their coaching practices. In response to this demand, we have spent the past three years researching, designing and delivering an International Coach Federation (ICF)-approved coaching training programme, JEDI for Coaches©, contributing to the evolution of professional coaching practice as we know it.

As a psychologist deeply invested in the transformative potential of coaching, I’ve seen just how an inclusive approach in coaching can accelerate growth and deepen awareness for both clients and coaches. In this article, I share some key lessons that have emerged from our work in integrating JEDI principles into coaching methodologies, and offer practical strategies for coaches seeking to incorporate these principles into their own practices. 

Deconstructing neutrality: taking a stand

The traditional notion of neutrality in coaching has long been upheld as a cornerstone of effective practice. Neutrality involves distancing from personal judgment on the part of the coach. It is the ability to provide objective, value-free support as a third party, while avoiding bias, personal interest or emotional involvement. Neutrality is important in coaching because coaching promises to support clients in self-directed goals without advice giving or problem solving.2 However, with over 109,000 coaches worldwide3, we know surprisingly little about how to implement neutrality in practice, its feasibility, and whether it truly benefits the client.4 As Diochon et al. share, neutrality is an ‘often emphasised but rarely elaborated norm’ in coaching.

Upon closer examination, I’ve recognised the inherent limitations of neutrality, particularly in the context of promoting inclusion, justice and equity in coaching, which is increasingly important for self-actualisation.5 Research by Mayer and Font-Guzmán highlighted the fallacy of neutrality in coaching, arguing that it can perpetuate systemic inequalities by failing to acknowledge power imbalances and privilege. They claim that neutrality prevents us from raising and engaging with productive conflict, difference, and diversity in ways that are conducive and constructive to deeper learning and change.

To navigate this tension, coaches can add ‘taking a stand’ to their toolkit. Using this skill allows clients to access deeper levels of empowerment and awareness around issues of injustice and inequality. Taking a stand means actively engaging with issues of identity and justice alongside clients, particularly with respect to advocating for them. Through an exploratory process built on the coach’s inquiry and curiosity, clients can recognise or identify unfair dynamics in their relationships or environments. In such cases, coaches can challenge the myth of neutrality and take a stance of conscious advocacy. For example, a coach might share something like: ‘This pattern of being passed over for larger projects despite you asking for more scope and performing well feels unfair to me. What do you think?’ Giving language to injustice by naming patterns, followed by the taking-a-stand statement (‘feels unfair to me’), emboldens clients to take a stand for themselves too, and consider alternative perspectives to being stuck in unproductive and unfulfilling patterns. Part of the coach’s role is to model advocacy and courage; pushing the bounds of neutrality allows coaches to do just that, allowing them to align their practice with principles of justice and equity. 

Coaches can: 

  • Openly discuss the role of neutrality. Negotiate neutrality with clients, sharing when they are stepping into and out of it as a mindset.
  • Ask permission to take a stand. Especially in the beginning, asking permission maintains the client’s power and builds trust.
  • Role model courage. Coaches must be willing to engage in courageous conversations with their clients about topics such as race, gender, privilege, and oppression.
  • Model advocacy. Coaches can serve as role models for equity by advocating for historically underrepresented people, and actively work to dismantle inequitable structures within their spheres of influence. 

By taking a stand for equity through conscious advocacy – instead of strictly maintaining a neutral stance – coaches can create a space for authentic dialogue and meaningful change within their coaching relationships. 

Lowering the waterline: coaching around resistance

Resistance and opposition are natural components of the coaching process, particularly when exploring issues of privilege, power and identity. Amy Mindell has emphasised the importance of addressing resistance in productive dialogues such as coaching, suggesting that resistance often serves as a protective mechanism against vulnerability and change.6 The root of resistance is conflict, which simply means that there is a difference in two or more perspectives, with resistance typically representing the ‘minority’ perspective. A client can experience intrapersonal conflict (within her or himself), and interpersonal conflict (with and between others). Managing both types of conflict effectively builds the client’s self-awareness and courage. When the coach observes resistance, they can help the client clarify the conflicting perspectives to identify the source of the misunderstanding or injustice. This awareness can lead to a greater sense of inclusion and equity in the client. 

Resistance serves as a signal that underlying issues need attention, promotes deeper understanding of diverse perspectives, fosters creativity in problem solving, and cultivates resilience in individuals and organisations. Learning to manage resistance effectively facilitates growth, innovation, and engagement with complexity, leading to sustainable and inclusive outcomes. Voicing resistance can be difficult, however, so I encourage coaches to build a psychologically safe foundation to ‘lower the waterline’ to help the client uncover and express unspoken beliefs and views. 

‘Lowering the waterline’ is a metaphorical reference to the iceberg, of which only 20% can be seen above the surface. Below the waterline lives the other 80%: the rich and deep aspects of the client’s experience, including their conflicts, tacit beliefs and emotions. But we protect ourselves from what lies beneath because it can be uncomfortable and vulnerable to face. To navigate these turbulent waters, I encourage coaches to develop safety agreements so that they can address head-on the underlying tensions in a client’s experience, and so that clients feel vested in exploring their resistance without fear of judgment or reprisal. By revealing the conflicts that exist in the client’s experience, the coach can guide the client through a safe and supportive debate, allowing for the development of deeper wisdom, perspectives or solutions. 

Coaches can:

  • Encourage the client to ‘take both sides’ of the conflict. With the coach’s support, the client argues for each side exhaustively, one at a time, to understand the merits and flaws of each perspective. This process gives voice to the resistance and eventually allows a well-informed, equitable conclusion to emerge.
  • Create a culture of psychological safety. Coaches must establish trust and rapport with their clients, creating a space where vulnerability is honoured.
  • Explore underlying emotions. Coaches can help clients identify and articulate the emotions underlying their resistance, providing a deeper understanding of the root causes of their behaviours.
  • Challenge limiting beliefs. Coaches can assist clients in reframing their perspectives and challenging the beliefs that may be holding them back from transformation. When clients give voice to their resistance, they are more likely to feel seen and understood, leading to deeper levels of inclusion and liberation. 

Discussing social identities: honouring diversity 

Central to our JEDI approach is the recognition and celebration of social identities. Social psychologist, Derald Wing Sue, has underscored the importance of addressing social identities in coaching, arguing that they play a central role in shaping individuals’ experiences.8 Unfortunately, most coach training programmes pay inadequate attention to the importance of social identity in the coaching dynamic. 

I encourage coaches to engage in open and honest conversations about race, gender, sexuality, class and other intersecting identities. By acknowledging the complexities of identity, coaches can create an inclusive space where clients feel seen, heard and valued for who they are. To set the expectation that social identity will form part of the foundation for the client’s growth, start early. In the initial session, demonstrate how to share social identities and inquire about the client’s identities. Here is an example of how I do this: 

My name is Priya Nalkur and I use she/her pronouns. I am a first-generation immigrant of South Asian descent. I was born and raised in Canada. My immigration experiences have shaped my lived experiences at school, in communities, and at work. I have also experienced discrimination as a woman of colour. What social identities are important for you to share with me?

In this way, the coach normalises discussing social identity and sets the expectation for exploring how it influences the client’s growth and fulfillment. From this example, you can imagine a following line of inquiry like this: ‘What’s important about those identities to you?’ and, ‘How, if at all, have those identities helped or hindered you?’ 

Coaches can:

  • Cultivate cultural humility. Coaches must approach discussions of social identity with humility, recognising that they will never fully understand another person’s lived experience.
  • Inquire specifically about the influence of social identity. Coaches in our programme have been particularly empowered to name, address and ask about social identity directly. Examples from our participants include: ‘How, if at all, does your identity as a woman of colour impact your leadership?’; ‘How has being the oldest person on your team influenced the way you engage with others, if at all?’, and: ‘Would you be willing to tell me about your experience being a minority at your firm?’ By honouring diversity and the richness of individuals’ social identities, coaches can create an environment that is inclusive, affirming and liberating. 

Raising and navigating power dynamics: fostering equity in coaching

Power dynamics are pervasive in coaching relationships, shaping the dynamics of privilege and oppression. If not openly discussed, they can create tensions and subtleties that prevent the client from maximising their potential. Research by Diochon and Lovelace has highlighted the importance of addressing power dynamics in coaching, suggesting that they can have profound implications for the coaching process and outcomes.

In coaching, power dynamics can manifest when the client implicitly ascribes disproportionately more power to the coach, assuming they are in a position of authority. In this situation, the coach holds more decision making authority than the client. If the coach imposes their ideas or goals onto the client without adequately considering the client’s perspective, it can create tension and hinder the client’s ability to fully engage in the coaching process. This unequal distribution of power can stifle the client’s creativity, self-discovery and ownership of their goals, ultimately limiting their potential for growth. Similarly, power dynamics can be influenced by social identities. For instance, if the coach comes from a dominant social group or holds privileged identities, while the client comes from a historically marginalised or oppressed group, there can be inherent power differentials in the relationship. The coach’s unconscious biases may influence how they perceive and interact with the client, potentially undermining the client’s sense of agency, self-worth and ability to express themselves authentically. This imbalance in power can impede the client’s progress, and hinder the establishment of trust and rapport between the coach and the client. Even when the power differential is in the opposite direction, i.e., with the client holding disproportionately more power than the coach, the client does not maximally benefit from the coaching process. 

As coaches, it is incumbent upon us to raise awareness of these power dynamics and navigate them with sensitivity and skill. This involves creating a coaching environment that is grounded in principles of equity, respect and mutual empowerment. 

Coaches can:

  • Acknowledge privilege. Coaches must acknowledge and examine their own privileges, recognising the ways in which they may impact their interactions with clients.
  • Recognise and address the power imbalance in the coaching relationship. Rather than attempt to level the playing field, name the possible power imbalances that might be present given the coach’s and the client’s social identities and backgrounds. Discuss the ways in which the power imbalance may be contributing to or thwarting trust, and give power to the client to determine their actions and decisions.
  • Promote inclusion and equity. Coaches can advocate for systemic change within their organisations and communities, challenging inequitable practices and policies that perpetuate privilege and oppression. By fostering equitable relationships built on trust and mutual respect, coaches can empower their clients to reclaim agency and chart their own paths towards liberation. 

Examining biases and assumptions: cultivating conscious awareness 

Finally, I encourage coaches to examine and confront their biases and assumptions directly. Research by Moin and Van Nieuwerburgh10 has emphasised the importance of addressing biases in coaching, suggesting that they can undermine the effectiveness of the coaching process and erode trust between coach and client. 

Coaches may inadvertently hold biases that shape their perceptions of their clients’ capabilities, motivations or aspirations. For instance, unconscious biases against certain demographics such as age, gender or race can cause coaches to underestimate the client’s potential. This limited perspective can lead the coach to overlook the client’s strengths, experiences and unique perspectives, thereby hindering the exploration of diverse possibilities and solutions during coaching sessions. Consequently, the client may feel misunderstood, undervalued or disempowered, leading to a lack of trust in the coaching process and impeding their willingness to engage fully in self-reflection and growth.

Unconscious biases can also manifest through subtle microaggressions, or stereotypical assumptions made by the coach. Microaggressions, which are often rooted in unconscious biases, can undermine the client’s sense of safety, belonging and self-esteem. For example, a coach inadvertently making stereotypical assumptions about the client’s abilities, interests or cultural background, can contribute to feelings of alienation, invalidation or frustration on the part of the client. The client may perceive these microaggressions as dismissive and demeaning, leading to a breakdown in trust. Thus, the client may become resistant to feedback, reluctant to explore vulnerable topics, or hesitant to challenge limiting beliefs, further impeding their progress. 

Coaches can:

  • Practise mindfulness. Coaches can cultivate awareness of their thoughts, feelings and reactions during coaching sessions, noticing any biases or assumptions that may arise.
  • Challenge their assumptions. Coaches can practise introspection and reflexivity to explore if and how their assumptions and cultural understandings are influencing the coaching relationship. They can share learnings judiciously with clients to role model introspection and manage unconscious biases.
  • Seek feedback. Coaches can solicit feedback from clients, colleagues and supervisors to gain insight into how their biases may be impacting their coaching interactions.
  • Engage in ongoing education. Coaches can participate in training programmes, workshops and seminars focused on diversity, equity, and  inclusion, deepening their understanding of inclusivity, and expanding their cultural competence. 

With humility and vulnerability, coaches can model authenticity and accountability, inspiring their clients to build inclusion and equity in their own experiences. 

Integrating justice, equity, diversity and inclusion into coaching represents not only a professional imperative but also a moral one. As coaches, we have a unique opportunity to be agents of change in our clients’ lives and in the broader world. By considering the principles outlined above, we can embark on a transformative journey towards a more just and equitable future. 


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