Life is not Black and White

In coaching we are used to working outside of the lines.  If you believe there are only two solutions, an effective coach would encourage you to come up with 4 or 5.  If you see the world as black and white, again a coach would help you find the paint pallet that adds more light and shade as well as bold colours to a previously monochrome picture. This is all part of the effective coach’s skill set.  However, when we turn the attention to ourselves, how does the coach’s own view of the world affect the quality of our coaching relationships?  Most of us like to think we are fair and objective in how we treat others but the truth is that we do not always achieve this in practice. The issue is that our behaviour is driven by our attitudes about others – particularly by the stereotypes we carry and the prejudices we hold.   We are not talking about the clear, blatant and indeed shocking prejudice that drove up hate crime statistics following the Brexit vote; or caused a man to murder clubbers in Orlando.  We are talking about something much more subtle, unintentional and even unconscious, namely the implicit associations we make about others which affect how we behave towards them.  Either way, the effects are undeniable.

Take the case of Diallo a 22-year-old street peddler from Guinea living in New York in 1999.  Four white plain clothes police officers were cruising the suburb hot spots when one of the cops spotted Diallo standing in the shadows of a doorway.  After saying to him “Police – can we have a word?”, what followed has since changed police patrol car protocol permanently.  In a split second, the decisions made by the first cop and the collaborative response by the other 3 cops resulted in an innocent man who was simply taking in the night air, to receive 41 fatal shots.  The case uncovered how the police officers’ rapid cognition, the judgements we make and the first impressions we form of other people, were flawed with bias.  In other words, in a matter of minutes they sized up the scenario in a black and white perspective and interpreted it as black equals bad.

Although this is a catastrophic example, in everyday life our implicit associations and biases also affect how much we are connected or disconnected with those around us. It may show up in subtle ways. Whether it is listening with your arms folded, losing eye contact with the person you are speaking with, a subtle negative tone or lack of warmth in how you address a colleague or even how you move your lips to shape a smile that is not quite genuine – in any human interaction we are conveying what we are really feeling on several levels and often without even saying a word.  In coaching relationships our unconscious biases can affect the authenticity and genuineness of our interactions.  Perhaps there is even a cap on our empathetic responses if bias is allowed to play out.

Nowadays, there are ways to test out our biases using commercial and academic tests that use technology to test our word associations, and reaction times when we are asked to categorise words and pictures in prescribed tests.  It works on the premise that if you have a bias and are asked to do something which conflicts with that bias then, although you can do it, the fact that it is counter-intuitive will make you slower and more likely to make mistakes.  The Implicit Association Test (IAT) makes connections between pairs of ideas that are familiar to a variety of subjects ranging from gender, sexual orientation to religion and disability.

Here’s a small taste of one of the online tests available:

Look at the following list and tap your finger on the appropriate column, do it as quickly as you can and don’t skip any words.

Male                                     Female


That will have been fairly easy, but now you’ve got the hang of it, try this one.

Male or Family              Female or  Career


Chances are you found this one a bit harder and possibly it took you longer to answer each one.  The reason is that many of us have a strong association of ‘male’ and career-orientated concepts and certain words like merchant aren’t necessarily in our common vocabulary of today.

Once we know our biases, we are able to consciously consider them and question the gut feelings we have. Being aware of our bias and being conscious of the choice of language we use enables us to make an implicit bias explicit; and increases our ability to challenge it.

As a group of diversity experts and leadership coaches we believe the key to excellent working and coaching relationships is to manage our biases and work inclusively; and we want to enable others to do the same. To this end we have developed a Coaching for Diversity programme.  With three blended levels of programme our aim is to increase knowledge and awareness, build coaching skills and mastery through understanding diversity challenges, unconscious bias, and inclusive communication in the workplace.

‘Blink’, Malcolm Gladwell
Pete Jones – YouTube