The Burden of Being an “Intercultural Coach”
Riding together

Yesterday, I had lunch with a Professor of “Intercultural Management” and I tried to explain what I am doing for a living out there in the world of Global Mobility. I struggled to explain myself even though I was speaking to a colleague. “Intercultural Coaching ” is not commonly known as a profession. There are different approaches to “intercultural coaching” and the term “interculturalist” is not used in Switzerland a lot.

What we do is coach professionals (often Expats or Nomads like you through an intercultural transition or we help them build a global virtual team from chaos to perfection. While working on your “Global Competency” can mean enhancing knowledge, changing attitude, developing skills, reflecting experience, or integrating body learning into your repertoire many business leaders still think of “intercultural competence” as etiquette.

I’ve built a brand around consulting, training and coaching global nomads in an intercultural transition, and with that, I am not talking about moving your household goods (even though I understand the stress and importance of an international move well).

I try to integrate developing intercultural intelligence and effectiveness into all our programs as I feel it is a key competence for global leaders, in client service and global team performance. I value cultural diversity and working with people from all over the globe from my home office is amazing.

The Swiss culture in my view tends to value the opposite. It’s based on excluding rather than including. If you look at how “Switzerland” was founded it is very obvious why the people learned through generations to protect each other from the enemies outside. What started with the Ruetlischwur in 1291 is still in the mindset of the culture. (I call this concept “The Circle of Trust” in my best Robert de Niro-Voice).

The other reason is that in my personal life, I spend time with people from different cultural backgrounds. The multitude of experiences and lifestyles sometimes clashes. There are situations in my life where I have to get up and leave a discussion because I cannot handle it emotionally. It often happens when differing religious and political views are at the table. While I consider myself open and tolerant I have a strong value-based attitude that is biased towards “Germanic” logic and values. My approach can get in my way. I get frustrated when clients or friends have a different approach.

As most people, I tend to overestimate my intercultural sensitivity and I am not as great in this topic when I get under pressure. As most of us, I fall back into my “cultural default” (citing Sundae Schneider-Bean, an outstanding intercultural coach, and trainer) when under stress. And while I had to admit this publicly I don’t trust easily. I have had a number of experiences in my personal life and also in work projects that make me more cautious. (And I am not only speaking of the annoying spammers on Instagram…). I have to admit that I lost money, time and my pride so now it takes a while for me to trust someone. People need to show me that they care, that they don’t have a hidden agenda, and that they are not just after my bank account. You might feel the same. Maybe you were also once in your late thirties, ready to start a family, and willing to trust more than you should have. Maybe you uprooted your life, left a great career prospect, or your mother to follow the love of your life to Zimbabwe, Zagreb, or Zurich.

And now what?

What I have learned over the years working across cultures is that we have a lot more potential to be compassionate without judging. We just need to learn to reevaluate our conclusions and judgments. We need to give people a fourth and fifth chance and we need to accept them how they are. Then we are true humans, we are able to forgive and we perform in our global teams. Sometimes it also may be hard to understand when you are born into privilege that others want to be supported mentally, financially, and with education and that we are not living in a world where everyone is equal. It takes time to accept that your passport alone can open or close doors for you and that immigration laws are not made to welcome you but rather to protect the labor market in the host country. And that these laws are often reciprocal so if your passport country decides to break ties with your host country you might be faced with issues you cannot really control.

We also might need to learn that our basic assumptions about life, love, and trust are not necessarily universal and that we cannot trust in a toxic environment or relationship. For example, if you are working for an employer where constant competition for resources, funding, or appreciation is fostered by outdated performance and compensation methods you might be running your legs off like on a treadmill but you can never be satisfied with yourself or the people you work with. Competition does not foster collaboration. Collaboration comes from a place of psychological safety and love. Managers caring for their own benefit and bonus will never create a work environment that feels safe, egomaniacs will never make you feel loved at work and your partner might just not be the right partner for you.

Life is not a Disney movie but you and I, together we can make the world a better place.

We can start in our own circle of influence. We can be role models. We can show an extra level of trust and energy. We can break down organizational silos and work together across levels. We can influence each other to create a safe working environment for immigrants. We can use our privilege to help the less privileged. We can do all that and then we won’t feel “burdened” by our intersectionality. We will feel elated and in tune with our inner voice.

Let’s raise our glasses to love and bring more peace to the world.

Kind regards


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5 thoughts on “The Burden of Being an “Intercultural Coach”

  1. Angela – what I love about this post is that you shed light on such a critical aspect of the role of intercultural coaches (or coaches in general, for that matter). It is likely obvious that first and foremost, we do our best to provide the highest level of support for our clients to find clarity and success when faced with challenges. We, too, though are human, who succeed and faulter. Especially as an intercultural specialist, one might think that we expect others to see us as the ones who always “do it right”. This is simply not feasible, in my opinion. We aim to do well but also faulter. What we typically do very well though is to quickly identify what went wrong and gain clarity on how to prevent it in the future. (In fact, I just had a situation take place in Burkina Faso very much like this). We keep moving forward. I joke with my clients that my favorite method of learning is “learn by failure” but quite honestly, there is a lot of truth in that. We all work hard to step out there. Take risks. Try new approaches. Adapt. Sometimes it is smooth. Othertimes it is awkward. However, we neither internalize this (i.e. I am a terrible person) or externalize this (i.e. there is something wrong with “them”). We simply stay curious, reflective, open to adapting and move on….well, most of the time. 🙂

  2. As a coach who lived and worked in Switzerland for 16 years I was so interested to read your post. When I arrived in Switzerland it was so culturally different to my own UK experience (we are talking early seventies) I tried to start my own business in a mountain village where tolerance of a young foreign English woman was not great! However, after the shock of rejection I slowed my pace, adapted, listened, engaged others, and began to see with different eyes. My business took off and gradually in time we all learned from the process.

    Today I use this experience in my cross cultural trading and coaching. How, as you rightly say, we need to look at ourselves and reflect on what we bring to our coaching in terms of cultural bias. As coaches we are in a privileged position and it is up to us to be open, honest, tolerant, and to be willing to adapt. It’s not easy sometimes when Coaching cross-culturally//internationally but building trust and strong relationships can bring greater understanding and tolerance.

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