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Limiting Belief BS and Other Ways Traditional Coaching Fails People of Color

Almost ten years ago, in a viral 2013 Ted Talk, Bill Gates proclaimed that “everyone needs a coach.” In that speech, Gates made the case that coaching is a mechanism by which people can receive unbiased feedback and with that unbiased take we improve.

I didn’t know anything about Gates’ Ted Talk or coaching at the time. To be honest, I thought that coaching was a lot of new-aged, woo-woo B.S. that rich people in California pay for. A profession that sitcoms make fun of on a regular basis, like when they portray a wayward cousin or kooky aunt who’s just come back from a spiritual retreat and is suddenly a coach.

I thought all this about coaches until I myself got a coach. Way back when I thought I was going to open a vegan hair products line, I went to an expo for vegan products and hit it off with a vendor there. He happened to be a coach and offered to have an initial session with me for free. 

I took him up on his offer, not expecting much, and was blown away. We worked for almost a year and everything opened up for me. I left my job and started my practice. I moved and generally experienced more confidence and more self-trust than I ever thought possible.

Since that time, I’ve been a coaching devotee and have benefited from coaching as a client and as a practitioner. 

In practical terms, what coaches do is help clients clearly define what they want for their lives, careers, or businesses, craft the best strategies to achieve those objectives, and reveal hidden inner potential by posing a series of thought-provoking questions and examining hidden beliefs. Coaches help their clients move beyond the limits they have set for themselves. 

As an attorney-turned-certified coach, I believe in the power of coaching. But as a black woman, I’m keenly aware of the problems that come up in the way this practice is administered to people of color. 

The first problem is that traditional coaching messages often don’t resonate with people of color for a reason — they never discuss oppression as one of the main factors inhibiting our success. Most coaching models have strategic colorblindness when it comes to issues of oppression. They ignore the conversation completely or conflate internalized oppression with limiting beliefs. 

This brings us to the second problem with traditional coaching: oppression is not a limiting belief, but it’s often treated as one. Unlike other beliefs that hold us back, oppression cannot be self-remedied because it’s not self-generated and it’s not based on a past experience. It’s also an on-going factor in the lives of every person of color. Therefore, effective coaching for people of color necessarily must involve a recognition of the oppression we face and a process for grappling with the on-going belief patterns that persist as a result. 

Finally, the fact of the matter is that most coaches in the United States are white. And in order for coaching to be effective, coaches must “see” their clients and be willing to examine beliefs that most people aren’t willing to talk about with strangers. Seeing is deeper than visuals. It’s about understanding and resonating on a deeper level, and representation matters when it comes to that level of understanding. We simply need a more diverse pool of coaches who can truly “see” clients of color to make the practice more impactful for all people.

My hope is that through Woke Up Worthy we can start a new conversation in the coaching industry. One that acknowledges that every issue isn’t a limiting belief and that oppression is a real, impactful, and harmful reality that people of color will have to continue to navigate until the system changes. Until then, we deserve real coaching tools that help us thrive anyway.

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Dear Worthy Woman,

Every week I write to you so that you remember…

  • Every challenge doesn’t stem from thoughts that hold you back;
  • Some limitations are just straight-up oppression;
  • You have the power to navigate both!

This newsletter provides the inspiration and tools to help. You in?