The Impact of Disclosing Coach Identity

The International Coaching Federation (ICF), which began in 1999 with 2,122 based solely in North America, now has 46,619 coaches in 161 countries and territories as of July 2022 (“Professional Coaches Membership and Credentialing Fact Sheet July 2022 – ICF.”). With the arrival of several global digital coaching companies (BetterUp, Ezra, and CoachHub, to mention a few) between 2013 – 2018, the scaling and “the democratization of coaching” began in earnest. Coaches on these platforms reside not only in countries and territories outside the U.S. and Europe, but coaches can now be matched to coaching program participants almost anywhere with a stable internet connection globally. 

The rapid expansion of global coaching raises important questions about the impact these changes in context might have on the efficacy of coaching as we leap across borders and into societies that we are not necessarily knowledgeable about or even superficially familiar with. How do these changes potentially impact the ability of coaches to create trust and safety?

The Thought Leadership Institute of the International Coaching Federation recently convened discussions with several coaching scholars and leaders, and the first session was devoted to “What Processes and Mechanisms of Coaching Are Most Effective and When?” Margaret Moore, a co-founder of the Institute of Coaching (Harvard Medical School), raised the possibility that “to expand the coaches understanding of the full landscape of potential insights, coaches ideally seek to get more informed about the variety of contexts their clients are navigating. For example, family implications, race, culture and bias implications…past trauma, and leadership frameworks and norms.”

If you factor in the different intersections across all these identity categories, the variables a coach would need to master to coach these different participants would be overwhelming. Rather than try to master the universe, I propose that a more impactful way forward is to disclose the primary drivers of our identity during the initial intake and discovery sessions and acknowledge the subjective lens that our identity brings into coaching. By doing so, we give coaching participants the information to make a more informed choice when they select a coach and center on the belief that participants are responsible for their choices.

Ultimately, the objective of creating a coaching alliance is to help coaching participants produce insights that they can harness to improve their lives. Coaching is often referred to as a co-created relationship – a partnership. Within the container of this partnership, the focus is to build safety and trust to allow coaching participants to be vulnerable and share personal details of their lives: their context, emotions, identity, environment, experiences, values, and beliefs, in addition to their goals and objectives. 

In stark contrast, coaches are not vulnerable and are only required to be self-aware and self-regulate the influence of context and culture within themselves. We are not required to disclose to their coaching partners any components of our identities; most coaches adhere to the norm of disclosing their professional qualifications. Yet, inside the coaching profession, there is growing awareness that the foundations of coaching predominantly developed from theories in WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) societies, a term recently coined by anthropologist Joseph Henrich. Isn’t the lack of coach disclosure frankly WEIRD? Curiously, psychotherapists, another WEIRD profession, take the same approach. Coaching is widely acknowledged to have emerged at least partially from psychotherapy. Although, unlike therapists, however, coaching assumes participants to be emotionally, socially, and physically healthy. However, as coaches, we are not infallibly objective or “blank slates.” So why does coaching continue to model its practice on its WEIRD professional legacy from therapy?

Imagine what would be possible if that changed. If we truly accept that our identities shape our perspectives, the best way to manage our subjectivity is through self-disclosure and inviting feedback. For example, my own introduction of myself to a prospective coaching client during a discovery session begins like this:

“I identify as an Asian American cisgender woman of color, the oldest child and daughter of immigrants from Taiwan, a mild extrovert, a Quaker, a former modern dancer who loves the arts, a “walkaholic” who feels out of sorts when I do not walk every day, a twice-divorced, single working mother of two adult children, and a breast cancer survivor.”

I have found that being the first to broach the subject of self-identity and grabbing the proverbial bull by the horns sets the stage for my clients to come forward with questions they didn’t feel they had permission to ask and to share their own identities in rich detail. It can supercharge the transformational nature of coaching right out of the gate. 

One coaching participant who was deeply familiar with psychotherapy responded to my introduction by saying, “Boy, coaching is so different from therapy,” and leaned forward from the back of her chair into her screen to share her identity with enthusiasm. A different coaching participant disclosed that she was a married lesbian woman with two children working in a white male-dominated corporation and that chose me as her coach because I had a different perspective from white men. Notice that she did not say I had to have her exact perspective as her. 

Yet another coaching participant shared that he chose me because he wanted to learn more about a woman’s perspective in the workforce. While this participant and I were both ethnic Chinese, his selection of me as his coach was his choice was not based on that. These examples demonstrate that how a coach is selected is a subjective process for the participant. Moreover, this broad range of responses demonstrates how my identity is presented and perceived by a coaching participant impacts each coaching relationship in ways that I, as a coach, could not have predicted or anticipated. 

On the flip side, not disclosing how you identify as an individual creates a power imbalance in a coaching alliance. Non-disclosure can damage your credibility, particularly with individuals who identify as belonging to a non-dominant or “othered” group(s). People in “othered” groups frequently have an additional layer of intense assessment they conduct to determine their personal safety. Furthermore, not disclosing your identity does not prevent them from trying to determine it through other means during your sessions.

As the coaching profession strives to be more inclusive and equitable, we should become more humble and open in disclosing our limitations of objectivity as coaching professionals and adjust the power balance in the relationship from the very beginning of the coaching process, specifically during discovery sessions. Doing so would empower our clients to have more information to determine the coach they feel can drive their insights with more impact while allowing coaches to bring their authentic selves to the partnership. That would make it a little less weird.

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