The Impact of Disclosing Coach Identity

Margaret Huang
May 01 2023 | Perspectives

Identity can be a powerful motivation and driving force to help someone change.

At the beginning of a coaching engagement, a person may share the challenge concerning their identity. Your client may tell you, “I need to stop thinking of myself as an individual contributor and think like a people manager now,” “I have just become a new mom and started working again,” or “my manager told me she thinks I am disorganized.” Clients may feel they have outgrown a part of their identity, are forming a new layer, or are rejecting an unwanted identity someone else assigned to them. We often begin by asking questions about a person’s future and desired self because intentionally using identity can harness powerful energy in the service of change.

As James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, shared on Twitter, “true behavior change is identity change. When your behavior and your identity are fully aligned, you are no longer pursuing behavior change. You are simply acting like the type of person you already believe yourself to be.”

While many coaches understand that identity is a powerful tool for the people they work with, they are rarely challenged to explicitly assess how their identity as a coach impacts the coaching process. The 2021 revised ICF competencies mention identity four times; each of these four instances addresses how the coach treats the identity of their client; it is silent on how a coach should manage their identity.

Yet, two of the most ubiquitous questions in coach training or development are, “who do you want to be as a coach?” or “who are you showing up as?” These questions can trigger responses that range from deep reflection to hand-wringing to pursuing more professional certifications. Our identities influence how we “show up,” and what we decide to share with clients can shape our coaching relationship.

What is identity?

The definitions in various dictionaries are minimal. For example, Merriam-Webster defines identity as “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual.” The APA Dictionary of Psychology definition provides slightly more substantive guidance: “an individual’s sense of self, defined by (a) a set of physical, psychological, and interpersonal characteristics that is not wholly shared with any other person and (b) a range of affiliations (e.g., ethnicity) and social roles.”

Even the APA’s definition of identity feels disconnected from how you might hear the concept appear in daily conversations and the word “identity” appears frequently and often in many different situations. When artists are interviewed about their art, they often want to share that their work “reflects their identity as a ...” Political pundits and candidates engage in heated debate over “identity politics,” and corporate executives are increasingly facing demands to create a culture that allows employees “to bring your whole self to work.”

Think of identity as an onion with many layers. The less immutable layers are closer to the core - your personality and the characteristics you might be born with, such as your skin color, ethnicity, or age. Over time, pieces of your identity may be discarded/acquired and grow/decrease in importance to you.

Your identity may expand as you become a “fundraiser on your nonprofit board,” a “yogi,” or a “public speaker.” You may also become a “parent,” a “stepparent,” a “foster parent,” or a “single parent.” The outer layers of your onion may grow and change as you experience life or move in and out of social groups or different communities. Other parts of your identity may stay consistent throughout your life. Depending on the social group you find yourself in and the level of safety and inclusion you experience, the components of your identity that you choose to share will shift. For example, the aspects of your identity you disclose to colleagues at work may differ from the identity you share at choir practice.

Be warned: working with identity, be it yours as a coach or others, can be treacherous territory. Dr. Yaba Blay, the author of One Drop, shared a wise disclaimer when Brene Brown interviewed her in her podcast, Unlocking Us: “Identity is nuanced. It’s complicated. It’s hard to define. Sometimes, it’s dangerous to define, depending upon who’s doing the defining.”

Nothing can derail a conversation more quickly than when one person assigns an unwanted identity to another person. Labels like “lazy,” “unhealthy,” or “racist” are difficult to navigate, even for the most skilled at emotional intelligence among us.

Who are you competent to coach?

When you ask coaches who they aspire to coach, the responses range from everyone to very specific niches. The target clientele may be C-suite executives, people with a successful track record with change, or people who want to transition from lawyers to business managers. Another answer to the question might be, “I aspire to coach diverse clients.” Notice all of these answers are coach-centric.

Let's ask a different question: “Who are you competent to coach?” This shifts the focus to the needs of the people we aspire to work with, but it can also lead to answers that sound like the flutter of coaches waving their certifications and credentials. Some coaches might respond to this question by pointing out that they have completed a DEI program from a renowned institution, hold various assessment certifications, or have a current state license for counseling or therapy. These answers indicate a coach’s focus on building a practice or a business (coach-centric) rather than the client’s perspective.

To get at the heart of who we are competent to coach, we must begin with what a prospective client might be searching for, which is not easily determined by our clients or us independently, but must be arrived at jointly. This is why chemistry or consultative calls exist in private practice and why most digital coaching platforms offer a slate or bench of coaches for their clients to consider.

Under its new core competencies, the ICF specifies that coaches should “partner with the client to determine client-coach compatibility.” Similar to how coaches know that contracting up front is vital to coaching success downstream, it is equally important to disclose information about your identity as a coach to the client; otherwise, what have we provided to clients to base their assessment of coach compatibility on? Clients can waste valuable time and money over several sessions without substantive information to evaluate, only to eventually determine they are uncomfortable with us.

History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme

Before we dig deeper into our coaching competencies, let’s look back at our history as a coaching profession. The ICF began in 1999 with 2,122 coaches and was founded and based solely in North America. Twenty years later, the ICF is now the largest global association of coaches, with 50,000+ members in over 140 nations and territories.

Even with all this growth, the March 2022 ICF State of Diversity whitepaper, co-authored by Lakisha C. Brooks and Dr. Margie DeBroux, acknowledge that the largest segments of the ICF membership still reside in North America and Western Europe. The whitepaper shared a SWOT analysis of the ICF, confirming one of ICF’s weaknesses that many coaches already suspected or intuitively knew:

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The demographic diversity of our coach membership is a weakness. While global in reach, we lack racial/ethnically diversity and have few members who fall into younger age groups. Furthermore, few current members identify as LGBTQIA+ or have disclosed a disability.

International Coaching Federation

When coaching emerged as a formal profession, our predecessors drew heavily from the theories and research of more established fields: psychology, psychiatry, and philosophy. These fields are predominantly based on theories and frameworks from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies or “WEIRD,” to use a term recently coined by anthropologist Joseph Henrich. Our inheritances from these other professions are rich, and the scholarship in each of them continues to evolve; it doesn’t diminish the fact that their histories with people of color, women, and LGBTQIA+ are complicated and problematic.

Coaching’s relationship to the field of psychology also has implications that extend far beyond our origin story in 1999. In October 2021, the American Psychological Association or APA issued an “Apology to People of Color for APA’s Role in Promoting, Perpetuating, and Failing to Challenge Racism, Racial Discrimination, and Human Hierarchy in U.S.” The apology began as follows:

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The American Psychological Association failed in its role leading the discipline of psychology, was complicit in contributing to systemic inequities, and hurt many through racism, racial discrimination, and denigration of people of color, thereby falling short on its mission to benefit society and improve lives. APA is profoundly sorry, accepts responsibility for, and owns the actions and inactions of APA itself, the discipline of psychology, and individual psychologists who stood as leaders for the organization and field.

American Psychological Association

To put this apology further in context, the Association of Black Psychologists responded swiftly and critically; their members felt the apology did not go far enough and was a “far cry from what is needed.”

When the outcry against a longstanding injustice reaches the point where the American Psychological Association, the largest scientific and professional organization of psychologists in the United States, has finally taken responsibility for its complicity in systemic harm to several groups of people after decades of denial, it should spur coaches to closely examine the assumptions behind why we might perpetuate certain practices, especially some of the ones that we share with therapists. But it is unclear how many coaches know that this APA apology occurred or understand the significance of this moment to coaching.

For example, some coaching programs trained and continue to train coaches not to disclose their identities because, in the beginning, coaching borrowed a “blank slate” technique from psychotherapists. In psychotherapy, the therapist is taught to avoid revealing personal information about themselves because of the belief that this allows the recipient to project their own needs, desires, and beliefs onto them. As you contemplate this technique, ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Can anyone present as a neutral, objective “blank slate”?

  2. Is this technique the best way to co-create a coaching relationship?

  3. Which option below cultivates more trust and safety with a client who may have experienced racism, discrimination, or denigration?

    1. Disclosing the parts of your identity you find most important at the beginning, or;

    2. Remaining silent on who you view yourself to be?

Disclose at the beginning

As coaches, we should not demand someone disclose their identity; we should begin by sharing ours first. More often than not, coaches are in a perceived position of power or authority with their clients. When I first meet prospective clients, I always offer clients the option to introduce themselves first or have me introduce myself first. In my first 500+ hours of coaching, approximately 90% of my clients asked me to go first when I offered this choice. More than half of the 10% who elected to speak first amended their introductions to disclose more information about themselves after they listened to my introduction. “Wait! Now I want to share that I also have a cat, am an introvert, and just became a working mom.”

Just as coaches are trained and supervised to be “open, curious, and flexible,” our prospective clients are naturally curious about who their potential coach is, how open they will be about themselves, and how their worldview has been shaped. Most will fill in the blanks without a coach’s input if they do not disclose. Taking the initiative to reveal your identity at a chemistry or discovery/intake meeting allows you to model to a client what it looks like to own your narrative.

Consider the possibility that your prospective client identifies as belonging to a non-dominant group or one that has been “othered” or associated with a stigma in their community. For example, this client could identify themselves as an Asian American or an African American woman in a U.S. organization that is predominantly male and white. They could also identify themselves as a queer Christian woman who lives in Jordan, a country that is 95% Muslim.

The expectation that you be “culturally sensitive” to all these types of differences across all prospective clients you may encounter is a very tall order, especially for those coaches who have joined coaching platforms with global clients. You would need to learn about an infinite number of different identities and societies, which is simply unrealistic.

A better approach is to disclose some of our identity and establish that we are open to fielding any questions that might help them determine how well they can build trust and safety with us. This relieves coaches of feeling obligated to know everything. It also allows us to remain curious about the systems they have grown up and live in and to be transparent about the ones we were raised in. Then, after this exchange, we wait to see if we will be invited to dance in their world with them.

Note that the criteria that a client takes into consideration when they are choosing a coach are also subjective. If one of the reasons that keep you from disclosing an important part of your identity is “the client might not be able to handle it,” I urge you to reflect on your coaching mindset. A critical element of a coaching mindset is for the coach to acknowledge that “clients are responsible for their own choices.” As coaches, we build trust by demonstrating our willingness to share information that might be relevant to help clients make an informed choice and then respect and honor their choice.

At this point, some coaches may be worried about how much disclosure is too much. Disclosure does not have to be exhaustive; it should focus on parts of your identity that you frequently think about throughout your day or the stories you notice you are retelling throughout most of your life. I encourage coaches to refrain from regurgitating their professional bios that the prospective clients have already read or content from your 2-3 minute video where you discuss your coaching style and approach.

Margaret Huang: ICF-certified coach, EQ-focused, coaching global executives and teams, passionate about equity and diversity

How I disclose my identity

This is an example of a “professional coaching bio” that I might send as a panelist at a conference or when presenting. You can see that my disclosure is more generic when I use it to communicate to a large audience unknown to me. Once I am speaking or attending an event, my level of disclosure would likely increase, especially if I start my session by polling the audience to understand more about who my audience is.

Margaret Huang: Asian American, Quaker, breast cancer survivor, single mother, cat lover, walker. She/her.

In contrast, this is an example of my coaching introduction. When I introduce myself at discovery or intake sessions, my sharing only takes approximately 7-10 minutes. Even though it is brief, I serve up a slice that reveals several layers of my identity onion. My introduction incorporates elements from my personality, some of what I was “born with” or “born into,” parts of my identity that were shaped by my lived experiences, and membership into groups that have been non-dominant or othered. By definition, our identities as coaches will each be unique, and we should feel authentic when we share them.

I urge coaches to refrain from curating their identity to be the one they think may attract or convince the client to choose them. Rather be client-centric and model a disclosure that would demonstrate how you hope they will be able to share back with you. Your narrative is your own, and serving a small but deep slice of it at the beginning with a strong coach presence, can either supercharge your coaching relationship or allow a prospective client to quickly decide that they need to find another coach before too much time and energy is wasted. Both outcomes support good coaching in a mutually beneficial way for both the coach and the client.

A sense of urgency

As the digital enablement of coaching accelerates, the number of people participating in coaching is deepening well beyond the senior executive ranks of organizations and widening quickly across the globe. The ICF numbers overwhelmingly show us that coaching is already scaling.

While that is exciting, there must be a growing sense of urgency to examine and decide which coaching practices we will intentionally carry forward to shape the future of coaching. Our responsibility is to be willing to take risks and experiment to accelerate the development of practices and systems that will yield greater equity, inclusion, and belonging in our profession. We must design these new systems to be flexible so they can transfer to regions of the world with systems different from those operating in N. America and Europe.

The choice to disclose how you identify as a coach and as a person is a decision any individual coach can make, and we can make it independent of any organization’s oversight. I have been writing and speaking about coach disclosure to bring attention to the possibility that not disclosing risks exacerbating a power imbalance from the beginning. Conversely, the impact of disclosures is that it honors the “co” in “co-creation” and helps reinforces that coaching is not “done to a client” but rather a partnership from the first step of the journey.

Sharing parts of your identity during chemistry and discovery sessions does not violate any of the ICF core competencies. This is a much stronger practice than merely “being sensitive” to other people’s identities because disclosures go beyond “noticing” to actively naming the source of your subjectivity and acknowledging the potential impact your worldview can have in a coaching relationship.

For the coaches interested in trying this out, I recommend you find a few peer coaches to workshop a new introduction and then try it with some people you coach. After experimenting with this approach a few times, I would love to hear what you discovered. You can reach out and message me on my LinkedIn.

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