“Unconscious bias (also referred to as implicit bias) work is like any internal work: our progress will be limited by our tolerance for discomfort; our progress will ascend to the heights to which our genuine curiosity allows. We must be willing to exchange our comfort for growth, peeps. But, let’s be honest; internal work is hard work. It’s work that many of us choreograph our lives and relationships around in order to avoid (anybody with me on this one?).” - JRNI Coaching instructor Khary D. Hornsby, J.D.
As coaches, our unconscious biases will - not may - impact how we hear, interpret and are ultimately able to hold space for our clients. In order to do our job effectively, it’s important to understand what ours are.
A self-compassionate journey into our personal biases gives us the mental endurance and framework to undergo real internal change. And it has the further benefit of making us compassionate, empathic and mindful coaches.
What is Unconscious Bias?
Unconscious or implicit bias is the underlying attitudes and stereotypes that people unconsciously attribute to another person or group of people that affect how they understand and engage with a person or group.
Common Myths About Unconscious Bias:
- Having implicit biases makes me a bad person.
- I am not biased; I have tons of diverse friends, in fact, I’m dating a _____ person.
- I am fully aware of my thoughts and actions, and I make all of my decisions based on facts and evidence.
As Coaches, What Do We Need to Know?
In the study and practice of coaching, it's important to understand how human brains work. In looking at the function of internal bias as it applies to us as coaches - as well as our client - what we’re doing here is called Neuro Management.
Our brain takes in hundreds of billions of bits of information every second, but guess what? We can only bring forty-four pieces of information to our consciousness in order to make sense of the world around us. What this means is that we’re constantly doing mental sorting.
The way that our brains pick and choose what information to bring to the fore is itself a form of bias, and it's neither good nor bad.
This process is called the Availability Heuristic, and it’s a very important underlying principle of coaching.
So how does the Availability Heuristic work?
There is so much information in the world that our mind tries to create shortcuts. It hones in on information that has already been primed in our brain as a result of previous exposure to various people, places, beliefs, and ideas. One great example of this is how a piece of information that you hear more than once will sound familiar to you.
The problem is that for our brain, what we internalize becomes, in effect, a “rule”.
This puts us at a significant disadvantage when there are other pieces of information that might be better for us to take in, or if the original piece of information that we internalized is actually not true. (Source: Unconscious Cognitive Biases in Our Coaching by Carlos Davidovich - ICF Career Coaching Community Practice)
Another way to think about this is that the information that our subconscious mind chooses to bring to the fore forms the basis of the stories that we tell ourselves.
Storytelling is central to the human experience, and the stories that we tell ourselves shape the course of our lives.
There is a part of the brain known as the medial orbitofrontal cortex that gets activated when people experience pleasure, or a sensation of "rightness". When your expectation for the world around you (or the story you have told yourself) is confirmed, your “met expectations” turn that story into your reality. (Source: Useful Delusions by Shankar Vedantam)
Likewise, when we experience negative emotions, unsurity, or an assumption of wrongness, the pain centers in our brain light up! (Source: ICF Career Coaching Community Practice, 2020.)
Confirmation that we’re right = PLEASURE
The possibility we might be wrong = PAIN
The evolutionary traits that hold our stories in place are the same ones that keep us stuck in cycles, mindsets and ways of thinking that limit our ability to change and evolve further.
Every innovation or necessary social change that has ever come to pass began with a spark and a will to question, experience discomfort in not knowing, and the courage to do things differently.
As individuals, and when working with coaching clients, we need to be especially aware of the stories we tell ourselves and how they impact our perception of reality.
What Are Self-Limiting Stories?
These may be assumptions, opinions, conclusions or beliefs that you hold. These stories show up everywhere, and most of us can’t consciously "see" them.
In psych terms, what we’re talking about here is the Illusion of Validity Bias. This brain function creates the phenomenon through which our mind uses all of its shortcuts (availability heuristic) to find stories and patterns - even when all we have is sparse data or very few facts to work with.
This happens because our brain needs to make sense of whatever is showing up in the present moment.
Fun fact: the brain does not care if the way that it makes sense of a given scenario is true or untrue.
This creates problems when the story that we tell ourselves leads us down the wrong path. Or worse, creates an anxiety spiral or stereotype that we wrongfully apply to others. If you’ve spent any time cruising political posts on social media, you already know what this looks like.
Real World Coaching Example
Let’s say your client and another colleague walked past a glass walled conference room and saw a meeting taking place where their leadership team was discussing something with great seriousness.
Both your client and their coworker come up with a different story about what is going on in that room, based on their different and unique life experiences.
One knows it’s annual budgeting time, assumes the conversation is about revenue forecasting, and forgets about it. The other believes those executives may be talking about employee layoff scenarios, and immediately begins to fear for their job.
The coaching intervention we can extend for this scenario is to support our client in seeing that they’ve just told themselves a story. Some quick coaching questions that you can use to avoid letting a story sink in are:
- Do I have any information to confirm the story?
- What would another interpretation of this situation be?
This quick overview is just the tip of the iceberg in our discussion of internal bias and coaching. We believe this topic is so critical that we’ve included it in the curriculum in JRNI’s life coach training program.
In brief, here’s what you can take away today:
- Often, we get “the story” wrong because our brain wants to attach to information that is repetitive, rather than information that we may need to work a bit harder to validate as true.
- This is not our fault - it's an evolutionary phenomenon that has allowed our species to survive. But right now, in society, it is harming us.
- The fix is to begin to notice when you’ve just told yourself a story and try to come up with confirmation of the story before buying in.
- OR you can choose a different, better story. It doesn’t really matter if the replacement story is true or not. What this does is challenge the brain enough that over time you will begin to think and see differently by default.
Ready to Increase Your Impact?
Coaching is a rapidly growing field that is continuously evolving. Even for seasoned coaches and managers, there’s always more to discover. If you’ve not yet earned your ICF coaching certification, there’s no better time than now to get started! Come check out JRNI Life Coach Training - a program that's every bit as unique as you are. Grounded in science, our ICF accredited program features authentic instructors, a robust curriculum, business and entrepreneurship instruction, and fellow students dedicated to becoming a collective force for good.