Exploring Bias As A Coach

Lumia Coaching instructor Khary Hornsby discusses how unconscious bias works in the human mind, where it leads us astray, and how to address it as coaches.

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Unconscious Bias: What Coaches Need to Know

A conversation with Lumia Coaching instructor, Khary Hornsby

Lumia instructor Khary Hornsby

Khary has a passion for empowering people to skillfully connect across real and perceived cultural differences through cultivating cultural intelligence, emotional intelligence and mindfulness skill-sets. He has over 14 years of experience in international relations leadership positions, and has conducted workshops and presentations in over 40 countries. 

In addition to serving on Lumia’s faculty, Khary is Assistant Dean, Chief Global and Executive Programs Officer at the University of California, Irvine. He is a certified trainer in: EQ-i 2.0 (Emotional Intelligence); EQ 360; Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI); and CQ Level 2 (Cultural Intelligence). Khary is a certified Budokon yoga instructor and is an avid social dancer. He earned a bachelor of science degree in cellular and molecular biology from the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor, and is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School.

‍What does Khary teach in the Lumia coach training program?

Course: Unconscious Bias & Connecting Across Cultures, which includes:

  • Bias and the human brain
  • Evolutionary roots of cognitive biases
  • Understanding how unconscious bias (UB) impacts the practice of coaching
  • Recognizing the differences between UB and Conscious Bias
  • Understanding the link between UB and anti-Black racism
  • The role that neuroplasticity plays in mitigating UB
  • Developing individual skill sets for mitigating UB

‍Why do coaches need to understand this?

Despite our best intentions, unconscious bias can sometimes interfere with our ability to make a positive impact in the lives of others. Bringing these issues to light in coach training and working with them compassionately allows us to more capably navigate a complex world. 

Rigorous self-reflection is part of our work as coaches.

Doing the hard work of figuring out what we need to see, understand, un-do within ourselves, and collectively call in requires courage. It’s also aligned with the International Coaching Federation Code of Ethics pledge: “To treat people with dignity as independent and equal human beings, and to model these standards with those whom I coach.”

Biases can manifest themselves in our coaching practice in three ways: 

  • The coach’s view
  • The client’s view
  • A mutually held view of both coach and client

As coaches, we work with clients on some of the most personal aspects of their lives. Along the way, our unconscious biases will - not may - impact how we hear, interpret and are ultimately able to hold space for our clients. 

This is why the ICF Code of Ethics repeatedly calls on coaches to engage in work to gain an understanding of unconscious bias and take proactive steps to dismantle it. As ethical practitioners, this is the standard we are all held to.

This is also one of the paradoxes of coaching: we are a constant work in progress. We need not be perfect to coach - we come as we are and we are whole as we are. But one of our most important investments we can make as coaches is in our own personal growth. Often. Repeatedly. And in-depth.

‍How does unconscious bias work?

Our unconscious biases are the human brain’s attempt to be helpful - they are designed as “energy saving” shortcuts. And in this respect biases are neutral, and can sometimes be helpful depending upon the context. 

Our brains receive billions of stimuli per day and our amygdala is responsible for sorting that information and choosing where to place focus. The sheer amount of data that we take in from the world around us limits our ability to consciously process it all. Thus, unconscious biases assist us by categorizing information to assist with maximizing our efficiency. 

Many of our “knee jerk” or instinctive responses to stimuli are actually unconscious biases that are processed by the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for the survival instinct known as the “fight or flight” response. The brain does not look for the most comprehensive and holistic interpretation of data. Rather, it looks for the fastest and most efficient definition of what a set of stimuli may be.

What are some common examples?

Confirmation bias: the tendency to unconsciously assign more weight and/or seek out information that supports our existing opinions 

Threat assessment: the brain’s attempt to determine whether something or someone is safe or potentially harmful. 

The balance of error as it relates to threat assessment is an area where we are particularly prone to bias. This tends to produce two types of errors: 

  • False positives (taking an action that would have been better not to take)
  • False negatives (failing to take an action that would have been better to take)

Our instinct for preservation encourages us to make a larger amount of uncostly errors versus a single (or small amount) more costly errors. 

For example, you see a flying insect coming toward you out of the corner of your eye. Potential responses might include:

  • False Positive: you instinctively shriek, jump off your seat and run indoors only to realize afterward that it was a butterfly. Relative Cost: Low (You expend energy running, you suffer the awkward gaze of those around you...)
  • False Negative: you do nothing and get maimed by a swarm of Murder Hornets. Relative Cost: High (Injury, hospital bills, emotional scars from being bullied by hornets, you still suffer the awkward gaze of those around you...).

When it comes to our everyday human experiences, consider this scenario: It’s late at night, and you have the instinct to cross to the other side of the street when seeing someone approaching from down the block.

  • What’s the false positive? 
  • What’s the false negative?

In some cases, our biases help us. But on other occasions, they can be very destructive and lead us to misunderstand the scenario or person and pass false judgment in the interest of mental efficiency. 

Identifying our Biases

In our course on this subject in the Lumia Coach Training program, we begin by assuming positive intent. Everyone who is inspired to become a coach possesses a genuine desire to help other people. 

It is possible for an unconscious bias to be made conscious. However, the inverse cannot occur. Once a bias has been made conscious we’re faced with the decision to mitigate it or leave it untouched. Awareness leads to the need to make a choice.

Knowledge can be a powerful catalyst for change; but only if we choose to allow it to be so.

Unfortunately, our society has not been successful at having regenerative conversations on these subjects. Rooting these conversations in emotional safety and compassion is critical to engaging in meaningful self-inquiry about the biases we hold.

This is real work, and our progress will be limited only by our tolerance for discomfort. The easy thing to do would be nothing at all. But that’s not why we’re here!

As coaches, we’ve chosen to join a community of professionals dedicated to helping others become their most authentic selves. We’ve chosen to serve as a catalyst for the success, self-actualization, and thriving of others. And in doing so, we’ve committed to the same journey for ourselves.

Over the past several years, more and more people are recognizing the inequities in our society and asking the question: “What can I do?” Donating money, marching, and making statements on social media may be a piece of it. But our ultimate sphere of control is within our own relationships. 

If we really want to create change, we have to go to our own friendships, family dinners, and the communities we are a part of. These conversations can be terrifying. One of the things coach training equips us with are the approaches and frameworks necessary to have those difficult conversations. 

Khary’s toolkit for doing the work, even when it’s hard:

1. Grounding myself in gratitude. I believe these are skill sets that can literally change the world. This is what’s needed, and this is what I am equipped to offer based on my lived experience and professional background.

2. Reframing challenge as opportunity. Difficult conversations come up in this course, and in life itself. Friction and being confronted with viewpoints that are different from my own experience - coupled with self-nourishment - is what allows me to plunge more deeply into learning and growth.

‍Want to Become a Coach?

One of our values at Lumia is that we dare to be different. Our coaches ignore the expectations society tries to impose on them, and seek to live from their own truth instead. If you are ready to step into your power as a coach, come check out Lumia Life Coach Training. Grounded in science, our ICF accredited program features authentic instructors, a robust curriculum, and business instruction to prepare you for liftoff.

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