Two colleagues of mine were debating how much to bring identity politics into their work. For one of them, it was irresponsible to take the lead in conversations about their participants’ cultural identities: for example, in the first session, don’t ask a Filipino woman about prejudice she’s faced. She probably wants to show up as a person, rather than being reduced to this one aspect of her identity and the presumption she’s faced prejudice. For the other colleague, it was irresponsible not to get into politics: go ahead and acknowledge early that the client is a Filipino woman and that prejudices exist, so she doesn’t have to worry about bringing that up herself, and she knows that you embrace a core part of who she is beyond stereotypes.

The debate got me itching to articulate my own stance on engaging cultural identities in coaching. That’s what I’m going to do here.

In 2012, my collaborator Wil and I conducted one of our Man Question workshops at a maximum security men’s prison. Wil and I asked men in the library program how they have been impacted by the expectations of manhood. One man, who I’ll call Ted here, told the group about the time he got up to get food in the cafeteria and came back to find another man in his seat. He’d been punked. If he didn’t get the seat back, he would be less of a man. But he also thought about his wife and daughter. If he got in a fight over the seat, he would lose visiting rights with them for weeks. By letting down his family, he would be less of a man, too. He walked away from the table. I looked at Ted and said, “so the question is, how do you stay in here and remain a man?” He looked back and said, “no, the question is, how do you stay in here and remain human?”

Ted’s wisdom is a touchstone for me in thinking about identity politics, and, indeed, people who know me well have heard me tell this story a number of times. On a gut level, people don’t care about gender or other sociological categories. They care about belonging, connecting, being respected, being free to express themselves, and the other basics of being human. However, Ted told this story because Wil and I asked about the impact of the expectations of masculinity, and Ted justified avoiding the fight by prizing an alternate version of masculinity. Social identities may be in the background emotionally, but they provide the currencies and parameters for negotiating for core needs. As such, coaches and other development practitioners need to engage on social identities with the people they serve.

Returning to my colleagues’ question, do I bring up social identities early in the coaching process?

It depends. The conversation comes naturally with female clients. So often, women who work with me talk about struggling to ask for what they want. I pose, how can you use this relationship to practice asking for what you want, especially given that I’m a man?

I am also happy to take the lead with sensitive men on daring to express their feelings, and with queer men on claiming space in their communities as gay or bi or gender non-conforming, in spite of messages from friends and family and society at large telling them to reign it in; those are territories I know well.

I am listening more when it comes to racial identities. With one client who is a person of color, I asked in our first session how we could take advantage of me being white, in the coaching relationship. The client told me, “Nope, I’m all set.” Noted. Too much, too fast. A different client, a few sessions in to our coaching relationship, talked about fighting internalized messages about having to always be a caretaker. This client took the lead on identifying that the messages started at home, and we worked together to see a bigger connection to racial stereotypes that pressured the family to take on serving roles. This was heavy at first, but acknowledging the fraught history allowed my client to work with me on how to carry the family story forward.

The question of how to talk explicitly about identity politics is a sub question of how to bring cultural awareness into coaching in general. My commitment is to get to know the particular individual I am working with and champion them in making choices freely. Paradoxically, choice is illusive and limited, and shaped profoundly by the codes and expectations surrounding the cultural identities that people inhabit. To have any freedom, people need to know the constraints that they are operating inside of, and what options are in fact available to pursue. The best alliance between a coach and a client is one in which both are expanding their consciousness of the way that power and privilege work in the world in respect to their cultural identities. No one formula dictates when and how to talk about these issues. Like all good coaching, the conversations rely on courage, intuition, and love.