Coaching in a foreign language

Who, me? Coach in a foreign language? Never! 

How many times over the past 8 years have I heard esteemed colleagues – experienced coaches – tell me, “There’s no way I could coach in a foreign language, I don’t speak it well enough”. And every time I was dumbstruck. How could this qualified professional, who speaks English better than I speak Italian, tell me s/he doesn’t speak well enough?

As an English mother-tongue executive coach living and working in Italy since 2003, I coach in Italian (and French) with a far-from-perfect mastery of those languages. Based on my own experience, I assert that those misgivings about coaching in a foreign language are in all likelihood the result of a fear of incompetency poorly disguised as rationalized doubts. I intend to hereby illustrate that those of you who share similar qualms could, in reality, be quite effective while coaching in a foreign language.

What are those self-imposed obstacles that keep us back from doing just that, and how can they be overcome? Let’s start with several of the rationalized ‘excuses’.

“My spoken English (Spanish, French…) isn’t good enough”

Here’s some numerical food for thought, to put things in perspective. As coaches, we have learned that a good coaching conversation is one in which the coachee speaks ¾ of the time, with the other 25% spoken by the coach. Now, communication science has taught us that 55% of the message received is conveyed through body language, especially facial expressions; 38% through vocal aspects, such as volume and tone of voice; and a mere 7% through the actual words spoken. Do the math: less than 2% (25% x 7% = 1.75%) of the conversation is transmitted through your words.

What becomes obvious, for this miniscule percentage of the coaching communication, is that you need to be able to express your message at only a basic level of words, with the body language and vocal aspects doing the rest – actively listening, showing empathy and understanding, having an attentive posture, adopting appropriate facial expressions, etc. Ask yourself objectively: Do I have a basic mastery of speaking the language? Mind you, this does not signify finding the perfect word or phrase, but rather making yourself understood via a synonym, a metaphor, a foreign word, or some other workaround. If your answer to the above question is yes, then your spoken English (or other language) is indeed good enough.

“I won’t understand the verbal nuances the coachee is expressing”

Coachees express nuances all the time. And we don’t always understand them, even if the native language is shared. To ensure that we comprehend the issue at hand we simply ask further questions. It is exactly the same when you’re working with a coachee in another language. Don’t understand a word, phrase, or concept? Ask her to repeat it. Still don’t get it? Ask her to give an example or say it in another way. It demonstrates your commitment to understanding and helping the coachee, whatever the language used.

“I do most of my coaching over the phone – I’ll miss important body language”

Anyone who has done telephone coaching, even in their native tongue, knows that it can be just as effective – if not even more so – than coaching in person. The more you work on the phone (in whatever language), the more you become attuned to “hearing” body language. Hesitancy, emphasis on certain words, sighs, repetitions and pauses are a few examples of signals the coachee emits, which you may not always pick up when coaching in person because of visual distractions.

“I won’t be able to empathize because the coachee is from a different culture”

How many times have you coached someone who’s considerably diverse from you? Someone from a significantly dissimilar corporate, socio-economic or family culture? A coachee with a diverse lifestyle, educational background or outlook on life? It happens quite often, and most likely it hasn’t prevented you from effectively coaching that person. A different national culture is simply another type of diversity that is handled in the same way – by relying upon your proven coaching skills.

“There won’t be a coach-coachee fit”

This argument is absolutely true, and applies to all potential coachees. Just because you have the same mother tongue, it doesn’t mean that you are the right coach – there may not be a fit. It happens. Conversely, you may have great chemistry with a foreigner. Why let a little thing like language get in the way? What about your experience, knowledge, skills, personality, willingness and ability to help this person meet his objectives? Is all that going to be shunned to the wayside because you may not find the perfect word or understand some elusive idiomatic expression the coachee might possibly say?

Now that these rationalized (and usually superficial) excuses have been refuted with rational arguments, what’s left? Is there something in you that says, Yes, those counterarguments all make sense, but I still couldn’t coach in a foreign language?

Here’s the biggie – let’s get it out in the open.

“I’ll be seen as incompetent”

Variations on the same theme are: “I’ll ruin my reputation, why take a chance?” or, “I’ll be saying goodbye to all possibilities of repeat business.” These thoughts are often the core of the matter, and are a combination of self-limiting beliefs, lack of confidence in one’s abilities, and the fear of inadequacy and its consequences. Sound familiar? It should. Fear is very often at the root of issues we help our own coachees face, and since we are only human, it makes sense that it be at the origin of ours as well.

So, how to overcome this fear? Here are just a few of the possibilities:

  • Envision the benefits: Higher personal satisfaction and professional fulfillment. A wider market, new clients, more people whose lives you can touch. New experiences and learning around different cultures. Greater confidence and certainty in your abilities.
  • Try it in small doses, one step at a time. Minimize the risks, the unknown variables, by coaching a foreign friend or colleague for practice, pro bono or not.
  • Enlist the help and support of someone you trust in the process.
  • Commit to it as part of your self-development plan.
  • Consider how you have overcome other professional challenges and apply similar thought processes and methods.

I consider myself lucky – as a foreigner in Italy, I was in a way thrown into the lion’s den and was forced to face my fears and doubts about coaching in a language other than English in order to reach my professional objectives.

Most coaches, however, do have a choice. If you are one of those professionals, I encourage you to choose to confront those self-limiting beliefs and fears. Accept the challenge to put yourself to the test. You will most likely discover that yes, you can coach effectively in a foreign language.

13 July 2011 – Valerie Ryder