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Leveraging Cultural Intelligence for a Deeper Connect

By - Audrey BurkeMcCarthy, Celia Sikorski, Christine Scordato, Erin Whitehead, Henry Kahn, Jaspal Bajwa, John Lazar, Keyaunoosh Kassauei , Nancy Glynn, Pamela Helwig, Tanya Kleindienst - Fellows at the IOC - Institute of Coaching

In Brief:

-This is a sequel to an earlier blog - Presencing - Enabling Deeper Coaching Conversations
-we examine how Cultural Mindset & worldview can have a significant influence on avoiding unconscious bias, cultural blind spots and stereotyping 
-Importantly, how ‘Cultural Intelligence (CI)’ complements EI (Emotional Intelligence) with a huge ‘Multiplier’ effect. Conversely, how low CI can seriously impair trust and openness to change. 

In the previous blog, Presencing has been defined as a way of honoring, receiving, and attending to what a coachee is experiencing. It is based on self-awareness, Emotional Intelligence (EI), and Relational Intelligence (RI). Alison Whitmire defines RI has having three components: 1) Relationship with Self, 2) Relationship with the ‘Other,’ and 3) Relationship with the emergent field of awareness and energy. In each of these, the role played by the cultural mindset of all concerned is key. 

By ‘Culture’, we do not necessarily mean only a geography-perspective. Culture has a more pervasive influence which fashions our worldview. It can be predicated by factors such as:

a) Locational aspect: rural vs. urban, cities located along trade-routes or otherwise
b) Demographic context: eco-political factors, ethnicity, religion
c) Societal values: attitude towards diversity and inclusion, matriarchal vs. patriarchal
d) Corporate Culture and Values

With accumulated life-experience, EI & RI skills can be enhanced by developing the related skill of ‘Cultural Intelligence’(CI), which is the ability to respond in the moment with authenticity and in a culturally appropriate manner.

Cultural Intelligence Enables a Deeper Connect

Presencing can be significantly enhanced by a better appreciation of the cultural background of the coachee as well as the cultural setting within which the coachee is operating. 

Coaches, in turn, need to be aware of their own cultural filters. A coach’s CI can significantly influence depth of coaching-interactions with the coachee. Joseph Shaules, in his book The Intercultural Mind - says everything we see and experience abroad is interpreted through the filter of our previous life experiences. Our interpretive systems often create the impression that what is familiar is normal, and that what is normal is right. And this lures us onto thin ice!

Roth’s 2017 research states some coaches create a picture of the client by extrapolating from their own perception of the client’s national culture. To avoid this pitfall of cultural stereotyping, Roth (2017) recommends that coaches reflect on how their assumptions about specific cultures, and the use of culture as a frame for understanding the client’s behavior, plays into their coaching practice. In a similar vein, David Peterson (2007) advises coaches to be aware of how their cultural filters might make them prone to forming “opinions based on generalizations and stereotypes about the person’s cultural background.” Peterson (2007) goes on to suggest coaches develop cross-cultural skills to look for hidden layers, to continually personalize the approach.

As coaches and leaders, we should never under-estimate how important CI can be. It can swing either way — as a positive ‘Multiplier’ or as a corrosive ‘Divider.’ Lack of CI can amplify pitfalls arising from unconscious bias, blind-spots, and cultural stereotyping. Equally, it can deepen the relationship through increased trust and resonance. 

Building Cultural Intelligence

The good news is, CI is entirely learnable. In an HBR article, Ealey & Mosakowski (2004) state “Cultural intelligence is related to emotional intelligence, but it picks up where EI leaves off.” They go on to share several tools available to assess and build ‘Cultural Quotient’ by developing EI/RI skills across head, heart, and body (Ealey & Mosakowski, 2004). Building awareness is the beginning of the journey toward enhanced cross-cultural appreciation. Culturally appropriate coaching conversations help elicit powerful insights - the first element of the development pipeline. 

Inadequate appreciation of Cultural dimensions such as ‘Power Distance,’ ‘Perception of Time,’ or ‘Individualism vs. Collectivism’ may lead the coach to narrowly frame the coachee’s worldview, thus compromising the quality and depth of the developmental agenda. A better understanding of CI and learning styles enables the coach to be more fully present, accelerate trust, and bring character to the art of asking thought-provoking questions in a culturally appropriate manner. 

To catalyze deep and sustained change, it is not merely sufficient to address cultural biases. Oftentimes there is a need to reconcile what appear to be diametrically opposite viewpoints. Higher order CI skills help do just that. Fons Trompenaars et al. (2003) outlines these in the 4R's in their ‘Dilemma Reconciliation Theory’ : Recognize, Respect, Reconcile, and Realize. The first step is to recognize and be aware. This is followed by genuine respect – which is directly correlated with exposure and direct experience. At the next level is the transformational ability to reconcile and integrate apparent polarity – and finally to fully realize the value of an integrated whole which builds on diversity and trust.

Case Study 

“My client grew up in a communist country and now has been in the USA for 20 years. Her manager wanted her to develop a more coach-like leadership style. In an early meeting, my client shared that she does not understand why the US is not more like her home country where ‘you tell them what to do, and they do it.’ I encouraged her to broaden her perspective by reading scholarly articles on inspirational leadership. The client indicated she found value in our sessions and that she was more mindful about her leadership. However, my intuition was that she was not really engaged and that we were still at the surface level of a true partnership.
A situation arose where my coachee felt a direct report had been disrespectful to her. She shared with me a chain of emails with a very flat, detached emotional tone. As I read through the emails, I became more animated than usual as I gave voice to the feeling I would have experienced if I had received these emails.  As we continued, my client began naming her feelings, and she acknowledged that she would have felt the same way. That was the moment my client knew I was her champion and that I understood her perspective. Now we are starting to build the bridge between two cultures.”
Whitmire reiterates – “It always helps tremendously for your client to know you are there for him/her as an advocate. View life through his/her eyes first. And only then offer a ‘reframe’ which could help your client leap across to a new perspective. Being an unending advocate and having a trusting relationship helps establish psychological safety. This, in turn, makes the coachee more open.” 
Richard Boyatzis’s (2018) research adds weight to the argument. Pressing the wrong buttons or ‘Negative Emotional Attractors’ (NEAs) triggers the ‘Fight, Flight, Freeze’ response which floods the body with cortisol – narrowing the focus on survival and setting up resistance to change. Conversely, a well-modulated intervention focused on Positive Emotional Attractors (PEAs) activates the parasympathetic nervous system. A surge of endorphins enables the coachee to be more open to boldly explore change. Boyatzis (2018) calls this ‘Coaching with Compassion.’


Cultural Intelligence is critically important, especially in achieving a deep connect based on genuine respect and trust. In synergy with EI & RI, Cultural Intelligence can have a huge ‘Multiplier’ effect on the coachee’s ability to explore disruptive growth and embark on a transformative journey to find greater success and joy.


Ang, S., Van Dyne, L., & Koh, C. (2006). Personality correlates of the four-factor model of Cultural Intelligence. Group & Organization Management, 31(1), 100–123.

Boyatzis, R. E., & Jack, A. I. (2018). The neuroscience of coaching. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 70(1), 11–27.

Day, G. (2017). From Thought to Action: How Global Organizations Move Employees Past Cognitive Cultural Intelligence to Win the Heart of Cq. Journal of Organizational Culture, Communications and Conflict, 21(1).

Earley, P. C., & Mosakowski, E. (2016, April 20). Cultural intelligence. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved January 15, 2023, from

Milner, J., Ostmeier, E., & Franke, R. (2013). Critical incidents in cross-cultural coaching: The view from German coaches. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 11(2), 19–32.

Peterson, D. B. (2007). Executive coaching in a cross-cultural context. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 59(4), 261–271.

Roth, A. L. (2017). Coaching a client with a different cultural background - does it matter? International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 30–43.

Rowley, Chris & Poon, Irene. (2009). From thought to action: how global organizations move employees past cognitive cultural intelligence to win the heart of CQ, Geneva Day, University of Maryland University College, Journal of Organizational Culture, 2017. The Importance for Managers and Organisations of Cultural Intelligence.

Shaules, J. (2015). The intercultural mind connecting culture, cognition, and global living. Intercultural Press.

Trompenaars, F., & Hampden-Turner, C. (2004). Managing people across cultures. Capstone Publishing.