Blog: Learning Curve

Blog: Learning Curve2020-01-13T15:39:29-05:00

Time for Coaching to Come Out and Embrace Diversity

At 1:20 a.m. on Saturday, June 28, 1969, four plainclothes policemen in dark suits, two patrol officers in uniform, Detective Charles Smythe and Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine arrived at the Stonewall Inn’s double doors and announced, “Police! We’re taking the place!”

That declaration sparked the Stonewall Uprising.

During the events of June 28 to July 1, 1969, outside a little West Village bar, the modern-day LGBTQ movement was born. While a vital community existed before—mostly underground—this moment energized many to mobilize, come out and to venture into the 21st century.

This past weekend, five million people descended on my home city of New York, which was selected to host World Pride Day to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising.

I came out as gay in 1984, during the emergence of the AIDS crises. For 35 years, I’ve learned new ways to confront my own internalized homophobia as well as integrating my gay identity into life as an activist, researcher, publisher, writer, consultant, and educator. In each of these spaces, coming out offered me and those I interacted with a richer experience of differences and diversity.

Coaching is the one profession where I work more intimately with people, and yet I must intentionally navigate an identity that isn’t (explicitly) expressed in the competencies or practices of the field.

Coaching and Identity

As a coach and researcher, I see how my internal struggle—integrating more of my identity and distinguishing society’s oppression—has given me access to a deeper awareness of humanity.

I have spent the last year on a task force formed by the Association of Coach Training Organization (ACTO) to explore how we might become more aware of and include identities as part of our professional service.

ACTO’s membership includes coach-training schools and organizations. Our task force explored deep conversations, research, and topics that encompassed implicit bias and discrimination at the individual level and group identity and systemic bias at the collective level.

The work culminated with ACTO’s annual conference, keynoted by educator and author, Robin DiAngelo whose 2018 book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, has shifted the conversation on race and racism.

The conference highlighted many gaps in the coaching profession. It also revealed some of the gaps in our “global community” that still lean into white privilege from North American views. I’ll save these discoveries and suggested resources for another blog.

Ironically, I just completed the global survey proffered every four years by the International Coaching Federation (ICF), this one for release in 2020. Yet, outside of gender, only region and country identify who you are as a coach. No questions are asked about race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or physical ability. This mirrors ICF’s 2012 and 2016 surveys.

This survey will guide the “global” International Coaching Federation (ICF), for the next five years. Identity may be one of the most critical issues associated with inclusion and belonging to understand and coach in organizational life. (For example, see this survey on sexual and gender identity by the New York Times.) How can we address what we are unaware of?

Taking a Stand

One way to combat the perception of #coaching-so-white might be to survey ICF members with a focus on expanding and including more diversity.

Another way is to demand change. What would you do if you were another white speaker at a conference of all white speakers? Might you risk your status and take a stand? That is what fellow ACTO member Molly Gordon did by pulling out as a speaker at a conference for Master Certified Coaches (ICF’s highest credential).

Finally, we can take a stand for the future of coaching. That is what ACTO did last year to guide its future:

What would it mean to have all coaching schools and training organizations accept such a stand?

Impact of Ignoring Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is becoming the silver bullet for all that ails organizational culture. Companies have created new DEI roles to brandish their cultural street cred.

Still, do coaches truly understand these issues beyond attending a workshop or reviewing a text, as lived?

Do we understand who is impacted when these issues are left unaddressed?

These recent headlines reveal the influence cultural and social issues now have on business and institutions in society:

“Hershey, Nestle, Mars won’t promise chocolate is free of child labor”

“Airlines to DHS: Don’t use us to transport kids separated from their families”

“A YouTuber hurled racist, homophobic taunts at a gay reporter. Company did nothing”

“LGBTQ Google employees ask SF Pride to remove the company from celebrations”

“’A cage is not a home’: Hundreds of Wayfair employees walk out to protest sales to migrant detention center

Now consider these situations that might impact your organization or efforts:

  • White, male executives still comprise the vast majority of power in organizations. Do they have an expanded perspective that involves how cultural issues impact their employees, stakeholders, products, and brand? Most would like to understand more; where can they turn?
  • Will the coaches these executives hire view performance through increasing assets or increasing awareness? How will they include and integrate DEI into their understanding to connect obvious dots that can be fatal if missed?
  • If you are part of a marginalized group, can you be heard by a coach who doesn’t understand the difference between equality (sameness) and equity (power)?

Cultural Awareness

As coaches, we are being challenged to expand beyond the typical cultural concerns regarding a company’s values, mission, and vision. We are now challenged to include DEI and systemic bias into our awareness, as it impacts individual performance and culture.

Consider this new territory:

— Which of these six (of fifteen) attributes identified in oppressive cultures have you experienced in organizations: a value of 1) perfectionism, 2) individualism, 3) speed and urgency; 4) the belief in meritocracy; or an attitude of 5) defensiveness and 6) fear of open conflict?

— As a coach, can you see how these six attitudes, values or beliefs can negatively impact individual performance and impede DEI work?

— As a coach, which of these three commonly held models do you embrace: 1) Diversity, 2) Cultural Competency or 3) Social Justice? While education focuses rightly on social justice, diversity begins by offering visibility. Representation is an essential first step in our media-driven world of viral images.

— As a coach, do you recognize the importance of communicating culture through representation? How is it to walk into a boardroom where no one looks like you or can relate to any marginalized identity or experiences? Or, to engage your local police department whose cultural makeup does not represent the communities they serve?

— If you are working with the manager of a retail outlet, which of your assumptions view these two headlines as “solutions?” Do these resolutions develop a culture of understanding and inclusion or create an “appearance” of such to mitigate negative quarterly returns?

Taking a Stand, Coming Out

As a presenter at ACTO’s conference, I offered research on unlearning to cultivate openness for cultural issues. I also realized three unique attributes of our LGBTQ community I’d like to share.

  1. We must come out. And we must do it repeatedly, with each interaction, to constitute ourselves. Telling our truth is an act of dignity.
  2. We have no family for us to learn from. LGBTQ children do not learn how to cope with being gay (LGBTQ). Unlike families in other minority groups, ours cannot offer a shared experience, historic reference or common heritage.
  3. We’re a community of communities. Every community—whether Black, Latino, Asian, first peoples, differently abled, male or female—has LGBTQ members. (See this SIDEBAR for more details on these three attributes.)

But Coming out isn’t just for the LGBT. Coming out involves the expression of our truth in a whole and authentic manner.

As we consider identity, let’s learn to appreciate the challenges in understanding, celebrating and integrating our multiple identities, whether as a parent, leader or coach, and/or as a member of groups and cultures.

Integrating identities is fundamental to becoming whole. It involves increasing awareness to celebrate differences to question and expand our worldview.

The time has come for the coaching profession to come out. It’s time to review our stated intention to be “global” and “international” beyond white North Americans.

Coaching may be the most important personal intervention to support the evolution of human potential and consciousness. Such an evolution begins with this paradox: to become whole by appreciating differences.

Please view these related blogs to complement this post:


Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist wisdom to sustain contemplative practice.


Wisdom Warrior #2: Clear Thinking Cultivates Wisdom

In the second of our Wisdom Warrior series I focus on Clear Thinking, perhaps the most misunderstood of our abilities.

Wisdom is the missing condition during these times of volatile change, information overload, and dynamic knowledge. Yet our inability to discern clearly has so clouded our thinking that we lack clear judgment, rendering wisdom inaccessible.

From journalists to lawmakers to educators, we no longer possess a penetrating lens to peer through cloudiness with any credibility. We can no longer advocate for the truth, nor can we call an act what it is. With our perception and judgment clouded by euphemisms and reflexive beliefs, we’ve lost our ability to think.

The Challenge

Our primary culprit of lazy thought is that we haven’t cultivated a “habit of questioning.”

This complacency commonly takes two forms:

The first is the primacy of problem-solving: we frame thinking as seeking out answers to solve problems. Once we find an answer or evidence that confirms our position, we stop questioning.

The second issue is more reflexive thinking; it lacks any questioning at all. This approach is akin to simply saying whatever is necessary to achieve a desired outcome. When asked how we arrive at our thoughts we are stymied, because no questioning has taken place.

Both views delude us into thinking that we are thinking, when in fact we are comforted by initial evidence or by the fruits of wishful thinking. At best what we claim as thinking is the activity of managing our old thoughts or beliefs, or analyzing the agreeable evidence.

Both of these views lack a habit of questioning that clarifies assumptions, discards outmoded beliefs, and makes space for new thoughts.

Thinking about Thinking: A Habit of Questioning

Whatever the reason, when we stop questioning, we dismantle the mechanism of thinking.

Thinking involves questioning our beliefs, our assumptions, and the evidence in a way that opens space for new thoughts. Philosopher Hannah Arendt points us to the issue: “Thinking aims at and ends in contemplation, and contemplation is not an activity but a passivity.”

Thinking dwells, lets itself be; and as Arendt suggests involves “cultivating the habit of questioning whatever comes to pass, or that attracts our attention.”

In this way thinking is less about cleverness, calculation, and consumption of data and more about mindfully being with situations in a free and open manner that invites each moment to present itself fully.

Thinking is related more to freedom than to facts, and aligns more with presence than reasoning.

The question then becomes: do we meet the moment freely with openness, or do we rely on old thoughts and project unexamined assumptions?

Activist and education philosopher Paulo Freire offers insight: “Even if the people’s thinking is superstitious or naïve, it is only as they rethink their assumptions in action that they can change. Producing and acting upon their own ideas—not consuming those of others.”

Clear thinking, then, first requires surfacing projections that mask as thinking, and two of the most pervasive are magical thinking and positive thinking.

Magical Thinking

To practice clear thinking, we begin by confronting our magical (“fantasy” or “wishful”) thinking, which can distort what is seen and acted on.

Magical thinking denotes the causal relationship between perception, actions, and events. It is the belief that one’s wishes or desires can influence the external world.

Magical thinking is marked by vague claims, generalizations, platitudes, or hyperbole. It wants (wishes for) something based on beliefs or hopes that have no possible reality or are not based on concrete evidence or specific details.

We’ve all had moments of magical thinking. Fifteen years ago I started a non-profit Center to deliver leadership programs without a market, funding strategy, program development or plan for training. After all, I had secured a 501(c)3, and had the knowledge, right? And with funds, I signed an office lease, designed a website, and hooked up phones.

Such events reveal our casual relationship with reality. I not only didn’t question my expectations; it didn’t even occur to me that such questioning was necessary.

You don’t need to know how to get where you are going, but where you are going must be in the realm of what’s possible or credible when looked at from the perspective of where you actually are. Magical thinking causes others to question that credibility.

OUTCOME: I employ platitudes to move others to a goal, sell an idea, or agree to terms without any details.

Positive Thinking

A common form of magical thinking, “positive thinking” attempts to frame the facts or conditions that confront you in life with a more positive interpretation. “Pollyanna,” “do-gooder,” “goody-two-shoes”—these are some of the disparaging nicknames that we have for people who avoid evidence in an effort to be positive. (Note: One can be supportive and deliver the facts without having to make it positive in this unseeing or unobserving sense.)

We say, “It’s a great idea, so it will all work out,” or “don’t be so negative, think positive.” We do not seek out counterfactual evidence, question the available (or lack of) details, or recognize how we distort conditions to spin our positive claims.

This kind of distorted thinking places a layer of positive sentiments or delusion between us and what we are dealing with, like a layer of fog. Instead of dealing with the conditions in front of us, we are left to navigate the fog, so we become better at describing the fog.

OUTCOME: I employ a positive spin on circumstances to make myself and others feel good.

Clear Thinking

Clear thinking is the ability to question assumptions critically with the ability to engage in independent and reflective thought. It involves questioning concrete evidence and specific details that point to causes and conditions with evidence, concepts, logic, and/or context.

  1. Concrete details are tangible. For instance, the house at the end of the block is on fire. This claim is understood by three concrete items: house, fire, block. These are clear by the level of agreement (understanding) for each—that is, we can all point to and verify these items.
  2. Specific details or logic are explicit and precise. For instance, the fire’s temperature reached 800 degrees within 10 minutes because of 50 mph winds in the area last night. Notice the precise conceptual items in this statement: temperature, time, miles per hour, and temporality.
  3. Specific details reframe conditions in context. For instance, the fire offers urgency to create a neighborhood association that can support community concerns to manage our safety and security issues.

OUTCOME: I consider and question the available evidence and seek out details that offer a credible interpretation for the matter at hand.

Thinking and Action

The thinking we bring to a situation leads to specific expectations and actions.

Consider this scenario: a company has created a new strategy that changes its position and direction in the market, and the strategy demands many changes in a short period of time.

Three longtime employees have left the organization within 90 days of the strategy being announced and implemented. Below, we can see how each mode of “thinking” views the departure of these three employees.

Magical Thinking: They will be back once they get out in the world and see what it’s really like.

Positive Thinking: Everything will be fine, maybe even better, as the remaining employees will easily make up for any loss in productivity.

Clear Thinking: The new direction changed our priorities, and some employees were likely to depart. It is probably productive that any senior employees are choosing to depart early in the process. We can take the next 90 days to figure out what new roles or expertise we may need to continue implementing this strategy.

Clear Thinkers

A clear thinker begins with the premise, “I do not know.” This allows for questioning the available evidence while acknowledging subjective experience to view causes and conditions in a credible framework.

Clear thinkers view situations as they are, free of embellishment one way or the other. They consider all they are present to. The “direct experience” from within oneself surfaces any bias, or impediments, and informs how one questions the “verifiable evidence,” which discloses the context and the situation. (See blog on Mental Hygiene to help cultivate this mindset.)

This direct experience allows thinkers to acknowledge the facts as they are, understand concepts, and place the conditions in a context that is relevant to the situation. It is neither negative nor positive and can be either constructive or supportive, or both. It can be direct or indirect, but it is vivid, concrete, specific in detail.

Most importantly, clear thinkers evolve; they let go of outmoded views and with a habit of questioning do not settle for static beliefs or faulty assumptions. They grow by becoming open to new thoughts, penetrating questions, and different views.

They become present to new possibilities by questioning what they think they know. And with the humility of such questioning, they cultivate wisdom.


Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist wisdom to sustain contemplative practice.


Wisdom Warrior #1: Certainty v. Clarity

“Wisdom Warrior” is an odd name.

It combines two seemingly contradictory terms. This is precisely where wisdom exists—beyond knowledge or the practical—with tensions at the intersection of paradoxes, opposites, or contradictions.

Warriors have a steely mastery that focuses on the battle at hand. Our battle involves the clouded mind that often conceals important wisdom.

Holding these tensions can often question our thinking, cultivate our minds, and expand our views.

This blog begins a series to distinguish specific items that can support cultivating wisdom. Each item, labeled “Wisdom Warrior” will inquire into a specific “tension” or idea. In this case: Certainty v. Clarity.

Meet the “U” in VUCA

Most of us in the learning and development profession have become familiar with the acronym VUCA—Volatile, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity—during the last two decades.

Each of these terms represents a phenomenon that affects the human condition and influences our view of reality.

Volatility and complexity tend to measure externalities that define the pace or scope of change. Uncertainty and ambiguity often describe internal conditions that define our experiences and perceptions of change.

Certainty and uncertainty require deeper exploration.

Certainty v. Clarity

Let’s begin with distinguishing these two terms.

Certainty is an emotional state. It is informed by fear that offers a sense of safety and security in a predictable outcome. We grow to expect a specific outcome to hold fear in abeyance.

  • Certainty is grinding on the last 10% of a decision to get all possible information, at the expense of time and possibly market advantage.
  • Certainty rests on how and what. It requires that we know the outcome and that we’ve figured out how any choice will impact the outcome before taking any action.

Clarity is a state of mind. It is the result of an inquiry that clears the mind. It allows us to know the next step without having to know every aspect of the outcome.

  • Clarity occurs when you have enough information to make an informed, optimal decision. Then you make that decision.
  • Clarity rests on a grounded sense of why. It gets you out of bed with a sense of deep commitment before you know whether customers are lining up to purchase your services. Here, purpose is key.

The term, “attached,” above is from an Eastern wisdom context for “attachment” to mean “fixated on” or “obsessed with.” This is different from a Western context that tends to mean “bonding with.”

Knowing v. Discovering

Clarity says, “This problem deserves your attention,” while certainty tells you, “Wait until you know the answer.”

Here’s the rub: the essence of VUCA and the nature of change reveal that we can never know all the factors of any endeavor. In fact, we discover some of the most important variables after we’ve moved forward with our effort.

If we become attached to certainty, we will miss critical signs, patterns, and possible opportunities to alter, question, or clarify our direction.

Sure, we may produce our “expected” outcome, but we may be headed for a cliff. Or, we may miss critical opportunities to learn, innovate, and grow in ways that produce a different or more sustainable result.

The wise person realizes this: nothing is fixed or permanent. The best-laid plans or thoughts are subject to influence. Only a clear mind—unattached to an outcome—can be with the uncertainty that opens us to discovery.

Zen master Shunryu Suzuki points to this level of openness: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.”

So, how do we move forward in uncertainty?

Unclear v. Uncertain

There’s a big difference between being unclear and being uncertain.

Being unclear is not knowing which step to take.

Being uncertain is not knowing what the outcome of taking that step will be.

It’s important to distinguish between the two and to be able to recognize whether it’s a lack of clarity or the fear of uncertainty that’s getting in the way.

Unlike certainty, clarity isn’t reached via a tortuous route that can involve our identity or ego. When we personalize outcomes, our ego conflates being certain with being right. We then filter out ideas that question our desired outcome, ignore feedback we do not wish to hear, or deny data that “gets in our way” that we do not wish to see.

According to Steven Stosny, Ph.D., “To create a feeling of certainty, the brain must filter out far more information than it processes. In other words, the more certain you feel, the more likely you are wrong.”

And here’s an important paradox: the more self-assured one is of an outcome, the greater the chance of being caught off guard or paralyzed by fear.

Because clarity is not an emotional state, it is unclouded and unhindered, with the humility to choose the best next step.

  • Those who are clear expect to be wrong or surprised and can choose in the face of change.
  • Those that must be certain before acting find themselves trapped—unable to act until they are certain.

A time-tested truism states that the only way to predict the future is to create it. Develop yourself to embrace uncertainty: use the result of each step to pave the direction to that future, now.

What You Can Do to Embrace Uncertainty

The good news is that you possess the clarity required for any effort. We simply need to let go of any attachments to goals and outcomes and to trust our choices. These practices offer support:

  1. Find a mindful practice that creates space in your life for reflection, introspection, and inquiry.
  2. Notice any disappointment. When it occurs, first, discover any expectations. Then practice tolerating uncertainty by letting go of any attachment to expectations or to the outcome.
  3. Learn to distinguish between being unclear (not knowing which step to take) and being uncertain (not knowing what the outcome of taking that step will be).
  4. Practice differentiating outcomes as a fixed event or result from direction as a way forward from one’s intention, purpose, or commitment.


Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist wisdom to sustain contemplative practice.


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