A Coaching Power Tool By Ruth Kwakwa, Young Adults Coach, GHANA
What Is the Difference Between “That’s How It Is” vs. Choice a.k.a Culture vs. Choice
“That’s how it is” is an expression that often means, “I do it this way, because of my culture.” We use it confidently, and even proudly, to justify a particular behavior. However, although culture and tradition at their best bring us identity and belonging, at their worst, they are capable of limiting us, keeping us stuck and constrained, and unable to see alternative ways of being. They can prevent us from growing and thriving. How can we partner with clients to shift them from cultural rules that leave them feeling disempowered, to a state that makes them feel empowered? How can we help our clients to reframe their perspective, so that they see a world of choice, instead of a world of limitations and rigidity? This tool helps to shift clients from “that’s how it is,” to a place of abundant choice.
“That’s How It Is” vs. Choice a.k.a Culture vs. Choice Definitions
“That’s How It Is”/Cultural References
How Culture SOUNDS When It Limits Us
“This is how we do it”
“That’s how we are.”
“That’s how we’ve always done it.”
“That’s how we do things here.”
“That’s our way of doing things”
“That’s just the way it is.”
“I can’t do that because it isn’t accepted (by my people).”
“It just is.”
When we add a specific reference, (e.g., nationality, community culture, ethnicity, race, language, religion, political affiliation, gender, etc), we are injecting an additional layer of meaning, heaping centuries’ worth of reasons to explain why things are the way they are. It sounds like this:
“It’s the *Jamaican* way of doing things.”
“That’s how *we Africans* do it.”
“That’s the *American* way.”
“That’s how it is *in my church*.”
“That’s what *my people believe*.”
“That’s how *we women* have to do it.”
“It’s a *Caribbean thing*.”
“Here in *Spain*, it just isn’t done like that.”
“*Black people* don’t play that.”
“I am *younger* (than her) so I can’t say anything. That’s my culture.”
“I’m a *girl*” (so I can’t).
“THAT’S my culture.”
How Culture SHOWS UP
Culture often shows up with the intention of being positive. When we use “culture phrases” to defend our behavior the phrases often connote a sense of belonging, identity, affiliation, and community, and bring us an ongoing sense of satisfaction and stability. The more we defend it, the deeper our sense of comfort and security. Culture shows up as confident, and absolute. When we mention nationality, it stands alongside a flag that unites our country, giving us a sense of home. It boldly honors centuries of history and heritage. It respects and pays homage to our living elders, and our ancestors have long gone. We feel an obligation to pass it on to the next generation, and into perpetuity. We believe that the longer culture resists change, the stronger it is. Similarly, we think that the closer we follow it, the better we will be. The fact that it shows up sounding positive, often fools us into thinking that culture can’t have a negative or limiting impact on us.
How Culture Can Get Us STUCK
An expression of culture can become a mantra, something we repeat over and over without thought. We accept it as given. If not careful, tradition can also form a box around us, and make it difficult for us to navigate when challenges crop up, or when we operate in a “foreign” or professional setting built around non-traditional (“Western” or “modern”) systems. We get stuck because our culture has coerced us into an inflexible way of being, which limits our options and possibilities when we try to problem-solve and forge ahead.
How Culture Presents in A COACHING CONVERSATION
Ever so often, in a coaching session, you bump into the limiting phrase(s) mentioned earlier. You will be engaged with a client, trying to tease out an issue. Then finally, the client looks up and answers your question with, “That’s the African way. You know what I mean.”They say it with a shrug of resignation, yet clarity. Or, they say it with a nervous but knowing smirk. They realize that they are maintaining a particular behavior because they are following a cultural norm. The client settles back into certainty that they have done everything possible to solve their issue, and on reaching this realization, the client often decides to stay put.
What Just Happened?
In the moment that the client clings to culture, and refuses to consider other possibilities, several things occur, some of which even feel good at face value.
- The client acknowledges their willingness to do something that was handed down to them, without question. Doing by rote is the accepted norm, and it feels natural and good.
- The client sees acquiescing to the culture as a cultural badge of honor. At that moment they are showing full obedience to their parents, elders, and the crafters of the culture. The approval from their elders feels good.
- The client gets a sense that they are doing the best thing possible. Because culture is noble.
However, at the moment, some other feelings might emerge that don’t feel as good to the client:
- They feel helpless in the issue of the problem they are trying to solve because culture has left them little wiggle room for solutions.
- They feel as though they have no ownership over the benefits and consequences of their full acceptance of culture. “It just ‘is’”
- They realize that while they might feel obedient towards culture, they don’t necessarily feel ‘commitment’ towards it.
- They don’t feel a sense of agency and will to move forward. Although they take a stand for culture, by default, they would waffle if they had to advocate for a related decision or action.
- The word ‘possibility’ shrinks because there is only one way.
- Clients start showing signs of feeling conflicted, or they might recognize that using culture as a defense may be problematic.
- Lastly, and probably the most critical, they might start feeling uncomfortable about the idea of not having a choice or say in a matter.
This probably indicates that the client is ready to consider interrogating or disrupting their learned cultural behavior and is perhaps seeking a shift. This signals the time for the client to explore how underlying beliefs and culture may not be serving them, in relation to their values, goals, and desired progress.
Shifting to Choice as an Empowering Perspective
What would it look like if coaching gave clients the awareness and space to shift from being limited by culture, to believing that they have an absolute choice? A choice that is empowering, gives clients agency, a sense of responsibility and accountability, and results in growth.
Choice can be a jarring concept for people who have lived according to set cultural rules for years. We see a hint of this in films about people being released from years of incarceration. They show up as overwhelmed by the transition from a closed setting in which everything is well-defined and laid out, to the outside world that provides multiple options. That is what it is like for some clients when you ask them to put culture aside and step into choice. When you ask clients what their world would look like if they had a total and absolute choice, they sometimes recoil at the magnitude of the idea, for fear of the repercussions of a ‘society without rules.’ They sometimes feel bewildered, and even become belligerent, demanding to have fewer options. I have seen this in my work with university students. As we collaborate with clients, we need to empathize with how naked and afraid they might feel when we suggest that they have an absolute choice.
Despite the fears, however, having the benefit of choice can be absolutely freeing and can release a renewed sense of ownership. A personal story illustrates this.
I was on the verge of getting married and was thinking about my evolving career and future potential children. The word “sacrifice” was starting to come up for me in the marriage context in ways that I was trying to grapple with, and it was making me uncomfortable. So, I reached out to my father to discuss it. The most powerful thing that he said to me then, was that getting married and having children was a choice and that I could say yes to it, or opt-out. Choice. At that moment, it felt like 1,000 lightbulbs lit up. Deep down, in the subconscious and the logical side of my mind, I had always known that marriage was a choice, but while going through the engagement period, a rite of passage, and having cultural lessons thrust upon me, the notion of choice had long since faded into the background. As far as I had been concerned, I was on the runway to marriage with a ring on my finger, caught up in the cultural flow. The moment my father said, “it’s your choice,” I felt incredibly empowered to stop and interrogate my decision, make a choice, embrace, and take ownership of everything that would come with my decision to get married. It was one of my most liberating and joyful moments. That is what choice feels like in the midst of a binding cultural belief that you drift along with, ‘just because’.
Explore the Client’s Values With Them
Coaches have the benefit of partnering with young adults around what may be their first big discussions about personal values, as they launch into adulthood. If a “Twenty-Plenty” assesses and owns their values at this stage, they will be better prepared for many decisions and choices. Introducing questions about values will provide powerful insight and depth for the journey toward choice.
Give the client the gift of CHOICE, by exploring what choice would look like in their life
- Present choice as a perspective that results in both opportunities and challenges. The choice is not a magic wand that makes life perfect. Instead, it provides bold new pathways for development when the client explores it with complete honesty about its repercussions.
- Allow the client to notice that exercising choice might serve them in powerful ways that may not have been available to them when they saw their cultural tradition as the only way.
- Ensure that the client understands that their current cultural way of being is among their universe of choices. The intent of coaching here is to create a shift from cultural limits, to choice, as illustrated below, and not to dismiss the client’s culture outright.
- Finally, allow the client to recognize that choice as a tool, has widespread application, far beyond cultural issues
Here are some questions that coaches can use to explore the idea of CHOICE, in the face of culture:
- How might choice serve you positively?
- What do you think might happen if you expanded your options?
- If you weren’t a part of this culture or tradition, what goals or options might you be inclined to pursue?
- What would unlimited options look like and feel like to you?
- What are the other pathways that you could use to reach your goal if you had an absolute choice?
- What does it feel like when you discuss your goal in relation to options and choices?
- What impact does discuss choice have on you?
- What is the challenge/opportunity/impact of having a choice in relation to your goal?
- What opens up for you when you go beyond cultural expectations to include more choices?
- How do you think that your values might influence your choices?
- In what way might your choices influence your values?
The goal of coaching with this power tool is to encourage the client to shift away from a disempowering “That’s how it is” perspective. The intention is for clients to engage in the power of choice to gain agency, increase their world of options, and experience growth and fulfillment.