Four Tips to Coach Expats to Success
Publication: ICF Coaching World
Author: Jamie B. Gelbtuch

When it comes to international relocations, expatriates often don’t truly know what to expect until they’re in the thick of it. By then, they’re already behind the learning curve and experiencing cultural transition stress. Symptoms such as sleeplessness, under- or overeating, reduced self-esteem, and even depression are among the most common.

If coaching is about facilitating positive change by trying out new skills and behaviors until they become intuitive, expats are inherently poised to take on this challenge. As coaches, remaining mindful of the following four considerations can increase our clients’ resilience and ability to reach their goals as part of a relocation.

1) Recognize Basic Life Needs as Priorities

We may take for granted that our “most coachable clients” are high performing individuals whose basic needs (à la Maslow’s Hierarchy) have already been met. But expats, almost by definition, are “starting over” in many areas and thus quickly become preoccupied with core necessities.

Among other transitions, they may be speaking a new language, starting or searching for a job, or establishing a social network. They may be house hunting or setting up a new home. They may lack culturally appropriate attire for job interviews or even a local driver’s license.

Expats must exert significant mental and physical energy in establishing a “new normal.” As coaches, we must remain cognizant of this fact, in many cases challenging our own assumptions about the level at which clients are operating. In sessions, we have to ask not only powerful questions but also simple questions that get to the heart of basic daily needs. Doing so can reveal potentially hidden challenges clients may be facing in working toward larger goals.

2) Provide Critical Structure during a Period of Ambiguity

The “tangible” losses of an international relocation are clear: family and friends now at a distance, homes and possessions left behind, and daily conversations devoid of linguistic comfort. What can be less obvious, however, is the larger loss of routine and of an overall sense of stability.

It’s common for expats to feel discouraged and ineffective in areas of their lives where they once felt productive and thriving. This applies even to expats initially enthused by the relocation, only to have reality set in and find out it’s not like “reading the book.”

The coaching engagement itself is a prime opportunity to engender stability clients may temporarily lack. Logistically, we can help clients integrate a sense of schedule, purpose and accountability by setting regular meeting days and times—as opposed to ad-hoc scheduling. On a deeper level, we can support clients coping with ambiguity by helping them accept the uncertainty and flux, recognize the stages of the cultural transition, and manage their expectations of each phase through S.M.A.R.T. goal setting.

3)  Identify Ways to Reinforce Host Culture Values

When entering a new culture, expats often demonstrate “unconscious incompetence;” they don’t know what they don’t know. Some of these value-based differences and behaviors may be obvious, while others may be more subtle or unrecognizable.

For example, in a “controlled-time” culture (e.g., United States, Germany), frequently showing up late to or canceling/rescheduling coaching sessions may be an opportunity to discuss punctuality. If clients are using words or nonverbal cues that could be misinterpreted or confusing, we can dig deeper for intended meanings and help them find alternatives. Clients from relatively hierarchical cultures (e.g., India, China) may be challenged to understand that the coach-client relationship itself is one of equals, requiring the client to set the agenda and take action.

In the safe space we establish with clients, we can observe and explore cultural values that underpin their mindset—and provide a window into “success factors” essential for personal and professional integration in the host culture.

4)  Consider Who’s Paying

When clients come to coaching of their own volition, their investment of time and money reflects the value placed on achieving a goal. The choice to work with us as their coach suggests a felt chemistry and confidence that we can support them in this process.

However, when a company offers executive or career coaching as part of a menu of relocation benefits, there can be a disconnect. Expats often receive these services without truly understanding the process, advantages or responsibilities. Their motivation may be lower since the coaching is given rather than sought out. To complicate matters, clients may be assigned to a coach with whom they are not compatible.

As coaches, we must educate referred clients about the coaching process itself—including expectations and accountability required for success.

The mantra “think globally, act locally” applies aptly to coaching expats. Well beyond general best practices for coaching, we must remain mindful of clients’ unique new circumstances in order to help them better flourish in the transition.