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On Coaching, Empowerment, and Being a Black Woman

If you read the original version of this post from August 9, please note that I changed it to add Part II rather than posting Part II as a separate installment. Part I is substantively the same.


I've been wondering why I’m uncomfortable saying that I “empower” people as a coach. A lot of people (most people?) use that word, so what's the big deal? Here are some thoughts: i.e., my hot take.



Part I: Empowerment and Coaching


Okay—let's look at a dictionary.


Macmillan* says that empower means

  1. to give someone more control over their life or more power to do something or

  2. to give a person or organization the legal authority to do something

Macmillan’s blog points out that “[e]mpower is a word most often used to describe the act of giving someone more confidence or control, making them feel strong and powerful.”


None of these things are what I do as a coach. As a coach, my job isn’t to give someone power, nor is it to make someone feel strong and powerful. It’s to support them to see that they are already strong and powerful and to demonstrate (aka "to be") those qualities in order to achieve their dreams.


We each have qualities of being that reside deep in our hearts, whether we know it or not. And whether we show them or not, these qualities are who we really are. We can be willing to demonstrate them even if we don't feel like we can.


For example, I'm afraid to post this blog. I don’t usually blog, and someone might think this post is weird or stupid. So no, I don’t feel courageous. But I know that I am courageous, and I am willing to demonstrate that I am (aka be courageous) and put my words out there.

As a coach, my job isn’t to give someone power, nor is it to make someone feel strong and powerful. It’s to support them to see that they are already strong and powerful and to demonstrate those qualities in order to achieve their dreams.

Part II: The Power of Black Women


I saw a few posts from Black women in the wake of Simone Biles’ withdrawal from the gymnastics team competition. The gist is that we are tired of everyone expecting us to save the world, to be perfect, to be magical—in other words to be powerful all the time. When do we get to rest?


As I explained in Part I, “empowerment” probably doesn’t capture what I do as a coach. Saying that I “empower Black women” seems even less accurate because Black women are already being powerful. We are powerful and we know it and we demonstrate it. We've had to be powerful in order to survive.



But maybe what some of us need is not just to constantly demonstrate that we are powerful, but to be joyous, to be vulnerable, to be peaceful. Like everyone else, we need ease and joy in our lives, whether through art, exercise, volunteering, family, friends, music, nature, spirituality, exercise, or anything—or even through our paid work. Or especially through our paid work.


But on the other hand, as Audre Lorde told us, self-care is a radical act. So maybe sometimes being powerful or strong is showing love to yourself, being vulnerable, being peaceful, finding joy and ease.


Maybe what some of us need is not just to constantly demonstrate that we are powerful, but to be joyous, to be vulnerable, to be peaceful. Like everyone else, we need ease and joy in our lives.

I'll also point out that my job as a coach is not to support someone to be powerful and that's it. It's to support them to be powerful so that they can live according to what is in their heart. Someone can demonstrate the quality “powerful'' and still set out on a path that is not their own. So even if someone knows they are powerful and demonstrates it, they might still benefit from coaching.


We don’t have to save the whole world. My wish is that rather than doing what others expect of us, we do what is truly important to us and what will fulfill us, whether this requires being powerful, being compassionate, being truthful, being vulnerable—or any other quality that is part of who we really are.


This quote by Howard Thurman has been with me for a long time. My vision is to live up to it. “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”


“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
 

* FYI, the OED gives the following similar definitions: To invest with legal or formal power or authority; to authorize or license to do something or for a purpose. Also: to invest with this type of power or authority. To confer power on, make powerful; (in later use) spec. to give (a person) more control over his or her life or circumstances, by increasing civil rights, independence, self-esteem, etc.; to give (a person) the confidence to control his or her life or circumstances, esp. as gained from an awareness of or a willingness to exert her or his rights.


To endow with a particular quality, attribute, or ability.


To give (a person) the means, ability, or strength to do something; to enable.


To give power over something.

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