Learn about cultural humility and why our differences make a difference

We recently published an issue called “Diversity & Inclusion. Why our differences make a difference” written by Angela Cusack, EdS, MCC & Michelle Vander Stouw, MPH, ACC.

It’s a wonderful article about not only being culturally aware but also bowing to a form of cultural humility.

Here’s what Angela and Michelle had to say in an article called…

The only practice you need to expand your cultural awareness.cultural humility

Becoming aware of our cultural dynamics is challenging because our personal culture is not conscious to us. It quietly resides in the background, the rhythm moving us without consideration. 

From the moment we are born, we learn to see and do things unconsciously. Our

experiences, our beliefs and values, and our cultural background further shape how we think, move, and act. If we do not intentionally step outside of our own cultural boundaries, we will continue to be blind to the impact that our personal culture has on our own behavior, thereby disregarding the impact that it has on others. 

As coaches, we agree that cultural awareness is foundational to having effective conversations – especially coaching conversations. 

The unfortunate thing is that many of us live in an unconscious narrative that we are already culturally aware. 

We have traveled and experienced different countries, cuisines, and cultures; and for those places, we have not gone … well, we can access information at our fingertips and learn as we go. 

Let’s face it, we are coaches who have been trained to meet people where they are, without judgment – right? 

The truth is, being culturally aware is not a destination, an accomplishment, or a certificate we receive for attending a class. It is a deliberate commitment to living in a space where increasing curiosity about others begins to naturally emerge. 

This space requires us to commit to a lifelong practice that generates understanding, respect and successful interactions with those whose worldview varies from our own.

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

In our individual and collective work with other coaches, leaders, and even our own clients, we have discovered that teaching cultural competency alone, in an attempt to build cultural awareness, is simply not enough. Possessing knowledge doesn’t mean that the knowledge is applied. Thus, our hopes for more inclusive organizations, communities, and countries, where equity, appreciation, and respect are given freely, are dashed.

Our progression through the stages of cultural awareness stops abruptly; we remain in limbo without any conscious awareness that we are even there. 

In our quest to break the cycle, we discovered the concept of cultural humility. Coined in 1998 by Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, cultural humility is defined as the “ability to maintain an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented (or open to the other) in relation to aspects of cultural identity that are most important to the [person].”

At the beginning of our research and work, we grappled with what this meant. Were we not already behaving this way as coaches, as leaders, and as humans? What does it mean to have the “ability to maintain …”? How does one develop this “ability” to co-create experiences of authentic inclusion with those that are different from ourselves?

Cultural humility requires us to do our own work first. It demands us to repeatedly take a step back from ourselves and notice how we interact with others based on our own cultural values, beliefs, perceptions, communication preferences, customs, and practices.

“Our tendency to mistake our thoughts about reality itself acts as a fundamental cause of human suffering. Waking up involves a moment-to-moment recognition of how we perceive reality through the filter of our beliefs, associations, and interpretations, in a sense, when we look at the world or other people, we see our own mind. This recognition allows us to grasp the peaceful, calm, objective reality that lies just beyond the veils of the mind. Waking up—the first glimmer of recognition can change our lives forever. To awaken, we have to realize we’ve been asleep; to break our changes, we have to realize we’re bound.” ~ Dan Millman, No Ordinary Moments

  • How do we see the world?
  • Why do we react or take action as we do?
  • Why do we do the things in the way we do them?
  • How does this impact others around us?

The internal tension that arises within as we explore these questions is the initial step toward beginning our journey of understanding, appreciating, and valuing the differences between people of different backgrounds.

This step is unavoidable if we truly desire to expand and build our cultural awareness. 

Stepping up and into our own learning wholeheartedly; grappling with the known and unknown privileges we are afforded while wrestling with the internal disruption that occurs when we realize, maybe for the first time, that what we hold as true is actually not the truth. It is this that supports our growth and movement toward reaching the final stage of cultural awareness. 

It is here we find that the unconscious embodiment of coming together generates a shared view of our future and new possibilities whereby a new context and meaning are formed enabling new solutions to emerge.

This one practice is a lifelong commitment; a practice of compassionate self-reflection that goes beyond the surface of what we already know. A practice that requires a deeper level of self-evaluation and self-critique truly making the “invisible visible”.

Progressing through the stages of cultural awareness is a choice.

This choice represents a chosen way of being – and being present – in life, where we:

  • appreciate our imperfections without making them excuses;
  • willingly learn, unlearn and relearn in every human interaction;
  • actively engage with others, who are uniquely different, in order to push beyond our own boundaries of consciously or unconsciously assuming we already know;
  • not only understand that human beings are complex and multi-dimensional, but also consciously engage in ongoing critical self-reflection;
  • reconcile (and accept) our own limitations, privileges, and inherent bias that our identity unconsciously manifests arising from our history, experiences, and narratives.

As we mentioned earlier, cultural awareness is a commitment to continuously evolving; we never arrive at a point where we are done learning. Our ability to remain humble and flexible, yet bold enough to look at ourselves critically and desire to learn more, is the cornerstone of growing our cultural awareness.

As coaches, we are trained to love living in the question and the unknown.
So, when we do not know something, we say we do not know. We seek to understand, with the knowledge that understanding is only as powerful as the action that follows.


Tervalon and Murray-Garcia offer three principles to guide our efforts in becoming culturally humble.

Principle 1: Practice lifelong learning and critical self-reflection

Principle 2: Recognize and change power imbalances

Principle 3: Develop institutional accountability

Tell us what you think about this issue and this topic “Cultural Humility”
Let’s continue the conversation by connecting with your colleagues on our Facebook page