I remember a meme I saw on Facebook that has always stuck with me: ‘Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be Kind’. As I have talked about in this blog before, it is so interesting when you take the time to get to know someone and you find out something about them and their personal circumstances that you had no idea was happening.

This week I sat down with an acquaintance of mine, Sara, to do some light-touch coaching having found out that she was having difficulties in making the decision on whether to wear a headscarf at work as she wanted to feel closer to her faith (she is Muslim).

Sara said that she had worn the headscarf in public from the age of 12-23 as an expression of modesty and commitment to her faith. It wasn’t until she got married and started working for a bank in the city that she stopped wearing it in public. This was because she was concerned about discrimination and negative attention, as a result of  feeling that there was a rise in Islamophobia in UK society, perpetuated by the right-wing press.

It became evident that her concerns were valid, when she asked her manager at the bank whether she could wear the headscarf. He said he didn’t have any issue with it because 'he and other colleagues knew her’. Sara questioned what he meant by this, and asked whether she would have got the job if she had worn the headscarf to her interview. The manager said maybe not, meaning that he would have judged her negatively because of the headscarf.

In her current organisation there is a bigger push for diversity with initiatives to raise the confidence of black, Asian and minority ethnic staff members (known as BAME, and includes religious diversity), which is the reason why she has started to consider wearing the headscarf again.

In order to help Sara make the decision to start wearing the headscarf I conducted a short exercise with her, that simply listed the positive impact it would have on her to be able to wear the headscarf and the negative impacts that she is concerned about. For each of the impacts she listed, I asked her to rate them. For the positive impacts it was a rating of how important it was to her and for the negatives it was a rating of how concerned she was.

The positives included fulfilling her religious duty; allowing her to read the Koran in public; promoting diversity in the workplace and (in a more light-hearted way) not having to fix her hair to look good for other people (!). She gave a variety of ratings of importance to these; some very important, some not so.

The negative concerns included being judged; the risk of being physically and verbally attacked in public; discrimination when wanting to progress her career and negative impact on work relationships (i.e. colleagues distancing themselves from her).

When it came to rating her level of concern for each of these, she gave them all the highest level. All of them. It was the equivalent of a large concrete block that was standing between where she was now and where she wanted to be. It was clearly something that required some serious work to overcome and a Life Coach would be very valuable to help her do this.

So, Sara is one of the most positive, friendly, attentive people I know, with a great Northern British sense of humour. She is very popular at her work, but also has concerns that being the only female in her team, is only treated well because she is attractive to her straight male colleagues and if she wore the headscarf, they would distance themselves from her.

Sara seemed quite resigned to the barriers she had identified and was quite conclusive that in order to progress her career then sacrifices have to be made and being the easy-going person she is, she brushed it off with a smile and cheeky laugh.

But the exercise revealed a deeper conflict taking place within her, especially the reference to fears of physical attack, simply for wanting to express herself in a way that would not harm others. When I asked why it is the case that she has to choose between expressing her faith in this way and career progression, there was a pause of uncertainty, and I sensed the energy of that internal conflict rise to the surface, as if this was the first time it had been externalised.

This is the moment in coaching that change happens for the first time; when you hit the nail on the head and get to the root of the issue.

Even though it was only one session, Sara said she felt that getting everything out of her head and onto paper (or computer screen!) for the first time was really helpful. She is getting support from the BAME network in her organisation and I hope that she can use the results of the exercise we conducted as part of that support.

Take care for now,

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