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Sawubona – ‘I See You’ – Dr. Dumisani Magadlela

The Understated Power of Greeting in Coaching and Human Relationships


When amaZulu (Zulu people) in the southern parts of Africa meet and greet fellow humans, they say “Sawubona!”. This literally translates to “I see you”. It means I see you as you are, or as you present yourself.

The idea is that I do not see my presumptions, my learned or borrowed narratives of you, or whatever stories have been written, told and believed, about you. Coaches love to establish great rapport upfront with clients as good rapport lays a solid foundation for a great coaching relationship.

Rapport is the pre-curser to that critical stage of any coaching relationship, the coaching contract. It prepares the ground for what Nancy Kline calls ‘The Thinking Environment’ (1999). In a Thinking Environment, everyone’s voice is sacred and when others are ‘seen’ and listened to, they can think clearly. There is a psychological safety to being authentic. All human beings deserve that. This way, we can all breathe freely.

A genuine Sawubona greeting offers both parties a ‘sacred opportunity to see each other as they are’. The lingering human challenge many coaches wrestle with, is that most people do not really ‘see’ each other as they are. We tend to see more the story we have come to believe about the ‘other’, rather than a fellow human being right in front of us. This becomes even more crucial when the ‘other’ happens to be from a ‘different’ culture, or another ethnic group other than our own.

The world we operate in as coaches and human development practitioners, is increasingly both unpredictable and fluid, especially with fast-changing mobile technologies that connect us wherever we are. Most professional and business coaches understand that coaching is inherently contextual. Coaching contexts constantly fluctuate and throw up hitherto unseen experiences for both coaches and clients.  It is becoming more critical that coaches equip themselves with skills and tools that assist them to navigate not just the new normal of the mobile technologies, connectivity, and virtual coaching, but the yet-unknown next normal that may require new ways of coach-client interactions.

One of the most essential ‘master-tools’ for coaches to become agile, versatile and able to meet the client where they are, is to hone their interrelationship skills. Yes, you guessed it, this starts with refining the ability to greet and genuinely connect across social, cultural, ethnic, religious and the whole gamut of differences, be they assumed or real.

Humans greet to establish humane connection.

In some cultures, people grasp your hand firmly, almost crushing it. It is regarded as good business etiquette to have a firm handshake especially for a businessperson, right?

Not really. I have encountered amazing people who offer the tips of their fingers in a limp effort to touch your hand and leave you feeling like you have just tried in vain to grasp the slippery tail of a wet fish. Yes, this is the Wet Fishtail Handshake. It is a thing!

But if the intent behind the ‘quality of the handshake’ is pure and genuinely positive, the Wet Fishtail Handshake may not result in a poor initial connection after all. No judgment, right? We are coaches!

Yes, we are all allowed to greet the way we wish; as long as we ensure that it as a conscious greeting.

In 2016, I spent three months as a visiting professor in a Japanese University in Tokyo and learned the art of bowing as you greet. Bowing is powerful. It says I see you in much the same way as the Zulu ‘Sawubona’. I have never felt more seen, acknowledged, and noticed by everyone I met as I did in Tokyo. It is literally what ‘namaste’ means in many Asia communities; that the light in me recognises the light in you.

The Gift or the Gift Wrapping

In a simplified way, choosing to greet/not greet, or to relate differently to people because of the colour of their skin or their culture and religion, is like choosing to value a gift-wrapping more than the gift itself. The gift wrapping is the superficial external stuff (like our skin). If there is anything humankind can take from the recent BlackLivesMatter movement, it must be that it is time to revisit the way we relate across these constructed superficial differences that have long been proven to be the lies that they are. We will do well to seek to connect to the gift that is in every one of us.

Yes, you guessed it, starting with that intentional conscious greeting.