Coaching as a Thinking Partner - Steve Barkley

Coaching as a Thinking Partner

Thinking Partner is a term that I have been using in describing the conversations that I work to have emerge with coachees, especially in post observation conversations. Reading Dr. Kristine Needham’s post, 3 Ways to More “Aha” Moments in Coaching, I found several connections to the concept of thinking partner.

Needham describes these coaching conferences with moments of sudden realization, when a breakthrough occurs, as “Aha Moments.” There is a sense of new knowledge being created. She describes these moments as being truly powerful and capable of leading to a change in practice. I am often surprised when a coachee has such an aha and then tells me, “That’s a great idea!” They react as if I had shared the idea with them when most often they were sharing the idea with me.

I found  a 4- level coaching conversations rubric posted by Dr. Rachel Lofthouse that describes coaching as progressing from emerging to developing to refining to co-constructive collaborative. The co-constructing stage describes what I have been labeling as thinking partners.

  • “The coach and coachee collaboratively develop ideas, building on successive contributions of their partner. There is significant focus on enhancing learning opportunities. The questions they ask each other allow them to explore their own understandings. Through reflection on and responding to each others’ contributions, they identify alternative pedagogic approaches. This leads to exploratory talk related to opportunities for professional learning and development and the ways they might analyze the impact on pupils’ progress. As such this is a knowledge-creating process.”
  • “Both the coach and the coachee are adept at navigating the conversion so that the relationships between critical incidents, episodes, the lesson as a whole and relevant pedagogical frameworks are discussed. Conversation is such that the role of coach and coachee blurs as they explore practice, recognizing and resolving dissonance so that new ideas emerge through their collaborative dialogue. This creates a feedback loop which promotes future planning.”

I developed my focus on “thinking partner” as a way to deal with the issue of coach’s advise or suggestions.  Referring to Lofthouse’s work, Needham states “coaches typically steer away from giving advice, and while this is a sound principle in coaching, there is room for skillful and genuinely co-constructed dialogue, optimizing curiosity and being open to building on the experiences of the participants, so that a richer ‘aha’ moment can be the result. This is a creative process, drawing on the in-the-moment collaborative capacity of both coach and coachee.”  

Optimizing curiosity and being open to building on the experiences and knowledge of the coach and the coachee makes thinking partners. With all the negatives that advice can generate, I also find teachers to be frustrated by a coach withholding knowledge or insights that could be helpful to the teacher gaining a goal she wishes to reach. The key is a partnership that is built to achieve the teacher’s desired outcome. The co-construction occurs for me when coach and coachee are engaged in thinking outloud.

Needham describes the need for coaching practices that can help create co-construction. An environment built around dialogue, silences, trust, vulnerability, unconditional positive regard, challenges, and dissonance.

Edgar Schein, author of, “Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help,” describes how a perceived unequal hierarchical dynamic can lead to a sense of “one-upmanship.” This phenomenon occurs when the act of helping positions has one party as the provider (the one with more knowledge, skills, or resources) and the other as the recipient, thus inherently creating an imbalance. This can lead to resistance, resentment, or a lack of genuine engagement from the person being helped. Schein argues that true assistance requires an understanding of this dynamic and suggests that the helper must approach the situation with humility, open-mindedness, and a genuine desire to empower rather than dominate.

The importance of listening, really listening, continues to be reinforced as my coaching experiences and skills increase. Quality listening generates quality questions driven by curiosity. I’m realizing that questioning and listening to myself, which requires some vulnerability, extends the sense of partnership and co-construction.

 

 

 

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