Communication Skills for Coaches
Our choice of words can have a surprising effect during a coaching conversation. Words that are used commonly in everyday situations can convey unintentional meanings in the context of the delicately balanced dynamics of coaching conversations. This need for careful choice of words can be illustrated with the use of the phrase, “How can I help?” in situations when help has not actually been requested by the teacher. That question can infer that the coach is at a level superior to that of the teacher, thus creating a barrier between the two participants. Similarly, the words problem and struggle also carry negative connotations when commenting upon classroom observations and may introduce an evaluative element to the conversation.
In other instances, the words but, however, and yet are sometimes used to connect a positive observation with a supplementary comment that identifies and recommends remediation of an observed behavior. For example, the coach may compliment the teacher on very clear visual displays and accompanying verbal explanations and add, “but, many students were not engaged.” In this case, the positive comment is neutralized or even negated by the second statement. In order to preserve the intended effects of the two comments, they need to be unlinked by inserting a simple pause in the conversation. For example, look for the teacher to respond to the first statement before proceeding.
Closed vs. Open Ended Questions
Closed-ended questions may create a defensive response from the teacher. Questions such as “Have you thought about?” or “Have you tried?” may either cause the teacher to feel compelled to confess a failure or an unsuccessful attempt, or to defend themselves with a reply that seeks to justify why a strategy was not tried. Open-ended questions such as, “How do you think students would respond to small group work for this task?” show respect for the views of the teacher. Find a podcast on coaches’ words here.
Indirect vs. Direct Communication
Indirect communication can cause misunderstandings, frustration, and potentially conflict in coach-teacher relationships. Straightforward communication builds trust and understanding and creates conditions that are conducive for open discussion, objective analysis, and creative problem solving. Coaches promote open conversations in order to discover the true interests, priorities, and challenges faced by teachers. Robinson, Segal, and Segal (2015) recommend the following actions that are likely to promote open conversations:
- Concentrate on both spoken words and nonverbal messages;
- Avoid distractions such as phones, doodling, or window staring;
- Refrain from interrupting or redirecting;
- Allow the speaker’s words to flow and pause;
- Defer judgment, especially criticism;
- Maintain an attentive posture; and
- Offer occasional smiles and confirmations such as OK or I see.
Remember to Listen
The art of listening is a substantial and sometimes understated component of conversations and communication. Instructional coaches rely on deep and extended interactions in order to receive and convey messages about classroom performance. On his website, Stephen Covey describes seven habits of highly effective people. Covey’s fifth habit is summarized as “first seek to understand and then be understood.” Covey asserts that “communication is the most important skill in life.” Most people are inclined to speak and promote their point of view before truly listening to the other person. Meaning is missed when a listener ignores the other person’s message, pretends to listen, or only hears the parts they want to hear. Covey maintains that “most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand.” Surely, a prime reason for a teacher to meet with a coach is to be heard and understood. Careful listening is a precious skill to employ in such circumstances.
Effective instructional coaches employ active listening, powerful questioning, and direct communication (Utah Office of Child Care, 2014). An active listening strategy requires complete focus on communication from the adult learner. Attention to tone and body language helps convey the intent of the message. The paraphrasing and restatement of teachers’ spoken words help clarify the message. Continued dialogue is encouraged when teachers’ expressions of feelings and opinions are accepted without judgment. Powerful questioning emphasizes “open-ended questions that provide information and stimulate thinking in support of goals.” The coach’s objectives are to ask questions that identify the teacher’s perspective and nurture reflection and clarity. Direct communication “uses language that has a positive impact on the adult learner.” Coaches use direct communication in order to explain coaching objectives, give feedback, and recommend changes. Coaches reframe ideas to help teachers reexamine thoughts and consider alternative perspectives.
Because communication skills play such an important role in a coach’s effectiveness, it’s a great area for continued study and coaching. Coaches should be coached on their communication skills. Consider recording a coaching conference and then analyzing it with your coaching colleagues. You can find a 10 hour facilitated, online module Instructional Coaching – Essential Communication Skills.