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November 1, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 3
The Learning Zone

How Not to Hit Land Mines in Coaching Conversations

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Commenting on a teacher's practice can trigger identity fears. Tread carefully.

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The Learning Zone / How Not to Hit Land Mines in Coaching Conversations
Credit: NUTHAWUT SOMSUK / iSTOCK
I sometimes share a thought experiment in presentations: Imagine that you have a sister who has a daughter. You love your niece almost as much as if she were your own child. Now imagine you see your sister making mistakes as a parent, and you feel you need to talk with her about how she parents. You need to tell her she is, in some way, raising your niece incorrectly. How easy would that conversation be?
Most people tell me they think the conversation would be so emotionally complex that they might be unwilling to have it even though they love their niece and are sure they have good advice to share. When you criticize how someone parents, you seem to criticize who they are as a person, their identity. And when you talk about something that touches another's identity, you walk on dangerous ground.
Teaching, for many educators, is as personal as parenting. Teaching matters a lot, and when you criticize how someone teaches, that teacher's identity is often at play. For this reason, understanding the ingredients of identity, and how to work with them, can help anyone have better conversations in schools, at home, or anywhere else. In working with educators and coaches over the past 25 years, I've found that there are four especially important ingredients of identity connected to a person's inner dialogue about themselves. When you're aware of these ingredients, especially when coaching someone, you should be able to have more productive, life-giving conversations.

Four Parts of Identity to Handle with Care

1. I'm a Good Person

Every person I've ever met either believes—or wants to believe—that they are a morally good person. As a result, conversations break down when people perceive they are being told they aren't acting in a morally correct manner (even if you haven't directly said this). The topic at hand gets forgotten.
One way to keep conversations from becoming overly personal is to provide opportunities for teachers to watch videos of their lessons and draw their own conclusions. What professionals discover for themselves about their practice is often more valuable than the comments of an external observer watching one lesson.
Stanford researchers David Bradford and Carole Robin also offer a helpful suggestion for avoiding appearing to make a moral judgment. All feedback conversations, they explain, involve three realities: (a) what the other person intended, (b) what the other person did, and (c) what we noticed about the impact of the other person's actions. When we talk about complex topics such as teaching, Bradford and Robin suggest we focus on action and impact and avoid talking about intent: We might say, for example, "I noticed that students got involved in the classroom discussion when you asked open-ended, opinion questions." When we start to talk about intent, people start to feel hurt or defensive.

2. I'm Doing a Good Job

Most of us believe or want to believe that we're at least competent at what we do, and we want others to see us that way. For this reason, we need to look for the good in others and communicate that we see others' strengths whenever we do see them. Positive comments are most effective when we avoid broad general statements, like "You're such a patient teacher," and instead describe evidence that proves the overall positive sentiment you want to express ("When you waited for Katrina to answer, and then you praised her, she lit up like a Christmas tree"). When we just tell someone they have a general trait, they often quickly deflect that affirmation by thinking of all the times they didn't exhibit that characteristic ("You think I'm patient, you should have seen me getting my son ready for school this morning"). When we describe a single, specific action someone took that embodies a positive characteristic, that comment is much more difficult to deny and more likely to land ("You know, I diddo that").

3. I Want to Be Accepted

People want to be accepted, or loved, or at least not rejected. Conversations can be poisoned if people perceive we are rejecting them, even if that rejection—temporary and probably more connected to our own emotions—is revealed in a flash through a frown, sigh, or other nonverbal communication.
One form of rejection is moralistic judgment, any communication implying the other is bad in a moral sense. As psychologist Marshall Rosenberg asserts, moralistic judgment includes verbal communication that signals such judgment—such as blaming, put-downs, labels, and criticism—and also nonverbal communication that implies judgment. Moralistic judgment such as this interrupts learning and extinguishes intimacy. We don't seek help from someone who rolls their eyes when we talk.

If we avoid talking about a person's intent, why they do what they do, they're less likely to feel defensive.

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4. I Want to Control My Life

Our identity is defined in large part by our ability to make choices. This is definitely so for most people working in education. As a result, when we feel we don't have a choice, we often resist. So when discussing concerns about a teacher's behavior with them, let go of trying to control their actions or choices if you want to have a meaningful conversation and fuel learning.
We can address this identity ingredient by structuring conversations so the person we're talking to can make choices—or at least be invited to do so. A fruitful question is one that coaching expert Michael Bungay Stanier shared with me: "You've probably thought a lot about this. What are you thinking that you might do?" By asking that question, we communicate our assumption that others have valuable ideas. We give control of the conversation to our conversation partner. Even when people really need or solicit advice, it's best to always talk in terms of choices ("Here are three possible ideas that come to mind; which one do you feel most confident implementing as a teacher?")

Speaking So Others Can Hear

Understanding identity this way helps us speak the truth in ways that can be heard. When we find ourselves in potentially complex, personal conversations, we typically respond either by stopping the conversation or pushing on even though we see that our comments are causing our conversation partner to feel upset or defensive. Neither approach leads to a positive outcome. Understanding the ingredients of identity provides a third way. When we separate issues from identity, communicate that we see others' strengths, avoid moralistic judgment, and let go of control, we create conditions where real conversation about real issues can happen.

The Definitive Guide to Instructional Coaching

Jim Knight outlines a robust instructional coaching program that can ease teacher burnout and power academic success.

The Definitive Guide to Instructional Coaching
End Notes

1 Bradford, D., & Robin, C. ( 2021). Connect. Currency.

2 Rosenberg, M. (2015). Nonviolent communication. PuddleDancer Press.

Jim Knight is a founding senior partner of the Instructional Coaching Group (ICG) and a research associate at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. He has spent more than two decades studying professional learning, effective teaching, and instructional coaching.

Knight has written several books and his articles on instructional coaching have been included in publications such as The Journal of Staff Development, Principal Leadership, The School Administrator, and Teachers Teaching Teachers.

He directs Pathways to Success, a comprehensive, district-wide school reform project in the Topeka, Kansas, School District and leads the Intensive Instructional Coaching Institutes and the Teaching Learning Coaching annual conference.

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