Should a coach be curious?

On Twitter recently I have noticed a few people talking about the qualities that a good coach might have. One of the qualities that has been raised more than once is that of being curious. During the last #educoachOC chat, I had this interchange with two respected voices in educational coaching, Christian van Nieuwerburgh and Chris Munro.

snippet of conversation from the last #educoachOC Twitter chat

snippet of conversation from the last #educoachOC Twitter chat

And it got me thinking. What might be the focus of a coach’s curiosity? Does being of valuable service as a coach involve being curious? Does being curious mean showing genuine interest in a coachee and demonstrating eagerness to hear the details of their experiences? Is it about paying close attention or finding out more? Does a coach’s desire to find out more make a coachee feel valued and empathised with, or does it sidetrack the purpose of the conversation?

The notion of coach curiosity rubs against the grain of Cognitive Coaching in which the coach–while encouraged to be open, inquiring, flexible, caring and compassionate–is instructed to set aside the following unproductive patterns of listening:

  • Autobiographical: This is ‘me too!’ listening in which the listener is compelled to share experiences of their own that they see as relevant to the speaker’s experiences. The coach needs to restrain their urge to be drawn into thinking or speaking about their own stories.
  • Solution: This is listening in which the listener is drawn to thinking up their own solutions to the listener’s problems. Rather than problem-solving, the job of the Cognitive Coach is to assume that a) the coachee knows their own context and problem best, and b) has the capacity to solve their own problems, using the coaching toolbox to help that person access their own internal capacities and thereby developing their self-efficacy.
  • Inquisitive: This is curious listening in which the listener wants to know more about the details of a particular situation. However, the purpose of a coaching conversation is not for the coach to know intimate details, or to provide advice, so what purpose does curiosity serve in a coaching conversation? Who is it helping?

This is what Art Costa and Bob Garmston write about inquisitive listening:

Inquisitive listening occurs when we begin to get curious about portions of the story that are not relevant to the problem at hand. Knowing what information is important is one critical distinction between consulting and coaching. As a consultant, a person needs lots of information in order to ‘solve the problem’. As a coach, a person needs only to understand the colleague’s perspective, feelings, and goals and how to pose questions that support self-directed learning. (Costa & Garmston, 2006, Cognitive Coaching: A Foundation for Renaissance Schools, p.65)

Coaching is a form of self-restraint: setting aside personal preferences; refraining from telling one’s own stories; withholding one’s own ideas or advice. Coaching is a service and the coach a servant. The coach is mirror, conduit, bucket in the well, water on the grass; a gentle influence that helps the coachee be the best version of themselves, and move towards where it is that they want to go with increasing capacity. In Cognitive Coaching this capacity development is focused around the Five States of Mind: consciousnesses, craftsmanship, efficacy, flexibility and interdependence.

So, should a coach be curious, or is curiosity a form of self-ish, rather than self-less, listening? If a coach’s questions are focused on seeking to understand the inner details of a coachee’s experiences, is that of value to the coachee? Often I find that as a coach I don’t need to know details. The coachee knows the details of their own situations and their thinking is benefited by being able to focus on where they want to go, rather than recounting minutiae for my benefit.

When I am being coached—my thoughts flying and forming and jelling and tumbling—I don’t necessarily want to be diverted by the well-intentioned interest of the coach. A coach’s curiosity to know more can sometimes take me from my own desire to move forward in my thinking, backwards or sideways to having to explain the specifics of my situation. My coach might not know the context or background of my issue, but I do. I don’t need help knowing the situation I am in; I need help to think my way to future solutions and successes. I want a coach to be present, to listen attentively, to hear, to paraphrase, and to ask me well-crafted questions that I haven’t thought to ask myself. Coaches might ask themselves: ‘If I’m being curious in this conversation, is that about me and what I want to know, or is it of benefit to the coachee?’

What do you think? Should coaches be curious, and if so, about what? If coaches are on a need-to-know basis, what exactly do they need to know?

Advertisements

Reflections on coaching after ISCAPPED 2016

ISCAPPED2

The International Symposium for Coaching and Positive Psychology in Education (ISCAPPED) happened in Sydney this week. It involved two days of keynotes, breakout sessions and corridor conversations by academics, pracademics and practitioners committed to researching, implementing and sharing their coaching and positive psychology work in schools around the world, and specifically in Australia. The yoking of two fields meant that it was possible to glean the differences in the arenas and the places at which they intersected. What stood out to me as a point of difference was the language used; while positive psychology sessions tended to use words like ‘self-esteem’ and ‘strengths’, coaching presentations were around ‘efficacy’ and ‘capacity’.

I presented twice at the symposium, once with colleagues, on the journey of our coaching model for teacher growth, and once on the coaching findings of my PhD research, which was set against the context of that school-based coaching model for teacher professional learning.

My colleagues and I outlined the story of the development of our model from its strategically-aligned beginnings, to its teacher-owned development and its whole-school implementation. Our presentation included a structured conversation that used some of the basics of Cognitive Coaching: the pattern of pausing, paraphrasing and posing cognitively-mediative questions, while setting aside the coach’s own patterns of unproductive listening. Our selection of coaches is based on beliefs that, while everyone is coachable and has the capacity to improve, not everyone can be a good coach.

I then shared my PhD research alongside Alex Guedes, who has also conducted research against the backdrop of a school-based coaching model for teacher capacity building. This presentation, which occurred under lights on the stage on which the keynotes were presented, covered the context, foci, method and findings of our PhD studies, with a particular focus on coaching. My findings, which I explore in more detail in this paper in the International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, include that coaching can be an empowering, identity-forming, relationship-building and language-shaping experience. They also include that coaching, while not a silver bullet, can be an effective part of positive organisational growth.

These findings resonate with Costa and Garmston’s notion of holonomy, in which the parts and the whole are both separate and together; the individual and the organisation grow and influence one another. Identities, language and understandings are collectively constructed. Congruent tools like Cognitive Coaching and the Danielson Framework for Teaching can be used to grow people, teams and systems, within environments and relationships of trust. In the coaching intervention that provided the context for my study, and that continues to operate in my school, non-judgemental data provides a ‘third point’ in coaching conversations, in order to depersonalise teacher reflections. Another third point is the Danielson Framework, our shared standards of teaching practice.

lucky enough to catch Vivid Sydney while we were there

lucky enough to catch Vivid Sydney while we were there

Coaching is hard cognitive work. This Monday, the #educoachOC Twitter chat will explore listening in a coaching context. I’ve recently been exposed to another string to the listening toolbox I use when coaching, which has thus far included careful listening for spoken language use, purposeful paraphrasing and watching eye movement to gauge what thinking is going on for the coachee. Recently, Bruce Wellman, author of The Adaptive School and Learning-focused supervision, came to work with my school on a variety of things. He worked with our team of coaches on something he calls non-verbal paraphrasing. He ran a workshop with us and shared his paper titled, ‘Nonverbal elegance when paraphrasing’.

Bruce couches this idea in research from anthropology, linguistics, cognitive science and neuroscience. Gesture, he explains, reduces the cognitive load of the speaker, saving energy by communicating information through body as well as spoken language. It is also primal in that gestures can reflect emerging or intuitive understandings. That is, our physicality can express those things we might not yet have words to express, or those things we are wrestling with between our knowing and not knowing.

In a coaching context, our brain’s mirror neurons help us to show empathy with the coachee, and we can also be deliberate about mirroring body language in order to be in rapport. Bruce suggests that additionally, we can “listen with our eyes”, watching for how someone’s body language extends, amplifies or makes clearer their thinking. Paying careful attention to how coachees use their hands—to explain concepts, sequence events or place people in their internal world—is a powerful listening skill. It allows the coach to paraphrase, not just the words the coachee uses, but also the physical referencing. Since doing this workshop I’ve noticed myself paying more attention to gesture, and trying to reflect back coachees’ gestures during my paraphrasing.

(Side note: As I type this I’m finding that I am gesturing between keystrokes as I try to figure out my ideas and the words I’ll use to express them. Perhaps that’s because Bruce Wellman’s concept of non-verbal paraphrasing is new to me, and my primal brain is helping me figure out my understandings. I’ve spoken a lot about writing as a mode of inquiry – writing to understand. I’m wondering now about gesturing as a mode of inquiry – gesturing to understand. *gesticulates wildly*)

So there are multiple skills to coaching, which can be honed and developed over time, but as Christian van Niewerburgh’s keynote pointed out, the coaching process and coaching skills aren’t enough. They are necessary but not sufficient. I agree with Christian when he says that transformative coaches are those who adopt coaching as a way of being. I also agree with him that coaching needs a theoretical and evidence base. Coaching isn’t a recipe on a laminated sheet. It is more than a process, a conversation or something anyone can do after a quick training session in which they are given a conversational formula.

Cognitive Coaching, which is the model in which I am trained and that my school uses in our context, is deeply rooted in research, and layered with multiple lenses and skills. The research base for Cognitive Coaching is most rigourously explored in Art Costa and Bob Garmston’s Cognitive Coaching text, now in its third edition (the previous editions were called Cognitive Coaching: A foundation for Renaissance schools). Other references include this 2003 paper on why Cognitive Coaching persists. These references and others (I have plenty!) tease out the reasons why coaching, done well, can be powerful and transformative.

Coaching is not mentoring, or telling, or advice giving, or passing judgement, or giving ‘helpful’ tips that make the feedback-giver feel like they’re being really useful. It is trusting in the capacity of the other person to solve their own problems, decide on their own trajectory of growth and consider how best to improve. The coach’s difficult work is in expertly and deliberately using a toolbox of knowledge and skills. These knowledge and skills are deliberately used as well as internalised and woven into the coach’s way of being, to help move the person’s thinking forward. That’s where the ‘cognitive’ in Cognitive Coaching comes in. The coach mediates thinking, because thought is what drives action. Changing thinking changes behaviour. It’s in the ‘a-ha’ moment, which cognitive coaches call ‘cognitive shift’, that individuals are transformed from the inside out. The magic is that the coach is mirror, conduit, provocateur and nudger, but it is the person being coached who does the thinking and finds their way.