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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

A guide to coaching conversations for instructional leaders

Updated: Dec 29, 2023

Photo by RDNE Stock project

What is coaching?

Many people in education have the term coach in their job title but have received no formal training in coaching. To define the role of a coach and coaching conversations, we must first define what coaching itself is.

Partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential

The definition above comes from the International Coaching Federation (ICF), the international body that governs coaches and coaching credentialing programs. For full disclosure, I am a member of the ICF and a Professional Certified Coach (PCC).

To put it plainly, coaching is not telling. Coaching is not giving advice or solving problems. And coaching is definitely not one of positional authority, in which you strongly suggest (read: demand) upgrades to teaching and instruction. Coaching is a dynamic, co-created experience that focuses on improving the other person. It's about unlocking the potential of the person being coached, not giving them feedback.

Instructional leaders that want to employ a coaching approach, even without official training through an accredited coaching program, can do so if they keep a few truths in mind. Additionally, coaching conversations typically follow a coaching frame that keep the conversations on track.

Coaching conversations

Coaching conversations cannot, by definition, be scripted. They are living, breathing interactions that have ebbs and flows. Coaches should, however, have a basic outline in their minds that they track throughout the conversation. Each conversation follows a basic pattern.

The opening of the conversation is the discovery phase. This is where the person coaching and the person being coached (for brevity, I'll call them the coach and the client) work to discover the main issue the client wants to place in the center of the conversation.

When the issue is defined and an outcome is set, the conversation typically moves into the deliberation phase. Defined as long and careful consideration and discussion, this is the meat of the conversation. Coaches actively facilitate the thinking of the client, using reflective questions to help the client make connections and discover insights.

As the outcome of the conversation is met, the final phase is entered - the dismount. Rather than simply saying, "Great job!" or "Thank you," coaches help clients work through implementation plans, set accountability for themselves, and reflect on what they've learned about themselves. They help stamp the learning that happened in the conversation to fuel and sustain future growth.


Big idea

The coach is not: The driver The coach is: The passenger

This big idea is hard for coaches who also hold a supervisory role with the client (e.g., principal and teacher). For a discussion to truly be labeled a coaching conversation, several factors must be evident. First and foremost, it's the client, not the coach, that directs and guides the conversation. They are the ones that should benefit from making connections and discovering insights about a situation. This cannot happen if coaching is done to them rather than with them.

In the discovery phase, the coach typically leads with an opening question to get things going.

  • What's on your mind?

  • How shall we start?

  • What's the most important thing we can talk about today?

For those wanting to apply this in an instructional leadership role, the coach can frame the question while still keeping it open-ended.

  • Which part of the lesson would be best for us to reflect on?

  • You have a lot of strengths as a teacher. Which area are you wanting to strengthen even more?

However you open the conversation, it must be the client, not the coach, that is driving the conversation. If the coach maintains control over the topic and outcome, it's a feedback session, not a coaching conversation.

Something to note, however, is that sometimes the original topic brought by the client isn't the real topic that they want to discuss. Instead, it's an opening bid, testing the waters to see how open the coach is following their lead. This phase is called discovery because a series of probing questions should follow the opening question to drill down to the actual topic.

  • What makes that the most important thing for us to discuss?

  • What would be different for you if this problem were resolved?

  • What's at stake here?

  • What's the real challenge here for you? (find even more questions here)

When the coach and client feel like they've unearthed the actual topic that needs to be discussed, they need to set an outcome.

A coaching conversation without an outcome is like a race without a finish line.

Before jumping into the deep end with the client, the coach should pause and clarify what the client hopes to accomplish in the conversation. By keeping the end in mind, they have a clear finish line to aim for as they continue on together.

  • What would you like to walk away with at the end of our time together?

  • What's a question you have that you'd like to have answered?

  • What are you hoping to accomplish today?

  • How will you know we've been successful when we're done?

  • You mentioned that you wanted to spend our time talking about [topic]. What's something we could aim for so we know that we've spent our time wisely?


Big idea

The coach is not: solving their problem

The coach is: facilitating their thinking

Even if coaches can get through the discovery phase in the right frame of mind, it's the deliberation phase that trips many of them up. They suddenly change from active listeners to active participants, making connections and lobbing a continuous stream of suggestions at the client.

Coach the person, not the problem.

The quote above is actually the title to a wonderful primer on coaching by Dr. Marcia Reynolds, past ICF president and Master Certified Coach (MCC). In a nutshell, coaches step into the danger zone when they focus on the problem (the topic) rather than the person.

For any instructional leaders (e.g., principal, instructional coach), this is especially difficult because they most likely obtained their position due to their incredible problem solving skills. As the passenger, not the driver, of the conversation, successful coaches don't coach the problem but the person.

Using reflective questions, coaches probe their clients into examining how they fit in the ecosystem of their problem. They help them focus on their contributions and solutions, not on what has worked for the coach in the past.

How do coaches know if they are coaching the person or the problem? An easy way to tell is to look at the quality of the questions and responses. When coaches' questions are closed-ended and come close together, then the problem is at the forefront of the conversation. They typically come in increasingly rapid succession because the client's responses are becoming shorter and shorter (e.g., Yes, No).

On the other hand, open-ended questions that focus on the client lead to longer, more introspective responses.

  • How does [topic] affect how you view yourself?

  • If this problem were to magically solve itself, how would the situation change?

  • How does [topic] interact with your values?

  • Who do you want to be in this situation?

  • What do you want?

As you listen and ask reflective questions, you will inevitably funnel down closer and closer to your initial outcome. Keeping that in the forefront of the conversation is your task as the coach, ensuring that however the client might lead the conversation, you always bring it back to the agreed upon outcome.

When the client has an insight about the outcome, either discovering a solution are recasting it in a different way (e.g., it's not as big of a problem as I originally thought), you should then bring the outcome back out and check in on it.

  • You originally said you wanted [outcome]. How did we do?

  • At the start of our conversation, we circled around [outcome] as our focus. Did we uncover anything new?

  • We tagged [outcome] as our finish line. Have we made it yet?


Big idea

The coach is not: the source of accountability

The coach is: helping the client stay accountable to themselves

If the coach and client made it this far, then celebrate! This has been a successful coaching conversation but it's not over yet. I, personally, have led quite a few conversations in which I was so excited about meeting the outcome that I blew right past the dismount. The result invariably was a lack of follow through. If I spoke with the client about the conversation later, often times nothing came of the hard-fought conclusions created in the conversation.

This is why the dismount is important.

After the outcome has been verified and verbalized, there are few ways to exit the conversation. A series of questions can be used to not only stamp the learning but also to verify next steps. One key to keep in mind, however, is that the coach is NOT the accountability partner. Instead, the coach can help the client determine accountability systems for themselves.

  • What did you learn about yourself in the conversation?

  • How might this change affect you?

  • What new insights have you gained about [topic]?

  • How will you use your learning from today in other aspects of your life?

  • What are your next steps?

  • What potential barriers do you foresee?

  • What kind of accountability works best for you when considering making a change?

  • What would you like to celebrate?

This isn't belaboring the point. Instead, the coach should let the insight made during the deliberation phase harden before asking it to support action. As in the other phases,

the coaches role is to facilitate thinking. A coach's experience can prove handy here, asking probing questions about possible pitfalls based on his/her own knowledge.

Not only do coaches want coaching conversations to result in an insight about a problem or about the client, they want to ensure action. This means that the job isn't done when the client has the "a-ha" moment. That, instead, is just the starting point. A successful dismount not only cements the learning but helps the client exit the conversation with actionable implementation steps.

As the title of this article states, this is just a beginner's guide to coaching conversations. While this article focused more on the structure of the conversation not the skills needed (e.g., active listening, presuming positive intent, powerful paraphrasing), it's a great starting point for instructional leaders want to show more as a coach than as a supervisor.

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