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The Arc of a Coaching Conversation: Six Steps to More Effective Meetings

The most effective coaching conversations are those that you plan for. Just like when a teacher is prepared with a detailed lesson that outlines the flow of information and activities, the class will almost always be more productive for students. Does a carefully planned lesson mean that the teacher should never deviate from the plan? Of course not! In fact, a well-planned lesson often makes a teacher feel even more empowered to deviate from the plan when necessary, because it provides a structure to fall back on. The same is true of coaching conversations.

A basic plan—or an arc—provides a routine that allows you and your coachee to enter each conversation with confidence, while also providing a structure to return to should the conversation digress (as they often do!). Following this general arc when working with clients will help to ensure that the time you spend together is more meaningful and productive.

1) Check in. This informal chat allows you and your coachee to settle in and establish trust. Look to make personal connections without revealing too much information about your personal life (you don't want your client to be concerned about your emotional state or to be triggered by something personal you share). You can make personal connections while also keeping the conversation light. It's a good idea, too, to limit your check-in time so that the conversation remains focused on coaching. If the coachee regularly wants to spend a lot of time in check-in mode, you might suggest limiting this time to five minutes or an amount of time you agree on together.

2) Create a plan for the conversation. After you've settled in, steer the conversation towards teaching. You can say, "I have a plan for our conversation today, but I also want to hear what's on your mind and if there's anything else you want to make sure we talk about." Let your client share any thoughts, and then see if you can link their interests or concerns to the plan you've created. There are times when it's appropriate to be more directive in guiding the coaching conversations, rather than letting the client lead (more on that in this blog). In general, though, give your coachee input in the conversation so that they feel empowered. Of course, all coaching should also be grounded in a larger work plan, goals, or scope of work, but that's a different topic.

3) Discuss previous commitments. Part of your job as a coach is to hold your client accountable. Gently return to follow-up actions you may have suggested at the end of the last meeting: "Last week you decided to try ... how did that go?" Depending on how much work your client has put in, this could constitute a large piece of your coaching session.

4) Engage in coaching stances and approaches. You've checked in, created a plan, and followed up on commitments. Now it's time to return to the issues your coachee raised while using the stances and approaches. My book, The Art of Coaching, has several chapters dedicated to the dance of listening and questioning in a coaching conversation. In a nutshell, though, it is essential that you engage in the following practices:

  • Active listening. Listen deeply and with intention, paying attention to underlying beliefs and assumptions that may be present in your client's statements. Active listening also means demonstrating to your client that you are listening through body language and speech ("What I'm hearing you say is ... ").
  • Questioning. Ask both clarifying questions ("Would you tell me more about ... ?") and probing questions. A probing question is meant to help a client examine the beliefs and ideas behind a particular statement or action. It should be asked with empathy while also eliciting critical thinking. As in, "You seem unsatisfied with how that parent meeting went. What would you do differently next time?" or "I hear that you're frustrated your students didn't do the assigned reading. Why do you think that's happening?"

5) Determine next steps. Here, you'll help your coachee decide what steps should be taken to address issues that came up during the meeting. Consider strategies that they might try, such as observing another teacher or reframing an unclear assignment. Be clear about agreements, and write down the decided-upon course of action so that you can follow up with your coachee.

6) Finally, reflect. At the end of a session, it is helpful to know how your coachee is feeling. What was helpful about the meeting? What would the client like more or less of in the coaching work?

Remember that not every conversation will go as planned. If a conversation doesn't go as well as you would have liked, be gentle with yourself. After all, you are growing as a coach just as your client is growing as an educator.

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