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3 Ways to More ‘Aha’ Moments in Coaching

Looking for more ”aha” moments in your coaching? These are the moments when the conversation changes in quality - the ‘light bulb’ moments of sudden realization, when we feel a breakthrough: new knowledge is created. When these moments occur, they can be truly powerful and often lead to the shift in practice that was hoped for.

Sometimes magic just happens and the conversation seems to create these moments of its own accord. Most times however, a number of things need to be in place to create the right conditions. It is here that the coach can act to optimize those conditions.

Our understanding of what might be happening at these critical moments has been furthered by the work of Professor Rachel Lofthouse, who was a keynote speaker at the 2017 National Coaching in Education Conference. In her work on improving coaching in schools, Lofthouse identified several dimensions of coaching talk which were a useful tool for analysing coaching conversations, and more importantly, a tool for coaches to use in reflecting on and improving their coaching.

Of these dimensions, “co-construction” is the one found to mark more productive conversations. It is said to be the point at which reflection and learning through coaching are greatest, therefore marking cognitive development occurring within the conversation. Lofthouse sees it as “… the point at which coaching becomes a professional-knowledge creating process, which is likely to be advantageous to both the coach and the coachee” (Lofthouse, Leat & Towler, 2010: p.29).

Lofthouse has described this observable co-construction as “usually occurring over a number of ‘turns’ that are characteristically short where the participants in the coaching or mentoring conversation are collaboratively developing an idea, building on successive contributions of their partner.” It is a concept similar to “dialogue”, or ‘talking with’, a reflective and generative conversation in which participants attempt to reach a shared understanding. In these moments, the roles of coach and coachee can blur as they jointly explore practice.

Lofthouse acknowledges that coaches typically steer away from giving advice, and while this is a sound principle in coaching, there is room for skillful and genuinely co-constructed dialogue, optimizing curiosity and being open to building on the experiences of the participants, so that a richer ‘aha’ moment can be the result. This is a creative process, drawing on the in-the-moment collaborative capacity of both coach and coachee.

How can we use this concept to create more ‘aha’ moments in our own coaching?

Let’s look at three aspects of coaching practice that can help, in order of complexity.

1. We need to create thinking space for this to happen.

We can increase our attention to building trust so there is safety. John Campbell’s article on 4 ways to build safety in the coaching relationship could be helpful here. It is a time for our very best listening skills. This means working with silences and uncertainty. It also means listening for assumptions, limiting beliefs or blind spots, and challenging those with a sensitive yet firm manner. Challenge and dissonance can be fertile ground for producing new knowledge.

2. We need to move our own stance as coach into one of openness and mindfulness – being open to receiving and learning alongside the coachee.

Unconditional positive regard, at its essence, involves this respect for the coachee to be able to participate at a level that is as capable of generating new learning as anything the coach can bring. Suspend our own assumptions about the coachee or their area for improvement. Bring a sense of expansion, of inquiry, seeking to understand. Use positivity to broaden and build positive emotions, which according to Barbara Fredrickson (2001) broaden our scope of attention and expand the array of thoughts and actions that come to mind.

3. We need to increase our own understanding of what is meant by the term “collaborative dialogue”, or collective exploration of meaning.

This could be achieved by further reading. It could also be by talking with colleagues and fellow coaches, articulating how we see it as a concept, listening to others’ expression of it and building a shared understanding through those conversations. This in itself is the practice of dialogue-collective exploration of meaning. Through practice outside coaching conversations, we are more skillful when in coach mode.

Have you ever experienced an ‘aha’ moment in your own coaching? What can you learn from that experience?

References:

  • Fredrickson, B. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218-226. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066x.56.3.218
  • Lofthouse,R., Leat, D. and Towler C. (2010). Coaching for teaching and learning: A practical guide for schools. CfBT Education Trust.
  • Lofthouse, R. and Hall, E. (2014): Developing practices in teachers’ professional dialogue in England: Using coaching dimensions as an epistemic tool. Professional Development in Education, 2014 Vol. 40, No. 5, 758–778, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19415257.2014.886283

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