A Coaching Orientation in Every Interaction: 3 Key Questions

More is being written about coaching cultures in recent times as school leaders seek to bring a more coherent and strategic perspective to various coaching initiatives. Colleague, Professor Christian van Nieuwerburgh, has already made an important contribution here through a comprehensive literature review1. The Global Framework for Coaching in Education2,3 is also helpful in relation to this.

As work in this area continues to unfold and more helpful insights emerge about what a coaching culture for learning involves, why it’s important and how to start and sustain such a culture, it will be vital to keep refining thinking and practice so that this elusive ‘culture’ dimension moves forward on a solid evidence base.

In all this discussion about various coaching initiatives and programmes, it will also be important to remember that every interaction in which we engage has the potential to reinforce an emerging coaching culture.

Bringing a ‘coaching orientation’ to each conversation in which we participate provides critical, incidental support for the establishment of a coaching culture. Indeed, without this orientation permeating informal conversations, more formal coaching initiatives are likely to be subtly undermined.

Just what might this ‘coaching orientation’ in each conversation look like? From the burgeoning coaching in education literature, together with important insights emerging from the fields of Positive Psychology, Appreciative Inquiry and Solutions Focus it seems that 3 key questions can contribute to this:

  • What’s wanted?
  • What’s working?
  • What’s next?

What’s wanted?

Helping others get clear on what specifically they would like to see happen in the situation they might be facing is one of the most helpful things we can contribute as a leader or colleague. Many people are not clear about what they want as they explore their more complex challenges and opportunities. It is not uncommon to be clear on what’s not wanted; less common to be clear about what is wanted. In the midst of an emerging description of what’s not wanted it can be helpful to simply ask: What would you like to happen instead?

Seeking specifics about this desired future state is another helpful contribution in this ‘What’s wanted?’ exploration. The more specific and detailed this desired future state can be defined the more likely it is that people can move towards making it happen. What else? What else? are questions to help to tease out this detail.

What’s working?

Rather than a potentially lengthy exploration of the gap between the current situation and the preferred future, a more energising, faster approach is to focus on what is already working that might contribute to progress. Helping focus on existing resources builds confidence and self-efficacy. Related questions here can include…What’s already in place that would help you progress on this?

If a scale has been used to reveal an indication of where things are currently up to a focus on what has led to the current point of progress and teasing that out is more helpful and energising than a focus on the gap. How come it’s this high on the scale? What’s been part of your success so far? – are additional questions that probe for resources that can then be leveraged even further.

What’s next?

David Allen, productivity expert and author of Getting Things Done, has remarked...

“You don't actually do a project; you can only do action steps related to it.”4
The comment highlights the importance of creating momentum and moving forward in small steps rather than in extended action plans. The reason for this? Small steps are more achievable, enhancing self-efficacy and the likelihood that they will be done. Additionally, when an action is implemented it changes the ‘landscape of the situation’ helping to make clear what the subsequent next action might be. Small steps also allow for tentative movement in a certain direction so that if that works then more effort and energy can be channelled in that direction. If not, then other actions in other directions can be implemented.

So if you would like to make those “Have-you-got-a-minute, I‘d-like-to run-something-past-you?” type conversations more energising, more focused, more productive and more coaching-like, you might try this approach.

1. Gormley, H. & van Nieuwerburgh, C. (2014). Developing Coaching Cultures: A Review of the Literature. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 7,1:24-40.
2. van Nieuwerburgh, C. & Campbell, J. (2015). A global framework for coaching in education. CoachEd: The Teaching Leaders Coaching Journal, 1: 2-5.
3. van Nieuwerburgh, C. & Campbell, J. & Knight,J. (2015). Lessons in progress. Coaching at Work.10, 3:35-37.
4. Allen, D. (2001). Getting things done: The art of stress free productivity. Penguin Books, New York: New York.