Book Review: Coaching Conversations

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Book Reviews


In the past I have worked in schools supporting leadership teams and so when I came across Coaching Conversations: Transforming Your School One Conversation at a Time by Linda Gross Cheliotes and Marceta Fleming Reilly, I was intrigued to find out more. As a seasoned coach, what might I learn? What could be the lessons for commercial organisations?

Schools are complex organisms and developing the right team is critical to their success. For pupils to thrive all adults in the school need to be clear about how they make a difference to the children’s learning and feel motivated to do so. The merits of ‘Coaching Conversations’ are offered within the context of the need for everyone, from the headteacher to the caretaker, to ‘accept the plan as their own and feel supported’ to enable sustained growth and change.

But just as in industry, old habits die hard and there is always at least some resistance to change. I like the way this is acknowledged head-on with some good explanations about why difficult conversations fail. Thankfully we are not led down all-too-common quick fix routes, but we are reassured of the benefits of ‘ongoing, thoughtful, and intentional practice’ to ensure the establishment of the new neural pathways for thinking and behaving.

What unfolds is a valuable toolkit of resources to use in a variety of situations, all in service of embedding coaching conversations into the culture of the school. Depending on where you are in your development as a leader or a coach, or both, you’ll be drawn to different aspects of the book. Here’s what stood out for me:

Tips and Techniques

Listening and More

I love the Listening Skills Self Assessment. It is a while since I have completed anything similar and a great reminder to resist the temptation to formulate a response in my mind before the speaker has fully communicated what they want to say. This concept of listening without obligation to act is explained very clearly in a ‘Committed Listening’ model, and is backed up by a powerful example of how a potentially divisive situation can be resolved when the listening has depth.

Positive Presuppositions

The information on forming ‘positive presuppositions‘ is very helpful and goes beyond the usual good advice on the use of open versus closed questions to achieve progress, as brought to life when supporting a teacher preparing a class for upcoming examinations. Rather than asking whether the students are ready, the authors suggest, try ‘As a teacher who always puts his students first, what strategies are you considering to ensure their success?’

Bringing the Theory to Life

Impromptu Counts

The value of ‘coaching-on-the fly.’ For me, when coaching conversations start to become commonplace – when leaders are more likely to be thinking about what kind of question to ask than how a problem might be solved – that’s when coaching is making a difference and everybody is taking responsibility for change. There is also something very powerful about giving and receiving feedback in the moment when people can use the information straightaway and when it counts.

The Power of Partnership

The importance of mindset. The underlying principle is that, even when there is a clear need for performance improvement, people don’t need to be ‘fixed’.  The more leaders see themselves as partners and collaborators asking questions and listening to underlying themes that emerge in the answers, the more likely it is that positive change will occur. Reassuringly there is also a recognition that people don’t always have enough background knowledge or experience to solve their problems at which point as a leader there may be a need to move into the mentoring or supervision zones on the ‘Leadership Practices Continuum.’

Practice Makes Perfect

Real-life stories from the authors’ experience, showing both their own development journeys and the progress their clients have made, bring the theory to life. I could resonate with the situations, imagine putting the principles to the test and experimenting with some of their great questions. I especially like the suggestions on creating ‘frames‘ from which ideas and decisions can emerge.

The only suggestion for a an updated version would be to include examples of what coaching conversations might look like with adults in the school not directly involved with teaching but whose behaviours and performance do impact on the success of the school and ultimately the well-being of children, e.g. support staff.

Reflection Questions:

  • How would you assess your approach to supporting the development of your colleagues? How much more scope is there for allowing progress through partnership and collaboration as opposed to advice?
  • As someone who values continuous improvement, what strategies might be available to you to further improve the quality of your listening?
  • How might you extend the use of coaching questions in everyday situations?

I recommend this book, whether or not you work in schools. The quote highlighted from Susan Scott’s Fierce Conversations ‘Leaders must have conversations that interrogate reality, provoke learning, tackle touch challenges, and enrich relationships‘ is true whatever sector you find yourself in.

Find out more about the work Clare McNamara does with leaders and their teams on influence and authenticity.

© Move Ahead Global 2016

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