Words Coaches Use Or Don’t Use

On a recent cross of the Atlantic flight I read an article in British Airways Business Life addressing, “How persuasion words and labels can have seemingly imperceptible influences on us.” It was written by Steve Martin, the author of, Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion.

Martin shares examples that I found interesting:

People consider having to travel north as more difficult than traveling south. (We process north as uphill.)

After watching a video of one car hitting another people are asked to predict the speed of the car at fault. If the question is posed as, “How fast was the car going when it bumped into the other car?”, people estimate a lower speed than if the question asks, “How fast was it going when it smashed into the other?”

This article triggered me to consider some of my learning about words I use (and avoid) in coaching:

Help–  I avoid asking, ”How can I help?”  and avoid the word help during coaching unless the teacher uses the word in her request to me. If the teacher says, “Can you help me with this?”, then I am comfortable using help in my response at some point. The word help can suggest to people that the coach is at a higher/more advanced level than the teacher.

(See earlier blog where I explore Jim Knight’s writing about helping.)

Problem or Struggle– I sense these words carry a negative connotation for some folks. They can interpret my labeling of something as a problem as an evaluation of them. “I noticed you struggling to get the students focused,” can be read as a negative evaluation. I tend to tackle these situations by asking the teacher where she would have liked a different student behavior or response than the one that occurred. “What were you thinking and considering when you asked the students to begin the writing activity?” Whatever words the teacher uses in the description I am then comfortable using in our conversation.

But, However, Yet– these words often are used to connect two thoughts. The first thought is generally a positive/agreeing one: “The activity did raise lots of energy and enthusiasm from the kids.” The second statement is often an additional idea you want the teacher to consider: “The activity took a lot of time and not everyone understood the purpose.” When the two phrases are connected with but or however, the reinforcement of the first positive one is often negated by the second statement.

Planning the questions to guide the lesson was important but there were few critical thinking ones included.

I generally use the positive statement and then pause, waiting for a response from the teacher: “Planning the questions to guide the lesson was important.” The teacher might say, “I have seen the improvement in learning from my planning” or “That does increase student engagement.” At this point I know the appreciation of the positive was noted by the teacher. I often then follow with a question that can lead into the point I’d like to raise. “Which questions do you think most engaged the students in critical thinking?”

If I use the two statements together I use a period or “and” between them:

“Planning the questions to guide the lesson was important. More critical thinking questions included may have extended the learning.”

Have you thought about? Have you tried? – These close-ended questions tend to corner the responder. If I am asked, “Have you tried having the students work on this in groups?” and I haven’t and say no, I either have to offer to try it or defend why I wouldn’t. If I tried it and it didn’t go well, I may feel compelled to confess to my “failure.” I tend to use a more open ended question or maybe even a statement: “As I was observing I wondered what the impact of doing that task in a group or pair might be.” Or, “How do you think the outcome would change if students paired to do the activity?” The open question or statements tends to provide me with more of the teacher’s thinking which guides my direction.

What words/phrases have you learned to use or avoid in your coaching?

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3 Responses to “ Words Coaches Use Or Don’t Use ”

  1. Dennine Says:

    I love this! It’s a great reminder that coaching is guiding the teacher through the process for optimizing student learning. It’s not to judge teachers. A single word or words can make all the difference in how you communicate what you do as a coach.

  2. Leslie Says:

    Wow. Loved this. I confess I use all of those words and it has been hard to break the habit and use the better words/phrases.

  3. Terri Bianco Says:

    Tony Robbins has something called “Transformational Vocabulary” where you switch from “overwhelmed,” for example, to “challenged.” I use it in my coaching a lot. And btw has anyone every been just “whelmed?”

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Steve Barkley

For the past 30 years, Steve has served as a consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. Read more…

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