Communication is the heart of coaching. Jim Knight’s investigation into how adults respond best to change and support resulted in the Partnership Principles, and those principles are the cornerstone of our work with instructional coaches, teachers, and administrators. A top-down approach to supporting colleagues may feel good, even powerful (“Here’s what I think is the problem, and here’s what I think is the solution, so now go implement the solution to the solve the problem”), but it just doesn’t work. The reason it doesn’t work is because adults need to be treated as autonomous, capable professionals. Top-down approaches are parent-child or perhaps teacher-student in nature–the opposite of collegiality.

To get to the heart of this issue, Jim wrote Better Conversations (2016, Corwin Press). All of us at ICG love our work in whatever form it takes, but the five of us who present the workshops–Jim Knight, Ann Hoffman, Michelle Harris, Tricia Skyles, and myself–all agree that presenting Better Conversations is fun in a different way from the more coaching-specific topics. The content is immediately engaging for participants because they quickly see its application to both their personal and professional lives. They want to connect with people more effectively. They want their conversations to enhance their lives, not to feed the communication crisis we currently see in our public discourse. They want better.

In Better Conversations, Jim describes life-giving communication in the form of Six Beliefs. The Beliefs connect directly to the Partnership Principles.

  1. I see others as equal partners.
  2. I want to hear what others have to say.
  3. I believe people should have a lot of autonomy.
  4. I don’t judge others.
  5. Conversations should be back-and-forth.
  6. Conversations should be life-giving.

To have a true dialogue with another person (a conversation in which both parties come to the tables as equals, neither looking to control the other person’s thoughts or actions, both believing that the conversation will result in something better), acting on those beliefs is important.

To “walk the talk” of the Beliefs, Jim describes the Ten Habits, areas we can target for growth when we interact with others.

  • Demonstrating Empathy
  • Listening with Empathy
  • Fostering Dialogue
  • Asking Better Questions
  • Making Emotional Connections
  • Being a Witness to the Good
  • Finding Common Ground
  • Controlling Toxic Emotions
  • Redirecting Toxic Conversations
  • Building Trust

In instructional coaching, developing these Habits is crucial. The extent to which teachers will want coaching and the extent to which they will be willing to be vulnerable and honest with their coaches are both contingent on whether the coach creates an environment of partnership versus an environment of compliance. Because communication is so critical to coaching, the topic merits its own entry in our ICG coaching certification process.

ICG Certification: What Scoring Taught Us This Year about Data

After scoring submitted entries this summer, our key realization for the Communication requirements takes the form of an old adage: less is more. Our original directions involved too many goals, too many forms, and too many videos. To see the new stripped-down directions, examine the Develop Portfolio section of our certification website.

Ultimately, what we want to see is improvement in communication, so we have reduced the number of goals that each candidate sets in this area. Candidates may still choose from among any of the forms that Jim provides for each Habit as part of the Resources for Better Conversations for the form requirement for the entry. For each goal, candidates can choose either the Looking Back, Looking At, or Looking Ahead form as their “before” improvement form.

They will analyze a short piece of video involving themselves in conversation with another person. After they have worked to improve that Habit, they will analyze a short piece of “after” video using a new copy of the same form. Candidates will then submit the two videos and two forms to meet the new form and video requirements for the entry.

The candidates in the pilot phase (who are champions all) had so many forms and goals to juggle that gauging real progress was difficult for scorers, especially since we did not require a “before” and “after” structure to their submissions. None of us involved in writing the directions foresaw that issue, although it seems very apparent now that we were asking for the wrong things. I had to field many candidate inquiries about that entry last year, and no wonder. Imagine that: a communication problem with the Communication entry.

If these blogs have not yet adequately conveyed the debt we owe to our pilot-phase candidates, allow me to reiterate their contribution. They signed on for this process when it was merely a set of directions that had not yet been tested or implemented. They agreed to be our test subjects, and their patience, flexibility, and good humor has saved the day many times. They ask incredibly valuable questions, they offer honest feedback, and their professionalism is a model for us all.

Under the pressure of day-to-day school life, educators can become so embroiled in all of the real emergencies in students’ lives that we can often drop the ball on fostering collegial and life-giving professional cultures. Like our best instructional strategies, fostering partnership communication has a solid research foundation as well. Working toward better communication, toward that better school culture, is a strategy that not only helps learning to be more effective; it also makes the school a place where students learn that work and relationships should be life-giving.