This last week I worked with a small group of teachers who joined a session which, in hindsight, I should have titled: How to give less advice and actually be helpful. These teachers were, among other things, looking for ways to increase students' independence and confidence, or up productivity and efficiency in their team meetings. These might seem like fairly typical goals, but as our world continues to be affected by COVID, teachers are noticing their students seem needier, and our colleagues are more stressed and distracted. A little bit more confidence and efficiency would benefit everyone.
The point of the session was to share and practice some simple ways to cut to the chase in our interactions with others in ways that help everybody. Re-reading Michael Bungay Stanier's The Coaching Habit was a good reminder as to how anyone can be more effective in their interactions and empower others by asking a few quick, easy-to-remember questions.
In his book, Stanier has a Haiku that is a little ray of sunshine that captures this essence:
Talk less and ask more.
Your advice is never as good
As you think it is.
Teachers are quintessential helpers, jumping in to help students and colleagues sort out their problems by doing the thinking for them because... isn't that what we are here to do? Shouldn't we model everything? Shouldn't we be showing how we think through challenges so others can learn? Surely if we tell others a way to do things they'll try it next time.
But do we really know what it is that people need?
Imagine that too-helpful friend, who has a suggestion for everything. Say you're feeling sluggish and they will have a host of diagnoses and a variety of possible ways to alleviate the symptoms. Whilst a hyperbole, it's not far off the truth in our classrooms. If you ask someone to come in and note how often you offer advice, whether requested or not, you might well be surprised at the count. And if you are feeling exhausted by it, or the people around you aren't growing because of it, it's time to stop.
The key is to be direct and be kind. And we can all do this.
The following two questions are either directly from, or a teacher-made variation of, questions from The Coaching Habit. The teachers who worked with me singled these out as the ones they were most likely to use right away, because they are short, easy to remember, and respectful.
What is most important thing/the real challenge here for you?
Asking people to name the 'thing' themselves requires cognitive engagement: there may be relief at simply stating their own focus, and you will not be left guessing what the 'thing' is, either. This also might be where your interaction ends - the person may realise there is nothing further needed, or that they are able to solve things now that their issue is clear. Or they might actually want your help: then you can ask...
How can I help?
I know. It is a shockingly simple question. One teacher described this as a much nicer and more positively phrased way to say - What do you want me to do? It even feels nicer to say. Here's the thing: you might be asked to help in a way you hadn't thought of. You might be asked to do something you aren't willing to. Or what you are asked might be really simple and easily done. You might not actually be required to help at all. Regardless, actually knowing how a person wants you to help (or not!) means you can be targeted in your response and action.
I have started to think about these two questions as reduce/reuse/repurpose coaching questions. Like the well-known R's of reducing waste and sustainable living, these questions help to reduce the words we use and the cognitive work you have to do (because it is the person you are talking to that provides the answers), you can reuse them over and over again with little memorisation, and they can be used in a variety of contexts - practically anytime you feel you are slipping in to 'helping' mode.
As a pedagogical coach I don't often use What is most important thing/the real challenge here for you? but it is especially effective when we are short on time, a paraphrase isn't quite hitting the mark, or even when it does but there are many possible courses of action surfacing. I regularly use How can I help? as a bridge between the teacher's ideas for action and how we might partner in the classroom: when you have a new coaching relationship developing it can be a lifesaver, changing the passive "let me know how I can help" to a more imperative "tell me what I can do here".
Since our session it has been a joy to have teachers grab me to tell of how quickly they've been able to deploy the two questions and to really positive effect. All their stories share the same message: clear, honest and caring communication honours time, gets desired results, and empowers everyone.
All that from two short questions. What's not to love?