The Coaching Relationship ~ The Many Layers of Building Trust through Communication and Collaboration

  • ISTE-Coaching:
    • Standard 1: Visionary Leadershipd. Implement strategies for initiating and sustaining technology innovations and manage the change process in schools and classrooms
    • Standard 2: Teaching, Learning, and Assessmentf. Coach teachers in and model incorporation of research-based best practices in instructional design when planning technology-enhanced learning experiences

Through researching and conversations with my SPU Digital Education Leadership cohort, I have found myself continually wondering how to best communicate and collaborate when starting a coaching relationship while still connecting in a way that felt organic versus clinical or predetermined.  In my own experience, why do I sometimes accept clarifying, probing and paraphrasing communication as a positive communication strategy with some people (coaches, other teachers, admin/leadership positions) yet with others I feel it is predetermined and just a sequence of steps they are applying to our conversation?  This led me to my question, What are best practices for starting to use probing and clarifying questions when you first start coaching someone and how do probing and clarifying questions strengthen trust with who you are coaching?

The most obvious answer is trust. When I am collaborating and communicating in a trusted relationship, I can let down my guard, be vulnerable and break away from my own initial thoughts or usual tendencies. But how do we gain that trust? In a coaching role, active listening inspires educators to feel truly heard through communication which is a crucial building block for trust and sets the stage for the other foundational block, compassion (I hear you, not a predetermined agenda) and commitment (I hear what you need and commit to those needs/desires/hopes first and foremost)

Peer-Ed (2018)

In the graphic above from Center for Creative Leadership, each active listening skill reinforces being heard before diving into deeper thinking. When I reflect on these skills from the perspective of being coached, I would say #6 – be attuned to and reflect feelings, #1 – be attentive and #5 – paraphrase are the skills that strengthen my relationship with the coach and results in be being more available to be coached. 

The article, Getting Better Results Through Authentically Curious Leadership, touches on how our subconscious wants to connect immediately with our past experiences which means we draw conclusions and make judgments quickly (Garrison, 2018). To be authentically curious, Garrison tells us about 3 techniques that can apply to the coaching relationship to create a fresh perspective that is ready to be built with the coaching partnership. The three techniques he describes are:

Assume a Blank Canvas: The goal is to allow the other person to “fill in” this canvas with their words, emotions and meaning. Rather than responding with phrases like, “Don’t you think … ?” (a thin disguise for trying to convince someone of their point of view), authentically curious leaders listen deeply and ask clarifying questions that begin with phrases like, “Can you tell me more about … ?” or “How do you see … ?” This allows for additional clarity and perhaps new insights. When the authentically curious leader does make a point, they invite challenges or conflicting views in a respectful and authentic manner.

Prepare For The Unexpected: The brain sees data that supports its model of the world, but this model also inhibits our ability to consider other unexpected points of view. The brain must be trained to consider all the data, especially that which does not support our current beliefs. 

Make Decisions Using Common Criteria: When a group is working to address a problem or make a decision, the authentically curious leader doesn’t debate alternatives. Instead, the leader solicits answers to the question, “How will we know a great decision when we see it?” Note that the question is not, “What’s a great outcome?” When a group can agree on common criteria for a great decision, then each member is free to explore alternatives with certainty of how each will be evaluated.

(Garrison, 2018)

Through building trust with thoughtful communication skills and coming to the table with no solution already determined, only then can collaboration occur.  Les Foltos describes in his book, Peer Coaching, Unlocking the Power of Collaboration, the importance of inquiry over advocacy.

When is the right time for advocacy? How often can [coaches] present their solutions? As I noted in earlier chapters, successful coaches feel that a little advocacy works, but only after a strong coaching relationship based on inquiry is formed. Too much advocacy, they observed, means the coach becomes the expert with the answer. Garmston and Wellman (1999) argue it is important for successful collaboration to balance advocacy and inquiry. Effective Peer Coaches emphasize inquiry over advocacy. Too much advocacy can produce learned helplessness. Inquiry builds capacity to improve teaching and learning by helping teachers to be more effective at designing and implementing learning activities that meet the needs of their students.

(Foltos, 2013)

Once a coaching relationship has been built on trust and communication skills that bring out inquiry based conversations, coaches can begin to know how to best deepen the thinking of who is being coached.  In order to achieve what Foltos and Garrison are speaking about, coaches need to understand that the questions they ask and how they ask them are critical to the relationship, especially in the beginning. In the article, The Questions Good Coaches Ask by Amy Jen Su, she reminds us that…”Asking the right coaching questions means the difference between a one-way interrogation and a dynamic learning session. Good coaching questions give someone who’s busy and competent the space in which to step back and examine herself. The right question can stop her in her tracks as she finally sees her own actions from a different perspective or envisions a new solution to an old problem. She may indeed learn to question herself so that next time she can catch herself in the act and change her actions in the moment. (2014). Once a coach has achieved showing authentic curiosity and an inquiring approach by asking opened questions and paraphrasing, they can then move into clarifying and probing questions resulting in the communication and collaboration as a dynamic partnership…and if advocacy comes into play, when it seems appropriate, it will be from all perspectives, not just the coaches. A true collaborative approach.

 Philipp Schneider (2013) Balanced Action. Sketchnote: Coaching Essentials.


Foltos, L. (2013). Peer Coaching :
Unlocking the Power of Collaboration. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.

Garrison, David W. (2018).  Forbes. Getting Better Results Through
Authentically Curious Leadership. Retrieved from

Jen Su, Amy. (2014). Harvard Business Review. The Questions
Good Coaches Ask. Retrieved from

Schneider, Philipp. (2013) Balanced Action. Sketchnote:
Coaching Essentials. Retrieved from

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