Leading with Vulnerability: The Pathway to Strengthen Communication & Collaboration in Coaching Relationships

Inquiry Question:

How can successful coaches model vulnerability to strengthen communication and collaboration in coaching relationships? 

Communication and collaboration are such vital components of successful relationships, including coaching partnerships. While they play important roles in successful coaching, it takes time to build these skills and develop trust with those we coach. As Les Foltos (2013) reminds us, “Communication and collaboration skills must be taught in carefully structured activities and repeatedly practiced in the context in which Peer Coaches will use them in their schools.” (p. 79). In reflecting on this reminder from Les Foltos, I began thinking about how coaches can work to strengthen communication and collaboration in coaching relationships, and more specifically, how they can be successful in doing this through modeling vulnerability. Vulnerability is the foundation for open, nonjudgmental communication. Through small, consistent steps of modeling vulnerability, communication and collaboration can be enhanced. From my research, I identified a few ways peer coaches can successfully model vulnerability. While these are certainly not the only ways to model this practice in coaching relationships, I hope these strategies serve as useful tools for peer coaches as they work to strengthen communication and collaboration, and as a catalyst for further inquiry into exploring vulnerability. As I explored my driving question for this module, my research was focused on indicators from ISTE Coaching Standard: 2 Connected Learner, and Standard 3: Collaborator:  

2b. Build the capacity of educators, leaders, and instructional teams to put the ISTE Standards into practice by facilitating active learning and providing meaningful feedback. 
2c. Establish shared goals with educators, reflect on successes, and continually improve coaching and teaching practice. 
3a. Establish trusting and respectful coaching relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies. 

When working to model vulnerability in peer coaching, leading by example can be an important starting point. As coaches work to invite educators they are coaching to be vulnerable in coaching conversations, it is necessary they also step into a space of vulnerability. This can be especially true for newly formed coaching relationships. Peer coaches model vulnerability through leading by example. This can be shown by being open to sharing when you make a mistake or by admitting that you don’t always have all the answers. Paul J. Zak (2017), neuro-economist and author of the article The Neuroscience of Trust, explains that “Asking for help is the sign of a secure leader– one who engages everyone to reach goals” (n.p.). If educators see peer coaches practicing the behavior of reaching out to ask for help when necessary, this may create more willingness for educators to do the same and empower them to be more vulnerable in coaching conversations. Just like with the educators we coach adjust and strengthen their instruction, as peer coaches, we are also growing in the use of best practices and adjusting our coaching based on results. By demonstrating an openness to admit when we don’t have all the answers, but also by providing reassurance that we are partners in the learning process and will collaborate to find solutions, we are modeling the vulnerability to those we peer coach. By being transparent about the coaching process with educators, peer coaches can also lead by example in modeling vulnerability. According to Elena Aguilar (2020), author of Coaching for Equity, “Transparency is honesty blended with integrity” (p.161). When coaches are open about their coaching process, for example by sharing notes from coaching meetings or resources used to deepen questioning during conversations, vulnerability is displayed, and communication and collaboration are strengthened. Lastly, peer coaches can lead by example in modeling vulnerability, by demonstrating an appreciation and desire to receive feedback. When coaches show a willingness to receive feedback from others and more importantly act upon that feedback, they gain trust and accountability in those they coach. If peer coaches are hoping for those they coach to operate from a place of receptivity and goal-setting, then peer coaches also need to hold themselves accountable to the same expectations. In seeking feedback and adjusting their practice, peer coaches lead by example in modeling vulnerability.    

Peer coaches can also model vulnerability and work to strengthen communication and collaboration with those they coach by intentionally acknowledging their feelings and emotions. Whenever we step into an interaction or conversation, we are also stepping into that space with whatever existing feelings and emotions we may be experiencing. As those interactions and conversations are occurring, we are also simultaneously experiencing new feelings and emotions. This is equally true for all others involved in those experiences. With that recognition in mind, it is vital that peer coaches looking to model vulnerability in coaching relationships acknowledge their feelings and emotions, and offer space for those they are coaching to do the same. As Elena Aguilar (2017) states, “Addressing emotions is part of leading a team; it’s part of transforming schools. We need to become more comfortable with dealing with feelings and also stop seeing them as an obstacle or problem to manage” (n.p.). By naming the emotions we are experiencing, peer coaches show vulnerability to those they are connecting with and communicate acceptance of those emotions. Peer coaches can acknowledge the demonstration of courage displayed from those they are coaching as they step into a space of vulnerability and think critically about student learning. Courage can be an emotion from which many other feelings are ignited, including strength, empowerment, and trust. (Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, 2018). Recognizing the emotions that exist in coaching conversations and giving them space to exist can help to build the communication between teacher and coach. When this vulnerability and emotional exposure are shown in a partnership, it can strengthen the connection between individuals. It is vital to remember in coaching relationships, especially in moments when vulnerability is highlighted and emotions are shared, that confidentiality is essential in maintaining this level of trust.   

Another way successful peer coaches can model vulnerability in coaching relationships is through shared stories. Storytelling and sharing your personal story are a powerful way to connect with another individual. When we share our stories and experiences with others, we are demonstrating vulnerability by letting others into important information on what makes us who we are. Through modeling a willingness to share our own stories, we are also inviting those we coach to join us in doing the same. With new coaching relationships, this will certainly take time. One way to invite those we coach to share their stories is by sharing your experiences with them. Sharing when you experience moments of challenge or work you are incredibly proud of may be a more low-stakes way to invite the educators you are coaching to share their stories. In opening up in this way, coaches set the tone for open, honest, vulnerable communication. The power telling our stories can have on connection and collaboration is especially true when peer coaches are coaching virtually in distance learning. Allowing space for teachers to share their stories and open up about themselves can then ignite strong, meaningful collaboration in a coaching relationship.  

Successful peer coaches also model vulnerability and strengthen communication and collaboration in coaching relationships by leaning into difficult conversations. While it may be challenging in coaching relationships when conversations become difficult or uncomfortable, peer coaches can model vulnerability by leaning into those uncomfortable conversations. As Elena Aguilar (2020) shares, “Discomfort can be the precipice to big learning: It’s hard to take a close look at our behaviors, beliefs, and ways of being. Stand with your client, indicate that it’s OK to look, communicate your confidence that they can see what is there, and trust in the coaching process” (p. 220) With most things, real change doesn’t happen until those involved are honest, open, and willing to grow. Peer coaches can work to support teachers they coach in leaning with them into difficult conversations by asking questions that spark deeper inquiry and evaluation. Les Foltos (2013) reminds peer coaches that, “To improve teaching and learning, these challenging conversations need to be an ongoing part of the relationship between the coach and their learning partners” (p.78). These challenging coaching conversations can be sparked by probing questions, paraphrasing, and open-door questions. As educators respond to questions peer coaches ask them, coaches can continue to draw out more inquiry and discovery by partnering paraphrasing with probing questions. Coaches model vulnerability in these difficult conversations by leaning into these moments and identifying that these deep conversations are where learning happens, new solutions to problems are found, and communication and collaboration are strengthened.  

As I continue to expand my peer coaching connections and explore new coaching relationships, I will continue to work intentionally to build communication and collaboration with those I coach. To me, this work starts with modeling vulnerability. As a learning coach, how do you work to strengthen communication and collaboration by modeling vulnerability with those you coach? How do you support other coaches in stepping into a space of vulnerability as well? Please share your thoughts and experiences, as well as any feedback or questions you have, in the comment section below. 


Aguilar, E. (2020). Coaching for equity: Conversations that change practice (First ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass.

Barkley, S. (2019, March 19). Trust and Vulnerability: Instructional Coaching. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://barkleypd.com/blog/trust-and-vulnerability/

Brown, B. (2019). Dare to lead: Brave work, tough conversations, whole hearts. Place of publication not identified: Random House Large Print Publishing.

Digital Promise. Build and Foster a Culture of Coaching. (2020, July 14). Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://digitalpromise.org/initiative/instructional-coaching/structure-a-sustainable-and-scalable-instructional-coaching-program/build-and-foster-a-culture-of-coaching/

Eduro Learning. (2020, April 16). Leading Through Crisis: 3 Reasons Vulnerability Matters Featuring Head of School, Kathleen Naglee. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qXAQepcNuv4

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

Gassenheimer, C. (2017, March 02). Elena Aguilar: Addressing Emotions is Key to Coaching Teams and Transforming Schools. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://aplusala.org/best-practices-center/2017/03/02/elena-aguilar-on-coaching-teams/

ISTE Standards for Coaches. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/standards/for-coaches

Williams, R. (2019, June 09). Why the Best Leaders View Vulnerability as a Strength. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://medium.com/@raybwilliams/why-the-best-leaders-view-vulnerability-as-a-strength-6a4a7e27d461

Zak, P. J. (2019, November 27). The Neuroscience of Trust. Retrieved October 19, 2020, from https://hbr.org/2017/01/the-neuroscience-of-trust

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