Coaching is a relationship frequently leveraged in the business sector but is not a well-established paradigm in higher education. Academics, however, can benefit just as much from a coaching approach, and the field is beginning to gain traction for training academic leaders (Robison & Gray, 2017). This article defines coaching, elucidates the benefits, outlines two basic competencies, and provides a few examples of how to coach in the context of a typical conversation.
The preeminent accrediting organization for coaching, the International Coach Federation (ICF), defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential” (“About ICF,” n.d.). Coaching is related to but differs in significant ways from other helping approaches. Mentoring, which represents a more common model in academics, is a relationship in which a senior or mid-career faculty member advises a junior one. Sponsorship implies a more heightened level of responsibility, with a sponsor advocating on behalf of a less experienced employee. Both approaches diverge from coaching because while mentoring and sponsoring are hierarchical, coaching is a partnership of equals. Another helping approach related to coaching is counseling, and the line between the two can be blurry. But two major differences are coaching’s focus on the future rather than the past and its emphasis on finding solutions rather than working extensively through problems.
Changing the way something is done always takes effort, so the payoff to modifying an approach to a task must be significant. There are many benefits of taking a coaching approach, both for the faculty member and for the administrator. First, coaching keeps a future focus and encourages faculty to set themselves goals that they are motivated to achieve, which may not be the case when goals are externally imposed. Second, this approach fosters independence and self-efficacy, which means that faculty will spend less time asking for advice or help. Third, coaching helps to break down the wall that can exist between faculty and administrators, as the two work together in a partnership. Fourth, coaching encourages reflection, and the ability to slow down and contemplate both situations and ourselves is an important aspect of moving forward. Finally, coaching is compassionate because it considers people as holistic individuals rather than data to accumulate and problems to solve. Willis (2019) summarized the value of coaching in a recent article in Inside Higher Ed: “After just one conversation, I had profound clarity, a slightly different focus and a renewed sense of purpose. It was invigorating and led to immediate and actionable steps.”
The ICF defines a set of core competencies that accredited coaches must demonstrate. Besides the basic principle of maintaining confidentiality, administrators can learn and practice two primary core competencies to facilitate coaching conversations: active listening and powerful questioning (“Core Competencies,” n.d.).
Hearing is a random, involuntary process in which we perceive sounds. Active listening, on the other hand, is focused and purposeful and involves giving full attention. Verbal and nonverbal signals can communicate that a listener is actively engaged in the conversation. Smiling, nodding, maintaining an attentive posture, and making appropriate eye contact are examples of nonverbal indicators that convey active listening. Verbal signals include using affirmative language, summarizing, and asking thoughtful follow-up questions. The listener should also try to limit interruptions to times when it is absolutely necessary. It may be obvious, but far too often people forget that to be effective listeners, they must stop talking.
A second important skill is the ability to ask powerful questions. These inquiries move toward action, generate new possibilities, produce insight, create awareness, and enable reflection (Goldvarg et al., 2018, p. 89). Powerful questions are often met with responses such as “I’ve never thought about that” or “That’s a good question,” if not silence. The benefits of asking powerful questions are plentiful. First, both parties forge a partnership as they work toward a goal, breaking down a hierarchical approach where one party dispenses advice and the other receives it. Second, powerful questions cultivate positivity and expand options by focusing on forward movement toward positive outcomes. There are always more than one or two options, and asking for alternatives creates space for creative solutions. Third, powerful questions promote reflection by inquiring about both cognitive and emotional processes. Despite what we believe, we often make decisions based on emotions, and it is a mistake to omit feelings from the discussion. Fourth, faculty members’ self-awareness increases as they answer questions that encourage new discoveries. Finally, powerful questions move toward an action plan and include accountability for progress.
There are some easy-to-follow guidelines for transforming ordinary questions into powerful ones. Questions should be short, open-ended, and begin with what or how. Avoid beginning a question with why as doing so can put faculty on the defensive and damage partnerships. You should also maintain a future focus. While it is occasionally appropriate and necessary to explore the past, you should do so only to understand the present and create plans for the future. Do not get too focused on asking about details or other people, both of which can derail momentum. Finally, beware of giving advice even if you disguise it as a question. Like all individuals, faculty are “naturally creative, resourceful, and whole” (Kimsey-House et al., 2018, p. 4), and they alone know all the information to make solid decisions or plans.
Active listening requires full attention, so the first step is to clear away as many distractions as possible during a conversation. Practice focusing on the other person rather thinking about a response, and provide both verbal and nonverbal signals to the talker. Be cognizant of the desire to evaluate what is being said and offer advice. “Within thirty seconds, the judge within us decides that we know what the other person is thinking, feeling, and about to say, but often, we can’t resist the urge to tell him in the form of a suggestion, advice, or command” (Boyatzis et al., 2019, pp. 144–45). An efficient way to gauge success is to practice with a partner. Ask a question, apply the active listening principles, self-reflect on feelings of judgement or evaluation, and solicit honest feedback.
You can transform ordinary questions into powerful ones by applying the guidelines elucidated above. Three reframing scenarios between an administrator and faculty member will help to illustrate.
Question: Why did you decide to teach your class using that outdated technology?
Analysis: This question begins with why, which could put the faculty member on the defensive. In addition, the tone is judgmental because of the word outdated. Instead, the administrator should keep the question positive and seek to understand the reasons behind the decision.
Powerful question: How does that technology benefit your students?
Question: Have you considered that maybe you need to say no to committee requests?
Analysis: This question is clearly advice in disguise. Advice assumes that faculty need someone to tell them what to do and can also create codependent relationships.
Powerful questions: What are the upsides to agreeing to be on committees? What are the downsides?
Question: Tell me again exactly what happened in that department meeting two years ago.
Analysis: This is not even a question, but a command, which could easily hinder rapport. The conversation partner should always have the option to refuse to answer a question, and an administrator in particular needs to be aware of this. In addition, the focus here is on details in the past. Remember that coaching has a future agenda.
Powerful question: What did you learn in that meeting that could benefit the current situation?
Even though an administrator’s relationship with individual faculty is hierarchical by nature, coaching can help to break down this barrier while also helping the faculty member to develop professionally. An attitude of coaching promotes an environment that fosters independence, builds partnerships, focuses on goal setting and achievement, encourages reflection, and demonstrates compassion. Applying only two competencies of coaching, active listening and powerful questioning, can go a long way in helping administrators make the most of every single conversation with their faculty.
About ICF. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://coachfederation.org/about
Boyatzis, R., Smith, M., & Van Oosten, E. (2019). Helping people change: Coaching with compassion for lifelong learning and growth. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
Core competencies. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://coachfederation.org/core-competencies
Goldvarg, D., Mathews, P., & Perel, N. (2018). Professional coaching competencies: The complete guide. Arroyo Grande, CA: Executive College Press.
Kimsey-House, H., Kimsey-House, K., Sandhal, P., & Whitworth, L. (2018). Co-active coaching: The proven framework for transformative conversations at work and in life (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
Robison, S. & Gray, C. R. (2017). Agents of transformational change: Coaching skills for academic leaders. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 28(4), 5–28.
Wills, D. S. (2019, January 14). The benefits of coaching conversations. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2019/01/14/ how-conduct-self-coaching-and-career-coaching-grad-school-opinion
Carla B. Swearingen, PhD, serves as dean of faculty development; director of the Office for Advancement of Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship; and professor of chemistry at John Brown University. She has a doctorate in analytical chemistry from Loyola University Chicago and a certificate in evidence-based coaching from Fielding Graduate University.
A version of this article appears in The Best of the 2019 Leadership in Higher Education Conference. © 2020 Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.