Saturday, February 18, 2012

What's the Underlying Message?

If there's one thing I've learned during my work over the past few years, it's that words matter. Whether they're spoken, emailed, or Tweeted, what we say and how we say it can often be two different things. Many times, we're not even aware of the competing messages we send.

I have a friend who I often talk to about teaching and coaching, and I realized after a discussion the other day that she often begins her sentences to me, "You need to..." rather than, "What about..." or "Have you thought of..." The difference is subtle, but the underlying message of the former is, "I have the answer" and it can be quick to shut down divergent discussion.

In working with a group of teachers earlier this summer, I learned from a participant to ask, "What questions do you have?" rather than, "Does anyone have any questions?" because the message then becomes, "I fully expect questions and don't judge you for having them".

Every year as the school year gets ready to begin, I like to reread Peter Johnston's book "Choice Words". My copy is heavily highlighted so I can skim the book within an hour. He argues eloquently that our words in classrooms have immense power to create efficacy and identity in children. Debbie Miller, featured often in his book, is a master at giving children power with her words: "You really helped me think through that part" she tells a student and "You solved that word by rereading and chunking". The underlying message is, "You did the work, and I merely witnessed your brilliant thinking".

I'd argue (and have before) that the same applies to coaching. Cathy Toll says a coach should never ask a question she already feels she has the answer to. So, we should never say, "Have you thought about making your mini-lessons shorter?" That's not really a question. It's a statement about the length of the current lesson. Asking a convergent question sends the message that the coach knows best, that she's searching for the "right" answer, and it automatically disrupts the power balance in a coaching relationship.

It's helped me to always step out of my shoes in conversations with teachers and put myself in their place. How will what I'm about to say come across? If I were them, would I feel motivated to continue our discussion? Or would I want to shut down? What underlying message am I sending?