Education Opinion

When to Be Directive in a Coaching Conversation

By Elena Aguilar — August 27, 2018 3 min read
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In The Art of Coaching, I wrote several chapters focused on the “directive” and “facilitative” coaching stances. (You can download a short excerpt from the book here, AOC Ch9 Excerpt.pdf, about these stances). However, since publishing The Art of Coaching in 2013, I’ve continued to refine my thoughts about when to be directive or facilitative. Navigating these approaches also seems to be something that many coaches struggle with--for good reasons: It’s hard to know what’s the “right” amount of facilitative coaching and what’s the “right” amount of directive coaching. To some extent, there isn’t a hard answer to this question--every situation is different, every coach is different, and we need to trust our best judgment in the moment. And, I can offer some more concrete and clear direction around using these two stances.

Recently, I was coaching a coach who was grappling with this question. She is coaching a new teacher who is really struggling. She showed me a video of the teacher, then we went to observe him, and my feedback to the coach was: Be very directive. Very, very directive. I had so many reflections about this experience that I made this video for you to watch! (When I tried writing it all down it just got too long, so I’m experimenting now with incorporating video stories into my blogs. Let me know what you think!).

Three Indicators that You Need to Be Directive

  1. When a teacher is in crisis. I often see struggling novice teachers who need directive coaching, but I also sometimes work with experienced educators who are going through a hard time and need me to be directive. In these moments of crisis and heightened emotions, the clear and rational thinking part of the brain isn’t working optimally. You know that--because I’m sure you’ve been there. We all have. So in moments of crisis, it’s appropriate for a coach to be directive. (In my video I describe what that sounds like).
  2. When a teacher asks you to be directive. This can sound like a teacher saying, “I just don’t know what to do!” or “Can you tell me what I should do?” In those moments, you could be facilitative and guide them towards their own insights, but sometimes it’s also really important to just give them what they want. Especially if they’re new and/or in crisis. This can help to build your relationship and their trust in you as a coach, and you can later guide them through some facilitative reflection on their situation.
  3. When a client is learning a new skill set. Let’s say you’re working with an experienced educator who wants to learn some new technology or try a new instructional approach. They’ll need you to be really explicit in your coaching—modeling, guiding their practice, offering real time feedback on their first solo attempts—but then you need to back off as they acquire the skills themselves.

Three Caveats to Being Directive

There are a few caveats to my suggestions to be directive. First, make sure that the client you’re coaching is receptive to you being direct--otherwise they could shut down to your coaching. None of us like to be told what to do. You can ask for permission by saying, “I’d like to offer some concrete feedback or suggestions. Is that okay?” Or you can say, “I think it would be helpful if I’m really directive in my coaching today, but feel free to push back.” Make sure you pay close attention to their body language and response so that you can gauge how they received your directive coaching.

Second, make sure you offer this directive coaching and feedback without judgment. Your disposition is critical to the effectiveness of your coaching. If someone is in crisis, blame and aggression and judgment won’t help. Be very mindful as you give directive coaching to keep your heart open and your conviction strong that someone can change.

And third, be careful not to get stuck in directive coaching. It can feel tempting--especially if you’re being directive and telling your client to do X, Y and Z, and they are doing it and things are getting better and they’re grateful for your coaching--but don’t stay in directive coaching. The danger here is that you create a dependent learner, a teacher who needs you to help them at every step, who can’t think for themselves, who can’t make good decisions without your guidance. And we need teachers who are reflective, critical thinkers in our classrooms, who are self-empowered and can make decisions alone.

So, in sum, consider directive coaching as a scaffold necessary for when someone is struggling, but something that you want to slowly pull away from when your client is ready.

Oh, and don’t forget to watch the video for a story!

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