Coaching Discussion Facilitation

June 24, 2020

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Coaching: providing a path to find answers, not the answers

Mohammad was scared of his upcoming discussion facilitation in class. Part of his fears centered around his language skills. His speaking skills were strong. But he worried about whether he could understand enough of what his classmates were saying to take good notes and ask good follow-up questions. Mohammad was also concerned about how to start the discussion and how to frame the essential questions that needed to be asked.

He turned to his instructor for help. Mohammad was assured that his classmates would understand him. The instructor coached him about taking notes on flipchart paper. “At the start, ask them to be patient, since you’re not writing in your native tongue. Actually, it’s good to have your classmates slow down so you understand them. This gives them all time to understand each other. It makes all the comments easier to absorb for everyone. And don’t worry about the spelling of your notes.”

Then the instructor coached Mohammad through developing discussion questions and prompts. Rather than simply providing Mohammad with a list of possible questions, the instructor guided him through a self-discovery of essential questions.

When the day of the facilitation arrived, everyone was astonished. Mohammad was obviously well prepared. The discussion was one of the best of the semester in no small part because the conversation was slowed down and everyone was really listening to each other.

But what was more remarkable was the reactions of the other discussion groups. They saw what Mohammad was doing and were clearly impressed. When the next group of facilitators asked the instructor for help, they were referred to Mohammad. “The price of my coaching was for Mohammad to become a coach to the next student who asked for help. When you get help from Mohammad, then you will then need to coach the next group of your fellow students.”

Coaching is a vital teaching technique for discussion facilitation. But coaching needs to be guiding not telling. And coaching can expand with a virtuous circle where those who are coached become the coaches for others. The activity of peer-coaching builds on and reinforces the skills of the coach.

The best coaching provides guidance not formulaic instructions. It should explore situations that might arise and how to think through them in real time. It should also provide guidance on how to think several steps ahead in the discussion to ensure that the discussion stays focused.

Imagine a highly competitive athlete. What do you think they got from their coach or coaches? Do you think a coach gave them the skills they possess? Of course not. What they did receive was guidance on their sport, how best to use their talent, and how to react during the game. Coaching is not easy because we are usually more comfortable with telling than guiding. Guiding takes close attention to situations and thinking through how to respond to those situations in the moment.

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The power of coaching is this – you are expected to give people the path to find answers, not the answers. – Tom Mahalo

This post is part of our “Think About” education series. These posts are based on composites of real-world experiences, with some details changed for the sake of anonymity. New posts appear Wednesday afternoons. 

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