A Starting Point for Effective Coaching Sessions

In chapter 4 of The Adaptive School (2016), Garmston and Wellman describe seven norms that are essential to group collaboration: pausing, paraphrasing, posing questions, putting ideas on the table, providing data, paying attention to yourself and others, and presuming good intent.  I planned to focus on the seven norms in this post, but after reading chapter 4 more closely, I realized that the success of these norms relies on individual group members being able to monitor their own thinking and behavior. So instead, I chose to focus on the four “group member capabilities” (Figure 1) identified by the authors that underlie the seven norms of collaboration.

Figure 1: Group Member Capabilities

What is interesting to me about the four group member capabilities is that they are each a skill that need to be learned and practiced. They require “metacognitive awareness” (Garmston & Wellman, 2016, p. 38), that as anyone who has tried mindfulness practice knows, requires repeated exercise.  Research by Gratton & Erickson (2007) showed that companies that were the most successful at fostering collaboration intentionally trained their employees in collaborative best practices and had executives who modeled collaborative behavior. And, as Foltos (2013) notes, a lack of collaboration skills is often the cause when a group of educators can’t work together effectively (p. 79). Clearly these are not skills we are born with; they must be developed. The other thing that is powerful to me in this approach is that it puts the responsibility for productive meetings on all group members, not just the facilitator or coach.

Match your Intention to Your Behavior

The first group member capability is to know your intention and choose behavior that reflects it. “Clarity of intention drives attention, which in turn drives the what and how of a group member’s meeting participation.” (Garmston and Wellman 2016, p. 38). If you aren’t clear on what your intention is before meeting with a coaching partner, you will not be able to act in a coherent, organized way to support your intent. This reminded me of something we covered in our first DEL course on mindful use of technology: if you aren’t constantly monitoring what you are doing online and comparing it with your original intent, you can quickly waste hours of time.

Avoid Unproductive Patterns of Interaction

The second group member capability is to recognize and avoid certain patterns of interaction that can either derail or shut down a productive meeting or coaching session. Garmston and Wellman (2016) warn against three typical modes of listening, responding, and inquiring:

  • Autobiographical – relating everything the speaker says to your own experience which can lead to “distortion and miscommunication” (p. 37)
  • Inquisitive – getting carried away with the speaker’s story and asking questions to the point that the meeting gets off-task
  • Solution focused – jumping in to fix things, which “stifles the generation of new possibilities” (p. 38)

Know When to Assert Yourself and When to Integrate

Knowing when to assert yourself in a meeting and when to integrate is closely tied to two other group member capabilities: knowing your intent and understanding and supporting the group’s purpose. According to Garmston and Wellman (2016), “Self-assertion and integration are conscious choices only when group members have personal clarity about their own intentions as well as a knowledge of and willingness to support the group’s outcome and methods” (pg. 39).

The authors note that “self-assertion does not necessarily mean self-focus” but rather keeping the meeting centered on the original purpose, which may include advocating for ideas or processes (pg. 39). Integrating with the group means “…suspending judgements and counter arguments in an attempt to understand viewpoints different from their own” (p. 39).

In most meetings, there is constant interplay between the two approaches, but by minding the original intent, it is easier to choose the appropriate response. An example in a coaching meeting might be to ask, “How does our current discussion relate to our original goal of giving students multiple ways to show their understanding in this lesson?” If someone can prove that it does support the original goal, then the questioner integrates; if not, the questioner asserts that the group change its focus to the original goal.

Understand and Support the Group’s Purpose and Methods

The fourth capability is focused on the growth and health of the group as a whole and includes individual contributions to a group’s purpose and development (Garmston and Wellman, 2016). Purpose refers to the group’s reason for being; development means continually working as a group to improve how things get done. As the authors describe, “Without continued attention to expanding repertoire and skills, the group stagnates and does not increase its capacity for handling more complex work in the future” (p. 39). This stagnation is the last thing you want in a continued coaching relationship. In addition to being aware of whether you as a team met your coaching goal (e.g. developed a lesson plan that integrated technology in a way that supported equity), coaching teams should also evaluate how their process skills contributed to their goal and what could be improved. They should then develop a plan for improving these skills in their next round of working together.

Building these four group member capabilities and applying them in coaching meetings supports ISTE Coaching Standard 1: Visionary Leadership. All four capabilities are needed to work effectively with teachers in designing purposeful tech integration.


Foltos, L. (2013). Peer Coaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin

Garmston, R., & Wellman, Bruce M. (1999; 2016). Developing collaborative norms, Chapter 4 of The Adaptive School: A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative Groups. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon. Permalink: https://alliance-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/f/rpqmv/CP71107094210001451

Gratton, L. and Erickson, T.J. (2007). Eight ways to build collaborative teams. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from: https://hbr.org/2007/11/eight-ways-to-build-collaborative-teams

4 thoughts on “A Starting Point for Effective Coaching Sessions”

  1. The connection to the importance of mindfulness in order to have metacognitive awareness of how you are or are not achieving the group capabilities is really powerful. Also, that this then connects to the whole group and not just the facilitator or coach is really deep. I agree with you about the connection to mindfulness in technology, too – first thing I thought of when I read that and reflected on the first 2 quarters of the DEL program! Another point you made that is eye opening to me is the 3 typical modes of listening and this reminds me to really, really be aware of this because I know that I do this and in a coaching role (or just in general!), I need lots of practice be more mindful and aware of my questioning and avoiding these tendencies. Thank you for sharing how tendency has a name…I think in my personal coaching notes, I will just write each name as a quick reminder to myself as I practice being more aware of how I am questioning and conversing with who I am coaching. Wonderful post, Bridget and thank you for always deepening my thinking and providing such valuable ideas and resources.

  2. This whole notion of when to be assertive is difficult. It is so easy to be accommodating and what as nothing in your learning partner’s practice changes. And at the same time it is just as easy to be too assertive and push your partner to their danger zone. And this can end the coaching relationship. Really looking forward to learning more about your experiences in finding the balance in your coaching work.

  3. Bridget, I liked all the information you covered! I feel like I leave out the last section on understanding the groups purpose and methods. “Coaching teams should also evaluate how their process skills contributed to their goal and what could be improved. They should then develop a plan for improving these skills in their next round of working together.” I like this reminder and think it’s an important reflective step for coaching groups. Thanks for all your research and helpful information! 🙂

  4. Bridget- After reading your blog post I did a much needed self-reflection about my own habits and how I keep myself accountable for my thinking and behavior. I liked the reminders and the suggestions provided within the post and felt every person should be reminded of the examples you provide for unproductive patterns of interaction. Thank you for taking the time to write such an informative post and for sharing your research! Great job!!

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