Think for a moment about this old lullaby we all learned as toddlers:
Rockabye Baby, on the treetop. When the wind blows the cradle will rock. When the bough breaks the cradle will fall. Down will come Baby, cradle and all.
Frequently, it’s sung gently and with sweetness. But examine the actual words: this piece from childhood is about a helpless infant falling from a tree. The sweetness of the melody masks words that by all means should be alarming.
Like the melody, our words sometimes lose their meaning because we mask them with syrupiness and charm. Other times, they take on meaning that is unintentionally hostile or intimidating. The reality is this: tone is a critical component of each message we convey, and often the tone we employ is in opposite of the words we’ve chosen. It’s a human tendency, and one we as coaches need to be wary of in our work.
When we coach – particularly when we provide feedback – it is critical to maintain authenticity and sincerity. This can be exceptionally hard when the message we must convey is painfully focusing on a deficiency. So how do we do it?
First, consciously acknowledging the discomfort in our own minds before proceeding can make a difference. Knowing the reason we’re reluctant to proceed in many ways empowers us to act despite genuine anxiety. Second, mapping out the specifics of the message beforehand – objectively and dispassionately – helps frame the matter, and often prevents an otherwise natural tendency to equivocate. Third, selecting a time and place to meet that ensures privacy and opportunity to speak without interruptions can also reduce the anxiety of conveying a message with which we are uncomfortable. Meaningful feedback needs to match tone and content; anything less undermines the message.
Anxiety is natural when we’re communicating messages that we fear will cause pain. Just as we work on helping our teachers minimize unreasonable anxiety that they might otherwise induce in students, we need to work on those same issues arising within ourselves.
Awareness of our own anxiety – and ways to counterbalance it – can go a long way in ramping up our effectiveness as coaches. And our use of tone – including non-verbal cues and silence – can go an enormous way in gaining ground with the teachers we mentor and coach.
Tone and message must be planned for and well-matched if our work in instructional coaching will matter for teachers and ultimately their students.