Provision #678: Openness Matters

Laser Provision

When it comes to coaching and leadership, openness matters. That’s not to say that we engage in gossip or other forms of destructive conversation. That’s rather to say that we honestly share our observations and ideas with people in non-judgmental and encouraging ways. Such transparent, constructive conversation builds trust and inspires people to action. How do we do that? By releasing judgment and staying open to possibility. How do we do that? Read on to discover practices that might work for you.

LifeTrek Provision


I want to thank everyone who purchased our new book, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time (Jossey-Bass, 2010), in the past few days. Your purchases were sufficient to move us, at least for a time, into the top 100 hundred books in two categories at Amazon.com (#11 in Education Research and #44 in Human Resources & Personnel Management as of yesterday afternoon). That’s not bad for a book that wasn’t even supposed to be available until next week! I truly appreciate your interest, support, and engagement with our work.

You may be interested in how the book came about. I have been coaching full time since 1998. At the same time, my wife, Megan, has been teaching educational leadership at the college level (first at The Ohio State University and then at the College of William & Mary). In this book, we brought together what I know about coaching with what she knows about schools. We are very proud of the end result. We define a clear process for facilitating conversations that broker school transformation, starting with the most fundamental of building blocks: classroom teachers.

Although the book is about coaching in schools, it will have broad relevance to any coach or leader in organizational settings. As we have seen in this Provisions’ series on leadership, there’s no way to successfully get things done until and unless we successfully build high-trust relationships that facilitate collaboration, innovation, and engagement. As every school leader will testify: no leader is an island. Leaders get things done by motivating and moving people to action. Our book equips leaders to do just that, one conversation at a time.

In some respects, our book builds on my wife’s first book, Trust Matters: Leadership for Successful Schools (Jossey-Bass, 2004). After six years, that book, too, continues to sell well (#16 in Education Leadership and #32 in Education Administration at Amazon.com as of yesterday afternoon). It’s popular enough that our publisher has asked Megan to write a second edition. She hopes to have that out within the next 12-18 months.

The popularity of Trust Matters relates, in part, to how challenging it is to build high-trust relationships in the workplace. Whether we are talking about schools, corporations, non-profit organizations, religious associations, or any other human enterprise, the dynamics of trust are often tricky to negotiate and even harder to repair once trust has been damaged. We know a lot about that. If it weren’t for the dynamics of trust, LifeTrek would have had far fewer clients over the past twelve years. Time and again, our consulting and coaching relationships have dealt with issues related to trust.

Trust Matters explored these dynamics by telling the stories of three leaders. Two of them, in spite of having good intentions, got the dynamics wrong and trust was broken. As a result, the school communities they led suffered as did the performance of their students. One leader, however, successfully walked the tightrope between challenge and support. As a result, people come to appreciate her leadership and to generate spectacular results.

Since Trust Matters was first published, Megan has received many requests to present on the book and we have received many requests to work with leaders who want to improve the culture of trust in their schools and organizations. How do we do that? Evocative Coaching is one answer to that question. We assist leaders to better navigate the relationships and conversational dynamics with their people. We train them to listen differently, to express empathy, to explore strengths, and to design new approaches for getting things done.

That, in brief, is the Evocative Coaching model: Story•Empathy•Inquiry•Design. It invites leaders to take a coach approach by first connecting with people through a No-Fault Turn (Story•Empathy) before moving people into action with a Strengths-Building Turn (Inquiry•Design). This works not only with classroom teachers, the coaching focus of the book, but with every workplace relationship. The more fault we assign and the more problems we see the more trust issues we will engender.

Reading the book will explain how coaches and leaders can make the shift from evaluation and problem-solving to observation and strengths-building. Those who want to go deeper can register for the Evocative Coach Training Program. This 20-hour program takes place over 13 lessons (we call them Conversations) in a virtual classroom, eliminating the need to travel or to disrupt one’s regular schedule. We just completed our Pilot Training Program and we were encouraged by the feedback. Everyone, ourselves included, learned a lot.

In Trust Matters, Megan identified five facets of trust: benevolence, honesty, openness, reliability, and competence. In Evocative Coaching, we show coaches and leaders how to incorporate those facets into our way of being and talking with people. The two books go hand in hand.

Although all five of the facets are important when it comes to trust, none may be more important than openness when it comes to coaching. After an introductory chapter, we start our book with a thorough discussion of Coaching Presence • that elusive quality of being that opens up people to new ideas and the prospect of change. Coaching is not, primarily, a technique. It is a way of being with people that calms their “fight, flight, or freeze” response and that engages their curiosity in the search for new approaches that may better realize their dreams and aspirations.

The key to Coaching Presence is that it has to be authentic. There is no way to fake our attitude. People can sniff it out like a hound dog. So we work, in our training, to understand the nature of Coaching Presence and to cultivate it in our hearts and minds. It goes that deep. Unless our sincere intention is to connect with respect, and unless we truly believe in the potential of a person to learn more creative, effective, and satisfying ways to do their work, then our presence will fail to be evocative and our coaching will fail to generate desired results.

Once we have these things in place, it becomes natural and easy to be transparent with the people we work with. What’s there to hold back when we view someone through such an appreciative lens? Nothing! Withholding quickly compromises and complicates the relationship. Openly sharing our observations, feelings, needs, and requests enables the relationship to grow in life-giving ways. It sets the stage for an evocative collaboration that generates new ideas for bold, action-learning experiments.

Openness is like that. It communicates clearly that we trust someone. We do not disclose important information unless we trust the person we are talking with. That goes without saying. The interesting dynamic is that openness actually builds trust. So don’t wait for trust in order to be open; instead, be open in order to build trust.

The key to doing so is to have no secrets. Openly sharing a piece of gossip may bring someone into our confidence, but that is not the mark of a trustworthy coach or leader. Openly sharing our confidence in someone’s abilities, our perceptions as to what is going on without judgment or blame, our understanding of what would make life more wonderful, and our ideas as to what might be possible with no attachment to an outcome (they’re not prescriptions, they’re possibilities) makes all the difference in the world.

When it comes to coaching and leading the people we work with, it’s important to open up and share freely. Just be sure to first clear your heart and mind of judgmental attitudes, then be sure to suspend the idea that you know the one, right way to do something. Releasing such beliefs facilitates Coaching Presence and, as such, represents the homework that every coach and leader has to do before we engage with people.

What does that homework look like? It may take the form of a mindfulness meditation before we start to talk with someone. It may take the form of a morning practice or a weekly review so that we can set our intentions and discipline our habits of mind. It may take the form of a deep breath whenever we find ourselves in the throes of a strong opinion as to what someone should or should not do.

The homework will look different for different people, but one thing is clear: once we do this work, it will become natural and easy to be open and transparent with the people we coach and lead. When we no longer hold fast to enemy images or solution strategies, we can talk freely about what’s going on and what would make life better. People will enjoy talking with us when we communicate our trust in how mighty oaks grow from tiny acorns.

We will not always see how that will happen, but we can always trust that it will happen. When we bring that trust to a relationship and a conversation, when we carry that presence as our way in the world, people appreciate our openness and warm up to the prospect of our collaboration.

Coaching Inquiries: How open are you, really open, to the potential and possibilities of the people you work with? What enemy enemies or solution strategies are you attached to? What practices would assist you to hold them more lightly, or even to suspend them altogether? How could you become the epitome of a transparent leader? Who do you know who fits that bill? How could you become more like them?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.


I read with interest your story about officiating at Luke’s and Janina’s wedding on the beach in Germany. As the one embodying the authority to seal and bond two people together, I hope you were enlightened and touched their hearts. My mother’s second husband was a minister and a gifted speaker who held a deep passion for what he did. He could come home after a church service bathing in sweat. Preaching while speaking to the heart is a top achievement. May you be fit and inspired. 



May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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Skype: LifeTrek • Twitter: @LifeTrekBob
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