Michael Fullan (2016) states that coherence is “a shared depth of understanding about the purpose and nature of the work in the minds and actions individually and especially collectively” and is not about specific strategies, frameworks or alignment. So, how might we build coherent teams? How do we determine the ‘right’ actions and de-emphasize actions that are distractions? How might we focus on actions that enhance our collective as well as our autonomy? There are some processes and skills that are helpful.
To build coherent teams, we need to know and practice communication skills, including paraphrasing and posing questions. A general conversation flow includes:
The Art of Paraphrase
“The purposeful use of paraphrase signals our full attention. It communicates that we understand the teacher’s thoughts, concerns, questions and ideas; or that we are trying to … well-crafted paraphrases align the speaker and responder, establishing understanding and communicating regard. Questions, no matter how well-intentioned, distance by degrees, the asker from the asked.”
(Adapted from Wellman and Lipton)
Things to keep in mind when paraphrasing:
- Attend fully.
- Listen with the intention to understand.
- Capture the essence of the message but in a shorter format.
- Reflect the essence of voice, tone and gesture.
- Paraphrase before asking a question.
- Use the pronoun “you” instead of “I.”
Intentions of Paraphrasing
Well-crafted paraphrases with appropriate pauses trigger more thoughtful responses than questions can alone. Three types of paraphrase, shown in the chart below, widen the range of possible responses. Each type supports relationship and thinking but the paraphrase that shifts the level of abstraction is more likely to create new levels of understanding. Conversations that utilize paraphrasing often move through a pattern of acknowledging to summarizing to abstracting, but there is no right pathway for the conversations.
Types of Questions
Horn and Metler-Armijo (Toolkit for Mentor Practice, 2010) identify three types of questions that are useful for professional conversations:
- Clarifying questions – are asked to further understanding of the questioner. These types of questions convey that the questioner is actively interested.
- Probing questions – are asked to have the speaker think more deeply about the concerns, challenges, or actions being taken. These types of questions dig into ideas to move from generalizations to specific ideas.
- Mediational questions – are “intentionally designed to engage and transform the other person’s thinking and perspective” (Costa and Garmston, 2002). These types of questions are designed to open up and broaden thinking.
A special comment on “Why”…
Why questions are part of our everyday language. Why are you late? Why do you not have a pencil? Why are you doing that?
When we are having a conversation that may be emotional or highly charged, a question that begins with “Why” may create a sense of defensiveness. Consider a situation where someone has made a certain decision. Compare the reaction to “Why have you done this action?” vs “What is the impact your decision has had on…?”. A question that begins “What” or “How” is often more thought provoking and has less potential to create a defensive response.
Liberating structures, when used regularly, allow all team members the opportunity to work together to produce solutions, ideas and feel that everyone is contributing to an organization’s next steps. It is possible for every person to generate ideas and lead change.
When considering how to best meet the needs of a system and the schools within a system, it is important that we view centralization/standardization and autonomy as both achievable and desirable rather than viewing them as opposite and competing interests. The Integrated~Autonomy liberating structure can help us to:
- Develop innovative strategies to move forward.
- Avoid wild swings in policies, programs or structures.
- Evaluate decisions by asking “are we boosting both Coherence and Autonomy?”.
- Increase quality of communication between school-based and Increase quality of communication between school-based and central office leaders.
Imagine actions that work towards BOTH increased standardization/centralization and increased Autonomy.
- Attendance policies and consequences for non-attendance – what policies should be set centrally and which decisions should be made locally?
- Planning documents required for hand-in/approval – format, timing and requirements for year, unit and lesson plans?
- Parent conferences and reporting communication – what determined (format, process, content) centrally and what locally?
Structuring the Invitation:
- Explore the question: Will our purpose be best served by increased local autonomy, including customization and site-based decision-making OR will our purpose be best served by increased coherence, including integration, standardization and centralized decision-making?
- How might we be more coherent AND more autonomous at the same time?
This collaborative problem-solving strategy allows for colleagues to share possible solutions in a safe, non-judgmental environment.
In groups of three, learners sit in a triangle facing one another with no table between them. One person is the ‘client’, and the other two are the ‘consultants’.
- The client describes their dilemma, barrier or issue for about 2 minutes. The consultants might ask clarifying questions at this time.
- The client turns their chair so that their back is to the two consultants. The consultants discuss possible solutions to the client’s issue without any input, affirmation or cues from the client. The client might write down those suggestions that are most helpful. This might last for 2 – 4 minutes.
- The client turns around and summarizes what suggestions are most helpful that they might try.