Managing Common Coaching Miscommunication

If the foundation of effective peer coaching is collaboration, good communication is one of its pillars. Mark Ladin, CMO of Tiger Connect, an IT company, shares this mindset by defining communication and collaboration as one and the same.  He argues that both communication and collaboration function on the exchange of information, however without good communication, you can’t have a functioning collaborative relationship that yields productive results, (Ladin, 2015).  Therefore, eliminating miscommunication in partnerships promotes good collaboration, (Lohrey, n.d.).  Collaborative communication offers many benefits including: creating flexible work environments that promote trust and familiarity, enhances decision-making by tackling problems through various angles, and increasing overall satisfaction of the collaboration process, (Lohrey, n.d.)

The ISTE Coaching Standard (1D) calls for coaches to implement strategies for initiating and sustaining technology innovations and manage the change process in schools and classrooms, (ISTE, 2017). A peer can feel comfortable enough to implement suggested strategies, when good communication between the collaboration peers is established. If good communication is central to collaboration, what miscommunication is common during peer coaching and what are some strategies to avoid it? This question does not readily yield concrete results on peer coaching alone, but rather there are several approaches to reasons for miscommunication including: modes of communication, a variety of communication barriers, and types of information given that may lead to miscommunication.

Modes of communication.

While mode of communication may not be the first thing to come to mind when considering miscommunication, the impact communication delivery has on conversation comprehension is compelling. According to Willy Steiner, an executive career coach, the degree of communication effectiveness compared to information efficiency differs when offered via face-to-face, telephone, or email communication, (Steiner, 2014). The author argues that face-to-face communication offers the best information efficiency (i.e. better understood) while email is most effective (i.e. quick). This can be further compounded by factoring in three types of communication: visual, verbal, and non-verbal. Face-to-face communication allows for better understanding in all three communication types, though it is the slowest communication mode.  Email is the quickest mode but tends to promote higher levels of misunderstanding in verbal and visual communication and does not allow for any interpretation of non-verbal communication, (Steiner, 2014).  A research study on adult learners using information communication technology found similar results.  The aim of the study was to determine what type of information communication technology would better support virtual coaching. The results found that email was useful for the exchange of information but lacked the ability to create authentic communication experiences or relationships, and often led to more miscommunication, (Ladyshewky & Pettapiece, n.d.).  Use of telephone technology was more effective than emailing because phone calls offered more verbal cues, while video-conferencing (mimicking face-to-face communication) was just as efficient as face-to-face conversations if technical issues are not present, (Ladyshewky & Pettapiece, n.d.).  As a result, communication comprehension is a major consideration for avoiding miscommunication. When possible, face-to-face or similar communication modes should be used to help build relationships and deliver the most amount of understanding while limiting email to information transfer only.

Communication barriers.

Research shows that face-to-face communication better maximizes understanding and relationship building in collaborative partnership. However, even in face-to-face environments, several barriers may create inadvertent miscommunication events.  According to the Coaching Room Company, there are seven potential barriers that may lead to ineffective coaching, summarized in figure 1.1 below.

Infographic highlighting seven barriers to good communication.
Figure 1.1 Seven Barrier to Good Communication.

Considering that many of these barriers involve understanding and respect of the coaching peer, developing a good collaborative relationship prior to working on the mutual project is essential for avoiding miscommunication.

Information miscommunication.

Peer coaching invites the coach to step into a leadership position in which the goal is to collaborate and facilitate work with a peer toward a mutual goal. Another area of potential miscommunication may stem from how the coach leader presents information to the peer.  Figure 1.2 below lists the various information communication errors that may arise in leadership.

Infographic on common communication mistakes
Figure 1.2 Common Communication Mistakes

It is not only important to consider how communication is performed but also what is being communicated.  Forbes Coaching Council expands on the communication errors provided in Figure 1.2 to focus on information clarity. Miscommunication can occur when the message is non-individualized or personal, (Forbes, 2018). Using the same strategies, communication techniques, and information to various coaching peers can harm the coaching relationship. A common miscommunication is use of vague, generic language or messages leading to lack of clarity in direction. The peer is left feeling like they are missing out on important information or that the information they were provided was not delivered effectively, (Forbes, 2018). To help eliminate the lack of direction, clear expectations that are developed by both parties can help promote the shared vision contributing to better collaboration.  The peer leader should avoid communicating only negative outcomes, instead include the positive outcomes to avoid creating an image that the shared work is not successful, (Forbes, 2018). Lastly, it is crucial that the coach recognize their bias and remember that the process is not about their wants but the needs of the peer being coached.  Business coach Tony Alessandra said it best, “You can choose to connect with others from their perspective, the way they want to be communicated with by modifying your own presentation style; or you can choose to meet only your own needs – facing the consequence misconnecting with others…,” (Alessandra, 2015).

Promoting good communication. Several of the communication barriers addressed above stem from how communication is delivered, what information is delivered, and how each party perceives that information. Good communication is established when both parties feel safe, comfortable, and trust one another in their collaborative environment. Both hold the responsibility of keeping an open-mind into the process and commit to relationship building. Only after good communication occurs between coaching peers can good collaboration exist.

Resources.

Alessandra, T. (2015). Expert advice- How you can prevent miscommunication. Available from:  https://www.fripp.com/expert-advice-how-you-can-prevent-miscommunication/

Forbes Coaching Counsel. (2018). Common communication mistakes to avoid as board directors. Available from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2018/01/18/common-communication-mistakes-to-avoid-as-a-board-of-directors/#6f86f4332b44

ISTE, (2017). ISTE standards for coaches. Available from: https://www.iste.org/standards/for-coaches

Ladin, M. (2015). Communication and collaboration: Why they are one in the same? Available from: https://www.tigerconnect.com/blog/communication-collaboration-theyre-one/

Ladyskewshy, R., Pettapiece, R.G. (n.d.). Exploring adult learners usage of information communication technology during a virtual peer coaching experience. Available from: https://espace.curtin.edu.au/bitstream/handle/20.500.11937/32326/227280_153211_Jnl_online_learning_full_paper.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y

Lohrey, J. (n.d.) Importance of promoting collaborative communication in the healthcare environment. Available from: https://smallbusiness.chron.com/importance-promoting-collaborative-communications-health-care-environment-79568.html.

Ramsey, P.G.S. (2008). The twenty biggest communication mistakes school leaders make and how to avoid them. Available from: https://www.corwin.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/25868_081218_Ramsey_ch1.pdf.

Steiner, W. (2014). Avoiding communication breakdowns. Available from: https://executivecoachingconcepts.com/avoiding-communication-breakdowns/

The Coaching Room. (2016). 7 barriers to effective communication killing your relationships. Available from: https://www.thecoachingroom.com.au/blog/7-barriers-to-effective-communication-killing-your-relationships

Strategies for Teaching Effective Email Communication

I have a dilemma.  No one comes to my office hours anymore.  I made this realization years ago when I would find myself alone in my office, staring at the clock, waiting for my “shift” to be over or filling that time with grading and lesson planning. On average, I’d probably have 1-2 students come see me before the end of the quarter and it was usually because the situation was dire.  Later, I changed my approach to be more flexible. I didn’t have fixed office hours so that students could make appointments with me that better accommodated both schedules. Students would approach me either in class or via email to set up an appointment time. For a time, this strategy worked very well to catch struggles and issues earlier on. Despite all of these efforts to be available for students, resolving major issues, addressing prolonged absences, and discussing successful study strategies are not what the typical student emails me about. Now, students email me about anything and everything.  

It wouldn’t be too bad filtering through emails, if students also didn’t have the expectation that professors respond to any email with 48 hours, during which all of the responsibility for investigating that question gets placed on the instructor.  “I wasn’t sure what to do, I was waiting for a response from you,” is the usual response I get if I was too busy to answer a non-urgent email. It’s difficult not to become frustrated in this scenario when about 2.5 hours of my day is spent answering emails.  With work-life balance considered, that means that ¼ of my day is spent unproductively. During that time, I could have been working on assessment, lesson planning, or updating content with current research.

This is not the only email communication concern I have.  At least three times a quarter, I need to gently correct the students that choose to address me by my first name as opposed to my professional title- Professor Vlad-Ortiz.  To their merit, once corrected, students do not repeat that mistake. What happens far more often is unclear communication and informal tone. Emails starting in “I need you to…”, or “lift my registration hold…” demonstrates a misunderstanding of the formality needed to address faculty.  Rather than phrasing their request politely, it reads more like a demand. Because of the implications and expectations loaded into each of these emails, it is important to investigate and address appropriate strategies for teaching effective email communication to students.

Why is all of this important? Understanding how to properly communicate online, including email, is part of good digital citizenship. The skills of knowing email appropriateness, tone, and formality are essential to be successful in the 21st century.  Though there are several other caveats to good online communication, I’ve identified three basic email communication components to help students get started in practicing successful digital citizenship.

Graphic of email communication basics
Figure 1.1 Overview of Email Communication Basics.

All emails to educators, regardless of their title, should be formal.  The educator-student dynamic is professional in nature so communication should reflect that relationship. Addressing professors by their professional name not only establishes that formal relationship, but as Molly Worthen, Assistant Professor at University of North Carolina, explains, in a world where formality is on the decline, using a professor’s title helps to ensure respect regardless of the professor’s race, age, and gender, (Worthen, 2017).  This is particularly important considering that it is the more privileged students that tend to violate this formality, (Worthen, 2017). Along the lines of respect, the tone of the email should be polite and courteous. By sending an email, the sender is asking for the professor’s time and consideration on a particular manner. Worthen brilliantly explains that requests should not sound like a text message nor communication with a customer service representative, (Worthen, 2017).  As with my examples above, the professor doesn’t need to do anything, as in “I need you to lift a hold from my account,” or “I need to register for your class…” but rather understands that the sender is asking for a favor. As Mark Tomforde, Associate Professor at University of Houston, very accurately describes, professors are incredibly busy, so emails should truly represent issues that can’t be resolved through any other means.  Using email to request anything and everything trival is a disrespectful of the professor’s time and expertise, (Tomforde, n.d.). Emails should demonstrate that the sender has already taken several steps to solving the problem on their own and clearly defines how the reader can help resolve that problem, (Purdue, n.d.). Ideally, the issue should be quickly resolved through one email and the sender should be able to distinguish when it is appropriate to talk in person as emails should not be substitutions for real conversations, (Tomforde, n.d.).

Role of the Educator. According to the ISTE standard for educators, the role of the educator is to “…inspire students to positively contribute to and responsibly participate in the digital world,” (ISTE, 2017).  The key words in that definition are “positively contribute” and “responsibility participate”. The issues addressed above indicate that there is a weight to the actions and intentions set-forth in email and other online communication. The responsibility of the student is to create communication that is both framed positively and courteously while taking the responsibility for the resolution of the email’s request. One of the indicators for this ISTE standard charges educators to create experiences for learners to make positive, socially responsible contributions and exhibit empathetic behavior online that build relationships and community, (ISTE 2017). Relationships and community rely on the actions of many in order to be successfully built.  In building a healthy online community, we can’t expect students to just know how to behave and communicate properly. Skills are not intuitive and should be taught. In order to address this ISTE indicator, I’ve compiled three solutions or strategies can be used to reverse the current culture and promote good digital citizenship for our students.

Graphic for educator strategies for online communication.
Figure 1.2 Overview of Educator Strategies for Online Communication.

1) Professor Modeling. Teaching digital citizenship is a shared responsibility, so it is important for educators to actively address and model proper practices on a regular basis, (Crompton, 2014). In addition to using good email etiquette when communicating with students, professors should give students opportunities to explore and practice good etiquette. This can be achieved through explicit learning. For specific examples, Helen Crompton provides three scenarios of how digital citizenship can be modeled by professors in the classroom.  Another example is an activity that Mrs. Jizba created in which she has students write two emails, one to their friend and one to their principle.  She engages the students in a conversation about what content, tone, and choice of words are appropriate in each scenario.  This simple activity clearly demonstrates how students establish the norms of good digital citizenship through modeling and practice.

2) Explicit language in department handbook that is then repeated in syllabi. Just as there are codes of conduct at each institution, departments should include standards of conduct for online communication.  In order for these standards to have impact, each faculty member should mirror these standards in their syllabi. Through these collaborative efforts, the message of appropriate online communication is clear and consistent. Both Worthen and Tomforde share their guidelines to help with standard development.

3) Holding students up to the expectations. Just as important as modeling and creating language in the department handbooks and syllabi, is holding students up to those expectations.  That means addressing any violations in a gentle and professional manner. For example, when students address me incorrectly, I respond back with, “We are a formal institution and ask that students address all faculty by their professional title, in my case you would address me as Professor Vlad-Ortiz.  Please know that I am telling you this not to reprimand you or make you feel bad, but simply to let you know of our institutions professional standards so that you avoid potentially offending faculty in the future.” As Worthen concludes, it’s all about treating students as adults, (Worthen, 2017). As educators, we prepare students for the real world. If we do not hold students to these expectations, they will not be successfully prepared for their future professional lives.

Resources

Crompton, H. (2014, August 28). Know the ISTE standard for teachers: Model digital citizenship. Retrieved from: https://www.iste.org/explore/articleDetail?articleid=142

International Society for Technology in Education. (2017) ISTE Standards for Educators.  Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/standards/for-educators

Purdue Online Writing Lab, (n.d.) Email etiquette for students [powerpoint]. Retrieved from: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/694/01/

Tomforde, M. (n.d.) Email etiquette: Guidelines for writing to your professors. Retrieved from: https://www.math.uh.edu/~tomforde/Email-Etiquette.html

Worthen, M. (2017, May 13). U can’t talk to ur professor like this. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/13/opinion/sunday/u-cant-talk-to-ur-professor-like-this.html