Four coaching conversations for school leaders

Written by: Denise Barrows | Published:
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Coaching can have a positive influence on staff wellbeing, morale and performance in schools. Denise Barrows outlines four particularly powerful coaching conversations that leaders can use to achieve this sort of transformative impact

Imagine a new teacher comes to you feeling really low. “My last lesson bombed,” they say, “I’ll struggle to get that class back on board now.” How do you respond?

This is a chance not only to help this teacher pick themselves up after a difficult lesson but to help them learn from this experience and emerge with a new level of confidence.

Most good leaders will naturally want to be helpful here by listening or offering some time to reflect on what happened, but by actively taking a coaching approach, this kind of situation can be turned into an opportunity to enable a deep and lasting change in others.

Through our work coaching thousands of leaders across the world, we have been able to analyse more than 100,000 anonymised coaching conversations in which leaders shared the challenges they were struggling with.

From this exercise, it became clear that what consistently unlocked the changes needed, was a shift in mindset. At the root of vastly different situations and scenarios, four particular mindset shifts and certain conversations kept occurring, again and again, with each addressing a set of common development needs or professional challenges.

  1. “Be” conversations: About the individual’s resourcefulness, confidence, and their ability to stay calm, open, and empathetic in any situation.
  2. “Relate” conversations: About relationships with other people, trust-building, sharing a difficult message, collaborating and dealing with conflict.
  3. “Inspire” conversations: About direction, change, and purpose, including how to proactively respond to situations of uncertainty.
  4. “Think” conversations: About solving problems in a new way, fostering creativity and innovation, and seeking input from diverse sources.

As leaders and coaches, if we can recognise which type of coaching conversation is required to best support a colleague, and respond appropriately, our chances of helping others make a sustained and significant change increase dramatically. Critically, these conversations do not require a formal coaching session. The core principles at the heart of each conversation can be used in as little as five focused minutes.

So how do we recognise the need for these conversations and what do they entail?

Conversation 1: The BE Shift…

…when someone is feeling miserable, lacking in confidence, or unresourceful

Often this is when faced with a setback or the need to manage a change, but the common thread is that these situations are those in which your staff member has the knowledge and skills that they need, but cannot use them effectively. So the conversation needs to focus on helping the individual find their best self. They will quickly then become far more effective.

If the individual is stressed, visibly upset, emotionally distant or overwhelmed, these are good cues that the “Be” conversation is relevant. Their self-talk will be another clear indicator. If you hear your staff member saying “I can’t” or “That won’t work”, expressing fearful thoughts or judging themselves or others, then you can be sure that these fears, assumptions and judgements will be clouding their thinking and preventing them from being fully resourceful in their response.

Typically, when someone is struggling in this way, leaders will feel uncomfortable with the emotion inherent in the situation and will want to move to safer ground. They may try and make the staff member feel better or tell them they are wrong to feel that way, but, in fact, what is needed is to help your colleague to:

  • Notice the emotions and thoughts that are driving their experience.
  • Access a more truthful and realistic mindset.
  • Recognise the full set of choices available to them.

The mindset shift that is needed in these situations is from thinking that external factors cause us to feel bad, to recognising that it is instead our own mindset or worldview that shapes our behaviour and impact.

Helping people change the way they respond like this can be transformational. It builds their ability to be at their best when they most need it, and therefore holds the key, for example, to being confident and authoritative with a senior audience, or calm and authentic in the most pressured situations.

Conversation 2: The RELATE Shift…

…when someone needs to build trust or connection with others

We find that most of our coaching conversations with school leaders are essentially about “Relate” challenges – senior leaders needing to let go and trust others, middle leaders needing to engage difficult team members, or trust leaders needing to move beyond limited collaboration to build deeper leadership partnership across their schools.

When someone needs to improve a relationship, leaders will often respond by suggesting solutions, by helping them with tactics or sometimes by colluding with the unhelpful dynamic. In fact, the mindset shift required is all about empathy. If the staff member can readily experience other people’s worlds and see what really matters to them, they can then flex their response accordingly. This will unlock new possibilities with the individual or group they are struggling with, and new insight into how to take others with them more generally in life.

A simple, but powerful approach to introduce and model to your staff in order to build “Relate” competencies, is See-Hear-Speak. Every human being has a fundamental need to be seen and this is where a conversation should start. It is about breaking down barriers, building trust and developing mutual respect through being fully present and empathising with the other’s concerns, feelings and perspectives.

When the other person feels “seen”, they will speak openly and any defensiveness or suspicion will disappear. Then you can move on to the “Hear” step and listen deeply, not just for the explicit content of the conversation, but also for the emotions and values that may be unspoken.

Only when the other person feels heard, is it time to move on to “Speak” and communicate your message clearly and compassionately. Often you will need to repeat the cycle. Although this sounds like an easy sequence, it is notoriously difficult in practice. Most of us have a tendency to jump to “Speak” far too soon and often both parties go straight there. It requires practice.

Conversation 3: The INSPIRE Shift…

…when someone can’t inspire themselves or others with a clear purpose or direction

A typical Inspire scenario might arise with a high-performing teacher who has been working flat-out over the past year and has exceeded all their targets. But they are exhausted and starting to get feedback from others that they are overly driven.

The teacher opens up to you, sharing that they are starting to wonder whether it is all worth it. The coaching conversation that is needed here is to help them discover what is really important and how to lead in a way that is inspiring not only to them but those around them.

This kind of conversation is critical in education. Many teachers join the profession wanting to make a difference and positively impact children’s life chances. And many teachers also become disillusioned. The high levels of burn-out of teachers testify to the need to help teaching colleagues reconnect with their personal purpose and find ways of bringing that spark into their everyday work.

Conversation 4: The THINK Shift…

…when someone needs to find new ideas or creative solutions

The “Think” conversation is needed when someone cannot find the breakthrough idea to solve a problem, or needs to become more strategic in their thinking. It could be a deputy head struggling with what seems to be an intractable issue of low student attendance, or a leadership team that recognises the need to approach staff development differently.

The common problem is that they may feel that there are too many constraints to innovation. Indications that the Think conversation is needed might be feelings of frustration about how things are currently working, generalisations or assumptions about how a problem should be solved, or a lack of creativity or deeper insight.
The coaching conversation here is not about giving people new ideas or creative solutions. It is instead about challenging thinking, about coaching the other to view a situation through new and different lenses, unleashing new levels of creativity and innovation in the other person.

The mindset shift needed is about recognising habitual thinking, such as, “how I or we normally think about this”, and consciously moving beyond these assumptions to create new ways of looking at the situation. It is about getting curious again. It can enable people to step back from a situation and pick out the root cause of a problem, to create strategic insight and develop radically new ideas.


It is important to note that although there is no one-size-fits-all perfect coaching conversation, for those leaders who want to integrate coaching as part of their leadership toolkit, learning to recognise the underlying needs of their staff members and supporting them through one of the these four coaching conversations offers a powerful route to achieve lasting impact.

  • Denise Barrows is head of education at BTS Spark, a not-for-profit education practice within BTS, a coaching and leadership development provider. For more, see The Four Greatest Coaching Conversations by BTS Spark founder Jerry Connor & Karim Hirani (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2020):


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