Friday, December 15, 2017

Using Third Points

It’s dangerous to label people. We don’t like labels that convey fixed-abilities or disabilities; we opt for more open-ended language.  But being able to label what we do as coaches can help us be more thoughtful and intentional about those moves.  This week, I learned about third points, a tool I have been using without knowing the label.  Now that I’ve got a way of talking about this approach, I know I’ll be using third points more effectively.  And by the end of this post, I hope your awareness will increase your effectiveness, too.

People usually value two-point communication – the two points being the two people communicating, looking directly at each other.  In professional situations, two-point communication is usually a way to build personal relationships and trust.  But in difficult conversations, two-point communication can do just the opposite.  And that is where third points come in.

A third point is something (anything!) that shifts attention away from eye-to-eye contact.  It could be something on a paper or screen – a list, a graph, a class data set, a video, a list of goals the teacher has set, an article.  Whatever it is, it gives you and the teacher something to look at rather than each other when difficult information is being discussed.  Shifting away from eye-contact deflects feelings of “attack” and allows the teacher to save face, quite literally because her face isn’t being stared at.  The third point can be something that is in front of both of you so that you can explore it together.

It’s even better if the third point communicates the difficult information for you.  As the information is being absorbed, keep looking at the third point, even if the teacher looks up.  Wait until she regains her balance before looking up again.  This minimizes potential feelings of embarrassment or humiliation; the teacher still feels respected.  Since you’re not making eye contact, she feels less need to defend or hide feelings of being upset.  Our goals is to help the teacher feel as comfortable as possible so that we maintain a relationship conducive to instructional improvement; using a third point keeps the coaching temperature comfortable.

I realize that I’ve done this without really thinking about it during difficult conversations.  I’ve pointed something out on an observation sheet, saying, “Let’s see what I noticed.”  I’ve referenced teachers’ goals, recorded in my notebook.  I’ve shifted our attention to an anchor chart we were creating on the screen, or let a video do the talking when bringing up problematic segments of a lesson.  When I’ve done this, I have felt tension decrease. 

When a third point is involved, negative thoughts that arise can be directed toward the third point rather than toward the coach, and that is helpful.  When negative reactions are directed toward the coach, it makes it difficult to maintain the kind of relationship required for effective coaching.

Now that I have a label for this non-verbal communication tool, I know I’ll use it better.  My reminder for myself is: Look up when communicating positive information; shift to a third point when communicating information that might be received negatively.

Knowing this will help me plan in advance to have a third point handy.  Think about a difficult conversation that you’ve had recently.  Did you use a third point? If so, how did the conversation change when the third point was introduced? 

Adding a third point can change a difficult conversation for the better.  As I become more aware of my use of third points, I’m sure I’ll refine my ideas about using them.  I bet you will, too.  If you do, please add a comment so that we can learn together.

This week, you might want to take a look at:

A protocol for discussing topics with diverse perspectives (they are talking about assessment, but you could use this structure with any topic):

The engagometer – ask the students if they were engaged:

Supporting metacognition and knowing when to abandon writing:

Vocabulary instruction in science:

What to do before asking students to self-assess:

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