Establishing Rapport, Physically and Emotionally

I won’t describe what I look like.  Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse. – Auggie Pullman in Wonder by R.J. Palacio

The ‘picture’ we get of people is built on so many visual things.  Consider someone you love or someone you care about deeply, on a romantic or plutonic level.  Consider their physical appearance, postures, gestures, overall tone/volume of their voice.  Bring this visual to mind, plus all the wonderful things you know about their personality, how they treat you and others, their intellect, their charisma. Their inner beauty.  Makes a pretty neat little package, doesn’t it?  The perfect gift that’s wrapped up in a pleasing package.

Imagine the visual anonymity you can have through social media, emails, texting, you name it.  If you’re like me, you base your connections with new people on less visual things and more on their on-line personality, how they treat/respond to you and others, their intellect, their ‘digital’ charisma.

Finally, imagine a combination of both.  You know the person, the exterior package, and for all intents and purposes you feel as though you can ‘read’ their postures, gestures, and tone.  You feel you know a bit about their past, their personality, they way they treat you and others.

And you make a mistake.

What you saw wasn’t what you ‘got’.

Here’s a situation.  As a new coach, I’m trying hard to find my way in how to best support teachers in meeting goals for their kids.  I am involved in some formal coaching cycles, have had coaching conversations with different colleagues, planned for and lead professional learning for groups of teachers, and spent time establishing rapport and getting to know them a bit better as individuals, both in the visual sense and the internal sense.  I was excited to be approached by a colleague who, from what I perceived visually (posture, tone, gestures) was interested in doing some collaborative work with me.

Prior to a reflecting/planning conversation, I decided to pose a couple of questions.  I spent time crafting them, using the context of some training I’ve done as well as an interest in supporting where my colleague and the students are at this point in the year.  Here’s where things got tricky: what I thought were well-crafted, thought-provoking questions turned out to trigger a very passionate, very unexpected response.

See, what I thought I saw and what was actually happening internally didn’t match.  I made several mistakes: questions that weren’t framed with “in the context of what you know as best for your students”; questions sent via email, where tone and rapport can be misinterpreted; questioning that, when I look at it, because of the way it was phrased, could be misconstrued to the point of being offensive.

And I felt like Auggie Pullman, only on the inside. I won’t describe what I feel like on the inside.  It’s probably worse.

Just when you think you have it all together, when you think you’re ‘seeing’ things correctly and are coming from a good place, you miss a clue… use less-tentative language… paraphrase emotion incorrectly… because we can never truly know what people feel like on the inside.  Sometimes, it’s worse than what we see.

I guess my point is this.  Just like it took the kids in Room 301 to get past the physical appearance of their classmate Auggie and truly understand the person inside, so must I remember to take time to build rapport and get to know people for all that makes up what I cannot see if I’m going to be an effective coach for anyone.

I will own my mistakes, learn from them, and keep navigating this landscape that is coaching.


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