This post was written by NBA Coaching Legend Del Harris and posted with his permission.
This was written for Coach Harris’ book, On Point–Four Steps to Better Life Teams.
Thoughts on communicating in mentorship
Five levels of communication. When speaking to groups about relating to others more effectively from a leadership position such as coaching, I often specify five levels in communicating with team members. Each succeeding level requires a bit more volume and urgency in order to be effective.
a. Conversational. In the conversational level you are getting to know your people or are conducting normal verbal exchanges with acquaintances, good friends or loved ones. This is necessary learning what makes each individual tick, as well as in forming and maintaining relationships. Some of the conversation will be about the work involved, but much will be of other items that affect daily life—family things, current events and the like. It is important to set a good environment for learning (getting better at whatever the endeavor happens to be on a life team), but it is equally important to get to know each individual’s “personal context.” Each of us is different and part of being able to show real concern for another is to learn what things are unique to the person you are mentoring. Once you understand a little better one’s personality and background, it is easier to help that person on both the good and bad days that he will go through as you work together. Good listening technique is required, whereas many coaches/teachers tend to dominate the conversational levels with the second level that is noted next. Never underestimate the power of listening, and it takes a measure of humility to do that.
b. Informational. At the informational level, you are speaking more authoritatively and more firmly because you are teaching or expressing an opinion you think is of value. Teachers, preachers, coaches, and similar type leaders will raise their tone and expand their body language when instructing in order to emphasize the subject matter. This results from the passion that one should have for his subject material and the desire to help the listener to become a better performer. Or, it may simply be the way a person speaks when he “has the floor” in a group. His voice will be elevated above the conversational level, but controlled, compared to the level of a sales pitch or election rally. It is amazing that some overlook this difference when in a restaurant, seemingly wanting to get the attention of everyone in the restaurant.
c. Encouragement. Expressions of encouragement must be real, appropriate and given with feeling. It is important to express genuine excitement for improvements and successful achievements. The level of emotion should be commensurate to the value of the act. Overplaying a simple achievement, or underplaying a real accomplishment, can undermine the speaker’s credibility. In the NBA for example, some feats deserve a nod, some a fist bump, while others merit a chest bump, perhaps. Extreme jubilation should probably be reserved for winning a championship. In the NBA, when an individual player or an entire team celebrates with over-the–top animation too soon, most experienced onlookers will say, “Hey, act like you have made a shot before, or act like you actually won a game in the past!” However, while chest bumps may be out of place in the office, good performances do demand a commensurate level of acknowledgement. Faked or forced encouragement cheapens real achievements and does little to uplift the person, who probably assumes he is about to hear the next sentence with “But,” and then be followed with a suggestion or criticism.
d. Correctional. Mistakes should not be overlooked; they must be identified and corrected. Again, there should be an increase in the emotion or urgency in the voice, similar to the encouragement mode. The third and fourth levels, encouragement and correction, must be balanced against one another, but carry more emotion and urgency than the previous levels to be effective. It is great to be positive in one’s approach to problems, but everything isn’t “OK”, particularly repeated, similar violations. While a good argument can be made that the process of any endeavor is more important than the result, real life dictates that we are judged primarily on results. It is obvious that eliminating errors is important to achieving good results. This is especially true when done in an orderly, disciplined manner. To emphasize, people may shortcut or cheat to get a good result in the short run. But that is not a legitimate method on which to base a program or system. Correction that facilitates proper execution will provide better long-term results than will ill-advised shortcuts. In sports the best teams do not beat themselves by ignoring errors or committing the same mistakes repeatedly.
e. The fifth degree, or “going crazy” level.” As for the fifth degree, there are simply times when the person who leads or takes the point in a situation has to assert a strong authoritative approach. Occasionally, the followers must learn that the leader has a limit, an edge, that they really don’t want to challenge often. Does overturning the tables in the temple ring a bell, or how about calling the Pharisees a generation of vipers face to face in front of a large audience? However, this is an area that can be overdone to the leader’s and the entire operation’s detriment. I have embraced the following plan for over 30 years: Think of it like having one of the six-shooters in the old Western movies—or maybe a nine-shot clip for the younger folks. When the season or campaign or yearly audit is over, it is good to have a bullet or two left in the chambers. Use them up too soon, and you will be like a villain in those Westerns—you will pull the trigger and all that will be heard is a click—you are out of bullets! You may as well throw in your black hat—you are done! If you think you can use an automatic weapon approach when criticizing, you will wear down your people quickly and they will shut you out. That method of teaching/coaching just doesn’t wear well in the post 1970’s society. Whether that is a good or bad thing is dependent on one’s opinion, but it is the reality in team building in the post-Vietnam era.
Think of it this way: better putting will improve all golf scores. Don’t be so quick to pull out the driver (sorry, no mulligans); use your power wisely. Scale back to the correctional level and then move on down to the instructional level, as soon as it seems appropriate to do so. Once you have made your point, move away from an emotional response to a more controlled one. A lot of times we forget that we can only make our main point once. After that, it is making the same point over and over; that tends to become argumentative and/or destructive.
As a coach, focusing on the important aspects of leadership, improvement, and teaching the game can be overshadowed at times by urgent matters such as getting time-sensitive information out to your team. There are basketball team management apps that allow you to have immediate access to player and parent contact information on your desktop workstation, tablet, or phone. However, there are other ways to make the job of managing the team easier as well. Team management tools, like TeamSnap, automate a lot of these processes for you. In addition to letting you create, update and store a team roster, tools like TeamSnap let you see players’ availability for games and practices, assign responsibilities such as post game food or snacks, and keep track of who has paid their equipment fees, and completed their paperwork.