It’s been a grueling few months, hasn’t it? I hope you are doing OK. Many of the people reading this Coaching Letter have really had no break at all since we shuttered the schools in March. And now we have to gear up for whatever happens next, and that too will be a ton of work—is already a ton of work. I realized that things were getting heavy when one of my oldest and best friends—a woman whom I think of as beyond competent, who can figure out how to get things done that nobody else can—texted me to say that she was glad we had talked the day before, that she had been feeling overwhelmed and talking to me had reminded her that she had done this before—“taken on big roles, set big goals, and then forged through the hard work, annoying details, and persevered to triumph.”

And it occurred to me, as I read her text, that if my Superwoman friend was needing a little help from her friends, then probably there is no one left who doesn’t. This Coaching Letter, therefore, is intended to be that help. I think of it as the Psychology of Success: perceived self-efficacy, analogical reasoning, listening, faith, encouragement, and wise feedback. It is intended to help you, dear readers, but these ideas can and should be applied to your support of your friends and coworkers, and to students. These constructs are drawn from psychology, and they pertain to leading, coaching and teaching—which covers 99.9% of the folks who get the Coaching Letter—i.e. everybody but my dad and a couple of other people. And these ideas are not new—I’ve written about many of them before—but now seems like a particularly good time to revisit them.

The first big idea is perceived self-efficacy. Perceived self-efficacy is the double belief that you have the skill to do something AND that if you do it you will get the result you want—for a more comprehensive look at the theory, you should look at the handout on Perceived Self-Efficacy that we use in our coaching training. If you are in a position to find this newsletter valuable, you have already experienced a great deal of success, which means that, unless you possess an extraordinary amount of privilege and luck, you have had to work hard, work long hours, and experience some significant setbacks. Along the way, you have learned a great deal from the hard work and even more from the setbacks, and as a result, at least until the pandemic hit, you were pretty confident that you were up for whatever challenge came your way.

In other words, your previous efforts and risk-taking have rewarded you with success, which makes you more willing to take risks and work hard, which makes further success more likely. This virtuous self-reinforcing cycle is called the performance-efficacy spiral. Your perceived self-efficacy may be stretched to its limits—I have heard many superintendents say that what they are facing now is the hardest thing they’ve ever done. But you have experience of specific successes to draw on, which may not have been about deadly viruses, but which may be related in other ways. Which brings me to another big idea: analogical reasoning, the ability to make connections to related ideas, including, therefore, drawing on lessons from similar but not identical circumstances. Humans are, in general, pretty bad at it.

When we get the chance, we incorporate analogical reasoning into our coaching training, since it fits so nicely with the function of a coach. It can be as simple as cueing someone to bring to mind previous success by asking a question. Asking someone to bring to mind a similar situation and what she did then that worked, or asking him to think of someone else who has been in his shoes and what she did that was successful, has the multiple benefits of expanding the person’s options, reinforcing her belief  in your belief in her capacity to solve problems, and reinforcing her perceived self-efficacy—that she will, in fact, be able to solve the problem.

Then there is the simple idea of encouragement. But being encouraging is not always straightforward, because we are not always cognizant of the power of our words. A joke can undermine someone’s perceived self-efficacy if it plays into his negative views of himself. Also, failure to say anything is not neutral—absence of communication does not mean absence of meaning-making, and people make all kinds of inferences from lack of specific encouragement. There is more about these ideas in Coaching Letter #96.

When you give feedback, your primary purpose is to encourage. I know that often gets lost—I lose it often—but nevertheless, the person—including, and perhaps especially, students—has to be able to say:

  1. I know what this means
  2. I know what to do next
  3. I am OK
  4. I will keep trying

Because if he doesn’t believe any one of those things, the feedback will be rejected, which means it’s useless as feedback. That 4-part framing of the purpose of feedback comes from Rick Stiggins probably 20 years ago, but has a research base—see Yeager et al, 2013, “Breaking the cycle of mistrust: Wise interventions to provide critical feedback across the racial divide,” in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.  You should, if you haven’t already, watch this very short video of Dan Pink explaining the central finding: that prefacing feedback with the words: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them” changes the meaning of the feedback in the mind of the receiver, and helps her use the feedback purposefully instead of getting defensive.

I also want to talk about faith. In religious terms, faith is belief without proof—certainty without evidence. But I am not necessarily talking about faith in a religious sense. Faith entered English in the thirteenth century through a roundabout descent from the Latin fidere, to trust. From our handout on Trust, also from our coaching training: “Trust is one’s willingness to be vulnerable to another based on the confidence that the other is benevolent, honest, open, reliable, and competent,” (Megan Tschannen-Moran, 2004). Expressing faith in someone is sometimes a leap of faith—when you don’t have proof that it is well placed. But as any teacher who truly understands what it means to have high expectations for students will tell you, the return on investment on taking that risk is immeasurably higher than waiting for the proof.

Listening is crucial in supporting others—I will pull together some resources on listening, but reading about it won’t help you that much. Listening is a particularly challenging practice. Like all practices, it has two purposes. First, we listen in service of others and their goals—it is a means to an end. Second, we listen in order to become better listeners—it is an end in itself. Despite what I send about the limited utility of reading about listening, you should read You’re Not Listening, by Kate Murphy. It won’t make you a better listener, but it will convince you that you ought to try to be one, and it will teach you lots of interesting facts along the way.

If you want a wiser, gentler, and more aesthetically pleasing alternative to this Coaching Letter, I suggest you invest in a copy of Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. Mr. Mackesy is an artist, not a psychologist, but the book is based on sound psychological principles—kindness matters, love matters, encouragement matters. If you follow him on Instagram or Twitter, you already know that his work has meant a lot to people at the sharp end of the pandemic. He also has a lovely TED Talk, which turns the genre on its head—no clever slides, no memorized speech. He shows up late in rumpled clothes with his dogs and tells a great story about the Queen Mum that helped me understand that the essential function of the Royal Family is to encourage—it’s probably the secret to their success.

You can do a lot to build up the capacity of others to cope in these challenging times. My friend was able to draw on her own successes to give her strength, and, just as importantly, ideas for how to move forward—but not everyone is so capable at doing that. And remember that what really matters is that we try, and try again, and keep going. The process that Charlie Mackesy describes in his TED Talk is really a practice—like yoga, or bread-making, or writing, or listening.

I am not sure I have done an adequate job of tying all these big ideas together, but they all exist under the same really big and powerful idea: that your job as a leader, teacher, or coach is to support the capacity of others to think and solve problems; that how they feel about their ability to do those things determines in part how well they do them; and both their ability and their feeling about their ability are dependent in part on you—what you do to improve their capacity, and what you do to show your faith in them, through one or more of the mechanisms described in this Coaching Letter. You have, in other words, extraordinary power to do good for others, in ways you may not have thought much about. Further, you should surround yourself with people who do these things for you. As the horse says, asking for help isn’t giving up. It’s refusing to give up.

Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you. I can be very encouraging, given half a chance. Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
Center Staff
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