Good evening, I hope this finds you well. There’s a massive storm over my house at the moment—rain and wind beating at the windows. I’m very much hoping that I don’t lose internet before I finish writing this. Hello to the folks who are receiving the Coaching Letter for the first time—quite a few of you, which is very cool.

So much going on right now that I’m having a hard time holding the thread. I think the best Coaching Letters are the ones that manage to tie together several big ideas, and also provide leads to other resources—TED talks, books, podcasts, and so on. But I don’t have the wherewithal to write something that cogent right now, so here are some ideas that have been useful and/or interesting to me lately.

In CL #128 I provided lots of links to sources on emotions. I’d just like to put in a plug for the interview of Lisa Feldman Barrett on The Knowledge Project Podcast. I listened to it again this morning, and there are several big ideas that I think are useful for coaches and leaders. A small sampling :

  • We think we can tell what other people are feeling, and we can’t: “In our culture, we very much think that we know how people feel and what they think by what they act… Your brain is automatically making inferences about the internal thoughts and feelings of people based on their actions, but we are blinded to the fact that they’re inferences, that they’re guesses. We think we’re reading people, when in fact, really all our brain is doing is guessing.”
  • Our response to others is often about managing our own feelings: “So my point is that when someone else gets worked up, you’re more likely to get worked up too. If you don’t want to be worked up, you don’t want that person to be worked up. A lot of times when people say don’t be sad, don’t be angry, really, what they’re saying is, I don’t want to deal with you being angry or sad, and I don’t want to feel that way so I want you to calm down.”

Longtime readers of the Coaching Letter know that I have a lot to say about feedback. What is hard for me is getting past criticizing all the naïve and ineffective mental models about giving feedback and moving on to practical suggestions for how to do it well—or at least better. For example, I enjoyed the section of the Radical Candor blog that takes down the “feedback sandwich”—the idea that you can make criticism more palatable by starting and ending with what the other person did well. But you have to have a better alternative…

This Knowledge Project interview of Randall Stutman is worth listening to because it provides an actionable alternative. In particular, there is the idea that there needs to be a balance between positive and negative feedback: “When we study the really best leaders, the best leaders on the planet, the most admired leaders in everywhere, they all do the same thing. They all start positive, just like we all do intuitively when we’re going to be critical, but their positive is as vivid, elaborate and as detailed as the negatives are going to be and they generally match in terms of number. If I’m going to give you five criticisms, I probably need to have three or four or five really positive things, but they can’t just be at a level of vividness or detail that is not equal to what I’m going to do in a second. If I’m going to focus, I’m going to start positive and I’m going to go as deep into that positive as I can.”

Self-care for educators continues to be of prime importance. I like this essay by Jim Knight in Learning Forward: thinking of self-care in terms of purpose, healthy having, and compassion. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and it occurs to me that we do a better job of fire drills than of taking care of ourselves. The whole point of fire drills is that waiting until there is a fire is too late to figure out how to get out. Likewise, waiting until there is an acutely stressful impact on educators that is becoming chronic is too late to start talking about self-care. We should have been talking about this a long time ago.

So perhaps there is a theme here after all—in the Randall Stutman interview, he defines leadership as making people and situations better. So in all the work that coaches and leaders are doing right now, the pandemic has made it all the more important that we are particularly thoughtful and careful about how we do that. Everything we do—including but not limited to giving feedback—has to encourage, support, clarify and simplify. Let’s keep talking about how to do that.

OK, full week coming up. Let me know if there is anything I can do for you. Best, Isobel

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