Hi, how are you, I hope you had a good Fourth of July weekend. I remember when it used to be a big deal for us to go someplace to watch fireworks, but now I’m just grateful for some time off. I had a great week last week with the Bridgeport Teacher Leaders; it was a great way to round out a very full and challenging year, and I am grateful for the thought and energy they invested, the support of the Bridgeport senior leaders, and the amazing work of my Partners colleagues.
This Coaching Letter is about several things. On one level, it’s about critical thinking in coaching. That it makes it third in a series about critical thinking, which I framed as asking and answering the question “How do you know that’s true?” CL #162 was about critical thinking in strategic planning and continuous improvement and CL #163 was about critical thinking in the curriculum. Then I took a slight detour in CL #164, describing how to apply improvement science to a personal challenge. (I am sorry that for some of you the formatting was a bit screwy, but Bridget fixed it before posting on our website. And for those of you new to the Coaching Letter, all previous issues are archived on our website.)
Which brings me to: this Coaching Letter is also about improvement science. I’ve done more work on improvement science/continuous improvement this year than in a long time, and one of the big realizations – or more like the recognition that I’d forgotten something that I already knew – was the similarity between coaching and improvement science. The arc of coaching is so similar to the arc of improvement science, which I tried to represent on slide 2 of this deck, that it doesn’t make sense to me to think of them as separate from one another. To take this one step further, it reinforces how coaching and leadership are connected. If a large share of coaching is improvement science at an individual level, then a large share of leadership is improvement science at an organizational level. And they overlap at the team level.
And on another level, this Coaching Letter is about coaching, which can be defined many ways, but at its core is about showing up for another person in service of a goal that matters to them, which makes it a noble enterprise within a noble profession. With that…
3. Coaching. I love coaching. I am constantly amazed and impressed at the people who will invite you in to their thinking and say, in effect, “Have at it! Poke all you want! I want to get better so I’m not afraid to bare it all!” In almost all coaching conversations I ask some variation of the question “How do you know that’s true?” The variations include, but are not limited to:
- Let’s push on that assumption a bit.
- Do you know that for sure?
- What else would explain what’s going on?
- Tell me again how you think those are connected.
- What else could you do?
- How confident are you about that?
- What data do you have?
- What data could you collect?
- Walk me through your logic.
- Have you asked anyone about it?
- Are you sure about that?
- What’s your theory?
- What do you anticipate will happen?
- How will you know it made a difference?
- How will you know that a change is an improvement?
I can see how it may not be obvious that these are variations on “How do you know that’s true?”; so let me just elaborate a little bit. All of these questions are asking the client, in some form or another, to surface assumptions about the connection between what they think is/has/will happen and reality, to the extent that reality is knowable, and replace those assumptions with first theory and then evidence.
Most of these questions have been in my repertoire ever since I started my formal coaching practice 15 years ago. Recently I have become a lot more exacting in my questions about data and evidence, but I have ALWAYS known that “How did it go?” was a BAD QUESTION, because how we FEEL about something is the WRONG METRIC. Well, mostly.
As a coach, I simultaneously care very much about how you feel (because I care about you, your happiness, and your perceived self-efficacy) and nothing about how you feel (because I know that as a human you want to feel comfortable, safe and in control, and therefore you have a counter-productive tendency to judge success by how “smoothly” it went.) The right metrics are: a) the data you have to show whether a change was an improvement, and b) what you learned.
The point is that, as humans, we all have a very useful set of mental models that we apply all the time as we go through our personal and professional lives. These mental models, or schemata, are absolutely essential to our being able to operate efficiently in the world. For example, when I first moved to the US, I had a really hard time driving, not because we drive on the wrong side of the road in America (although we do, of course), but because the logic of the system is different (stop signs, on-ramps, the order of the traffic lights, ignoring pedestrians in crosswalks); then one day it sort of snapped into place and my driving became much more automatic. Our mental models smooth our path and buoy us up and carry us along, but they also trip us up and blinker us and stuff cotton wool in our ears, and we have to have tools for guarding against that.
One of our mental models is that challenge has valence, that challenge is a “bad” thing, that therefore we are entitled to some protection from challenge, and further that we are entitled to feel many variations of aggrieved if we are challenged. I feel sometimes like I just didn’t get that memo. I will occasionally get feedback that a meeting was “awkward” or “uncomfortable” when, from my perspective, all I did was ask some questions. I’ve been told more than once by fellow educators that they used to think that coaches were nice until they met me. And I’ve got feedback that my behavior was “unprofessional” for questioning or challenging what someone has said during a workshop. It’s hard to engage in critical thinking when you’re worried about how someone might feel.
We must, therefore, change the way we think about feedback and challenge and change, because if we think of them as useful and necessary and, yes, desirable, then we will feel good rather than bad about them – OK, I realize that that’s asking a lot, but at least we might feel that we are not in the presence of threat or embarrassment, and therefore we will feel and act less defensively. We need to think differently about failure, too. I tell clients all the time, “Let’s hope it fails,” whatever it is, because it is an experiment, and you will learn more from what doesn’t work than from what does. People think failure means failure, but failure is an essential element of success, and therefore the only real failure is not to try.
If you want to know more about coaching, I think we have a couple of slots left for our Coaching Institute in September. Here’s the flyer.
I am, at the moment, feeling a little overwhelmed by the amount of work I’ve got going; grateful for the trust, comradeship and friendship I share with my colleagues; amazed at how much I have learned and how much there is still to learn; impressed at what our partner districts have been willing to take on despite the continuing craziness and stress; excited about completing the book; and thankful that I get to do what I do. So I think that when it comes to living your life, maybe how you feel is the metric. Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
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Author with Jennie Weiner of
The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders:Principles and Practices