February 4, 2023
Hello, how are you? Thank you for reading The Coaching Letter—you are awesome. If you are in the northeast US, I hope you are warm—it got down to -9 at my house overnight, which is the coldest it’s been while I’ve lived here.
Thank you to those of you who responded to the last CL on Construal Level Theory—I thought it was horribly abstract, but then it turned out to be a useful idea for some of you, so I’m grateful for that.
This CL is about two of the books that I have read/am reading lately that have had an impact on me that I want to share.
First is Belonging, by Geoff Cohen. This is a compendium of the work in social psychology on the topic of belonging, by one of the major researchers in the field. I have talked about Geoff Cohen’s work before; he is one of the authors of Breaking the Cycle of Mistrust: Wise Interventions to Provide Critical Feedback Across the Racial Divide, which shows how framing feedback as a signal that you believe in someone has a powerful impact on how they receive that feedback. The article is about students but I can think of no reason why the same principle should not apply with adults (we have much better research on feedback to students than we do on feedback to adults).
Here are some useful quotations from the book—all of them research-based assertions:
Belonging may seem like a comfortable but inessential luxury. However, it has potent, wide-ranging effects. We all know the sting of feeling as though we’re unwelcome at work or school, at a party or a bar, or even in brief encounters in a checkout line or with a rude waiter in a restaurant. Feeling excluded is experienced in much the way physical pain is, with both activating many of the same neural networks in the brain. Psychologists call it “social pain,” saying people are as motivated to alleviate it as they are to slake thirst and find shelter.
Research shows that when our sense of belonging is threatened even momentarily, we’re more likely to feel worse about ourselves, perform below our potential, behave impulsively, see others as hostile, and lash out defensively when provoked. On the other hand, even fleeting experiences of belonging, such as glimpsing pictures of people who care about us, can have far-reaching benefits. They raise our sense of well-being and self-worth, improve our performance, lessen our defensiveness and hostility, increase our tolerance of outsiders, and make us more compassionate. We become more humane.
The education community has increasingly recognized the importance of belonging in students’ school experience and the roles that teachers and administrators can play in supporting it. A substantial body of research has established that students who report a strong sense of belonging tend to be more motivated to learn, perform better academically, have better rates of attendance, engage in less misconduct and fewer health-threatening behaviors, and have higher self-esteem and better mental health.
But after children reach a certain age, about twelve, it’s as if we forget the importance of connection. As the eminent educational psychologist Jacquelynne Eccles has pointed out, nurturing connections with students takes a backseat to test preparation and social order. But in fact, the importance of a sense of belonging only grows as children enter adolescence, and it remains a key motive at every rung of the educational ladder, up to and including college and graduate school.
It’s a really authoritative book, you’ll love it; here are some related resources.
- An episode of KERA’s Think: How to create a sense of belonging wherever you are; interview of Geoff Cohen. (The link is to the podcast on Stitcher, but you can listen to it on any platform.)
- Closing the Achievement Gap: just over 5 minutes on YouTube with a much younger Geoff Cohen.
- Whistling Vivaldi, by Claude Steele, is about stereotype threat, which is the drain on our cognitive resources when we worry that we are at risk of confirming someone else’s negative stereotype about us. For example, women who think they are at risk of confirming the stereotype that women aren’t as good as men at math will actually perform worse on a test than they would if they believed that the test wouldn’t confirm that bias. Also a great book.
- My brilliant colleague Rydell’s dissertation is about how students who identify with more than one marginalized identity experience what he coins social homelessness: “a term used to describe a student who upon first glance should be wholly accepted in one or more social categories; however, because of his or her competing identities, the individual is unable to fully participate in the life of the social group without hiding a part of his/her identity.” The opposite, in other words, of belonging.
The other book I want to recommend is Awe, by Dacher Keltner. This book is similar to Belonging in that it highlights a fundamental yet under-researched critical human emotion:
Awe is the emotion we experience we encounter vast mysteries that we don’t understand. Why would I recommend that you find happiness in an emotion that is so fleeting and evanescent? A feeling so elusive that it resists simple description? That requires the unexpected, and moves us toward mystery and the unknown rather than what is certain and easy?
Because we can find awe anywhere. Because doing so doesn’t require money or the burning of fossil fuels—or even much time. Our research suggests that just a couple of minutes a day will do. Because we have a basic need for awe wired into our brains and bodies, finding awe is easy if we just take a moment and wonder. Because all of us, no matter what our background, can find our own meaningful path to awe. Because brief moments of awe are as good for your mind and body as anything you might do.
I’ve written before about the science of gratitude and how important it is for our mental health, and for cultivating a mindset for looking at the world; you start looking for things to be grateful for, and you realize that they are everywhere. I had an a-ha moment last week when I realized that, at least for me, gratitude and awe are connected, that most of the things I’m grateful for are moments of awe. Here are a few:
- Looking at a presentation Rydell sent me and realizing how he had deconstructed a case study and made connections to multiple aspects of improvement science in ways that I had not seen;
- Replacing my old, cheap earbuds whose battery gave out with a new flashy pair, and listening to the first song on my workout playlist (which happened to be Something Just Like This by The Chainsmokers, but who’s judging?);
- Making it to the top of West Rock in New Haven and taking in the view of the Sound, other outcroppings of the Metacomet Ridge, and downtown New Haven;
- Looking out my window this morning when it was -8 on my phone and watching the birds in my yard flitting about like it was the middle of summer;
- Watching a reel that my friend Tosh posted to Instagram and being impressed at what he was taking on and how much it mattered to me.
- Looking at the full moon tonight.
The lesson here is that just because these are small instants of awe, and perhaps unremarkable to you as you read them, does not mean that they were any less meaningful, or awe-ful, to me. Thinking about awe as a fundamental part of what we need in order to thrive changed the way I think about the world a little bit, and heightened my gratitude-sense (which I think of as being as fundamental to my life as my other senses: hearing or eyesight). It also made me wonder about the experience of so many during the pandemic, when their physical world was constrained and they were cut off from many of their social connections, and what impact that must have had on their access to awe and thereby to their mental health.
A good introduction to the book is an interview of Dacher Keltner on another episode of KERA’s Think: How to experience moments of awe every day. (As before, the link is to the podcast on Stitcher, but you can listen to it on any platform.)
If you read either of these books, or even just listen to the KERA podcasts, I would love to hear from you. I wish you a strong sense of belonging in your life, and many experiences of awe. And if there is anything else I can help you with, please let me know. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Author of The Coaching Letter
Author with Jennie Weiner of The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders: Principles and Processes Routledge, 2021
Author with Sarah Woulfin & Kerry Lord of Making Coaching Matter: Leading Continuous Improvement in Schools Teachers College Press, forthcoming