Coaching Letter #173
Small ways to make the world a little happier
Hello, I hope this finds you well and looking forward, if you are in the US, to getting some time off later this week. I always feel a huge amount of pressure to deliver a profound Thanksgiving message, which is silly really, because if I were my own coaching client I would ask myself about the egocentricity of that pressure… what makes me think that my Thanksgiving message is so material to others that I should stress about it? My own issues notwithstanding, I think a lot about gratitude in general, and especially since talking to the folks from Bridgeport about a “bright spots mindset”. Every so often I go back to Coaching Letter #14, which is one of my favorites, and look at the list I wrote, whenever I feel like I need reminding.
So I was lying in bed this morning, still in Seattle after the UCEA conference, thinking about writing this Coaching Letter, when Ethan Mollick’s newsletter arrived. (I follow him on Twitter, which is the source of lots of useful ideas, including Construal Level Theory, which I will write about soon, but I want to mention it here so it won’t seem so unfamiliar when I do write about it…) So honestly, if you have to make a choice between reading Ethan’s newsletter and reading this one, you should read his. But if you don’t, here’s the summary:
You can make people (including yourself!) happier, and the reason you aren’t doing it is because you are stuck in your own head. So the research suggests a few small things you can do this Thanksgiving week to make the world a little bit better:
Express gratitude more
Give more genuine compliments to people you know
Don’t feel awkward about offering to help, even if you can’t solve the problem
Reach out to some old contacts and say “hi”
Science says it is okay, and not nearly as awkward as you think.
I know this research from my coaching work, and as a coach I know that these things make a difference to people. I also know that my “awkwardness meter” is nothing like most people’s. I know that many people know what an “awkward silence” is, but I don’t—I don’t remember the last time I experienced silence of any length as awkward. I know that I have asked questions of a senior leader that the other people in the meeting experienced as awkward, but I just don’t understand why asking someone questions directly tied to the performance of the essential duties of their role could possibly be considered awkward. I know that I will approach people whom I want to get to know in direct and candid ways that others might not do because they would be afraid of awkwardness, yet it has always worked for me.
But as Mollick writes, the awkwardness is just an inference about the social interaction, not a feature of the interaction itself. When you think something is or could be awkward you are, as we say in coaching, up the ladder; you have a picture in your head about how you or someone else will experience an interaction, and you act on that inference rather than any real data, and as the research cited by Mollick shows, you are most likely completely wrong.
My own mental model (it’s only awkward if you choose to think it’s awkward, and I choose not to) means that I will initiate deep conversations that others think you have to “have a relationship” in order to have. I think this is horsefeathers, and the research will back me up on this: seven studies on deep conversations, from Ethan Mollick’s Twitter feed. I think most people’s mental model of relationship is entirely backward; pre-existing is not an input, or a pre-requisite for meaningful conversations, as most people think, rather relationship is the product of having meaningful conversations. Relationships can be, therefore, actively constructed. People think that relationships are created over time, but that’s only because if you take a passive approach to relationships, you are dependent on random opportunities to have conversations that will create a relationship. You can, if you choose, not just expect time to do the work for you, but to be intentional about engineering conversations that will power a strong relationship.
In the last couple of years, in particular, I have really escalated my thinking and acting on inserting myself into the lives of people who do not need me (I don’t wish to imply that there’s something wrong with them, or that they need help, or that they would not be perfectly fine without me—this is not a hero narrative), but who are interesting and full of potential and also could use some support and encouragement from a coach and/or friend. I don’t mind issuing invitations that might be rejected (although none of them ever has been); I don’t worry about being seen to be pushy or nosy (mostly because I rarely if ever ask information-gathering questions; I ask about people’s goals and aspirations); and I don’t position myself as a mentor or advice-dispenser. I just want to get to know the person and help if I can, because I know that sometimes listening and encouraging can make a big difference. And each time, I went into the first conversation thinking that I was the person who was going to be helpful, only to find that these relationships now mean a great deal to me, in ways that I could not have predicted.
My list of things I am grateful for from Coaching Letter #14 holds true. But having written this one, I am grateful at this moment for the people who made an active decision to insert themselves into my life, including my BFFs Cathryn, and Romi, and Ann, at whose dining room table I am writing this, and who, over 30 (!!!) years ago, came up to me after a graduate class we were in at UT, and said, in effect, “You seem like an interesting person; I am planning to be your friend.” I thought she was a little nuts at the time, but now I understand the wisdom of this approach, and have followed her lead many times since. And my life is all the better for it.
I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving. And while I close almost every Coaching Letter with “please let me know if there is anything I can do for you”, I hope you have a little more insight now into how much I mean it.
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