10 tips to get the most out of being coached

‘Every coach should have a coach’ is an oft repeated mantra when you step into the world of coaching. It is an idea with merit. During the recent Coaching Accreditation Programme with Growth Coaching International, we were given the opportunity to experience being a coachee. Delegates coached each other, sometimes in pairs, and other times in groups of four, over the course of many weeks; finally, we were given an expert coach for two sessions at the end of the course so that we could once again experience being a coachee.  At its conclusion, we had coaching and coachee practice in a variety of contexts, and a thorough appreciation of the benefits and nuances of both roles.

Despite the fact that having a coach is an empowering and uplifting process, we tend to write more about coaches than coachees. There are numerous blogs and books about becoming an amazing coach, including my own post. But Pete Foster asked on Twitter this week if anyone had written a guide to getting the most out of being coached. I was stumped; I knew of none. It makes sense, of course: how can we best utilise these powerful conversations so that we get the most out of them, and in, Jim Knight’s words, unlock our potential?

So, without further ado, here are my 10 quick tips to get the most out of being coached.

  1. Choose your coach carefully

The coach-coachee relationship is built on trust and rapport. The person you choose to be your coach will be someone with whom you share laughter, vulnerability, and a lot of deep thinking; therefore the fit must be right. All coaches will likely be trained and competent, but it’s important to find someone who you feel will bring the best out of you and your thinking.

  1. Be open to coaching

Once you’ve chosen your coach, the next step is to make sure you are as open as possible to being coached. One could arrive at a coaching conversation with a preconceived idea, readily packaged and rehearsed – you can go through the motions and answer questions with mild thought and neglect any deeper thinking. Or, you can accept that within a trusting and open coaching relationship, your coach’s questions will move you to ideas, thoughts, and feelings that you haven’t encountered before. You will need to share things that you perhaps only just understood or realised yourself, and then admit when you’re feeling unsure. These are the moments when you make breakthroughs in your thinking and the magic happens, but we have to be open and available with our coach.

  1. Make sure you have contracted

At the beginning of a coaching relationship, and thereafter briefly at the outset of each session, your coach will set out a contract for the relationship. This is a good opportunity for them to lay out what you can expect from each other, and possibly, as Margaret Barr did for me, ask you what level of challenge you’d like from them as a coach during the sessions. Contracting is a vital first step in the relationship, to ensure that both parties understand and consent to the style and methods of the following conversations.

  1. Prepare for the conversation (but don’t over-prepare)

Your coach will likely ask what’s on your mind, or what you’d like to talk about today. You know it’s coming, so do you need to have a topic in mind? Of course, it’s worth thinking about your coaching session before it begins – with any luck, you’ll be looking forward to it! As a coachee, I have walked into a session feeling sure of the challenge that I’d like to tackle that day. Then, a few questions later, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve found something more pressing, important, or inspiring. How does my coach do that?! The point is, it’s worth being flexible about the avenues that your mind will open up during the conversation. Therefore, I’d recommend thinking about your session in advance and preparing a few possible ideas, while being open to the dynamic nature of the conversation and your own thoughts.

  1. Utilise powerful thinking beyond the coaching sessions

While a coach’s skilled questioning is difficult to emulate when you are alone, you should begin to use what you gain from coaching conversations to, in essence, coach yourself. For example, if you recognise that your coach uses the GROW model, you can begin to apply similar processes to a problem you are thinking through. We often act on the first option that we think of, but if you coach yourself, you’ll push harder for 3,4,5 options before you commit to the best approach. Coaching conversations are energetic and empowering, but there’s no reason to confine your learning and thinking to that occasion.

  1. Give your coach feedback

A good coach is keen to evaluate their own performance, and whether or not the style of coaching they use with you is helping you to maximise your potential. They will seek feedback and act on it, for your benefit. It’s important that the coachee responds to this request for evaluation and lets their coach know what’s working, and what they’d like more of.

  1. Hold yourself accountable

Most coaching conversations will end with some tangible actions that the coachee can implement to begin to achieve their goals. As a coachee, you will have expended much energy and thinking on your chosen next steps, with a sense of optimism as you transition from the conversation into implementation. It’s vital that, at this point, you bottle your enthusiasm, hold yourself accountable, and work hard to achieve your goals. Sure, you will likely bring these actions to your next coaching conversation, but it isn’t about your coach holding you to account. What matters is how you capitalise on your intense thinking and transform that into actions and habits that will truly help you to take steps forward.

  1. Consider using a journal to record your experience

I’m not necessarily advocating detailed in-meeting notes, as this can hamper the conversation. But I’d encourage a coachee to begin making notes about the sessions – the ideas they came up with, their next steps, what worked well, etc. As I’ve said already, coaching conversations often evoke ideas and thoughts that haven’t existed until that moment; recording them and revisiting these notes can be a good way to reflect, and to recapture the magic of that session, so that you can carry this energy into the following days and weeks of implementation.

  1. Be honest if it’s not working out and request a change of coach.

It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault, but not all coaching relationships work out. This could be down to a difference of styles, or perhaps just a lack of chemistry, which means the trust and rapport don’t build to a productive level. Either way, if it’s not working, it’s best for both parties if you change and find a match that works better.

  1. Think about training to become a coach

Hopefully after making the most of your time as a coachee, you will have enjoyed the wonders of coaching. You will have felt the weight lift from your shoulders as you become more empowered to achieve your goals and set new, ambitious targets. Perhaps, dare I say, you will have the desire to become a coach yourself, and to help others maximise their potential in the same way that you have started to.

Thank you for reading

Sam

The Coach’s Guide to Teaching, by Doug Lemov

Why I read it 

I’ve read Teach Like a Champion many times, although for whatever reason haven’t written a blog post about its brilliance! Doug Lemov is an astute thinker, has invested thousands of hours into what he researches and writes about, and brings precision and clarity to his work. I was delighted to attend a football match with Doug and Joe Kirby recently, and I can confirm that Doug is as humble, curious, and intelligent as he comes across in interviews and his books.  Despite this book focusing on helping sports coaches to understand teaching and learning better, I knew it would be packed full of insights for any profession.

In summary

The beauty of a book that teaches coaches about teaching, is that Lemov takes on the mammoth challenge of distilling the hugely complex array of teaching strategies and research into something fairly concise and navigable. He covers all manner of evidence-informed practice, from spaced learning to giving feedback.

The book is packed full of quotes from experts, sporting and teaching analogies, and a lovely prose style that is clean and accessible, especially amidst the technical aspects of the content. I should mention that the layout, colour scheme, and illustrations (by Oliver Caviglioli) are also fantastic.

The Coach’s Guide to Teaching was written primarily for sports coaches to better understand how to teach their players. But, it made me, a teacher, even more enthusiastic about my job, and just a little curious to see how good a coach I’d become!

Key takeaways

Every page of this book has a ‘takeaway’, so I’ll summarise a few of my favourite chapters, instead!

  1. Building culture – I was so pleased to see a chapter dedicated to this topic. Daniel Coyle (author of Culture Code) is quoted at length, and Lemov states that ‘culture is built, sustained and transmitted in a series of small moments’, and in sustaining our focus on what is important. The chapter has many insights about how we build a sense of purpose and culture that empowers everyone to be their best. There are also many anecdotes and examples of dialogue one could employ to turn an interaction into a positive, impactful one that aligns with the organisation’s culture.
  2. Knowledge, curriculum, and shared vocabulary – one of the key tenets of the book is that coaching isn’t just about motivation and culture – knowledge and curriculum play a huge role in building a successful team. Lemov provides models for how to build curricula for a variety of contexts. But the part I liked the most was the section on shared vocabulary. You’ll know from Teach Like a Champion that Doug is a big believer in naming techniques in order to streamline communication and add clarity to conversations that can become technical and complex. This is a vital part of the book for any coach or teacher.
  3. Giving feedback – Feedback is a nuanced area of teaching, and Doug does a brilliant job in tailoring it to a sports-coach audience; in turn, I learnt a lot from these sporting analogies. One coach speaks of finding it difficult to improve the players who don’t want to listen or learn, and Lemov discusses how a broader culture of trust and strong relationships are the bedrock of giving everyday feedback to improve performance. The chapter progresses to cover many fine points of feedback, such as positively framing it, critiquing actions not people, and being precise.

Favourite quote

Throughout The Coach’s Guide to Teaching, Lemov includes quotations from sports players, coaches, teaching experts, and cognitive scientists. Here are a few of my favourites:

Wayne Smith: ‘a lot of people say how creative the All Blacks are or how much flair there is, but creativity is just practice that’s camouflaged.’

Kirschner, Sweller and Clark: ‘Any methodology that does not increase the efficiency with which relevant information is stored in, or retrieved from long-term memory, is likely to be ineffective.’

Jeremy Denk: ‘While the teacher is trying to discover what isn’t working, the student is in some way trying to elude discovery, disguising weaknesses in order to seem better than they are.’

Favourite moment

At the beginning of the book, Lemov cites a moment when, as he was about to present to some of baseball’s most learned and successful coaches, he had doubts. His opening gambit was to show a video of the brilliant maths teacher Denarius, teaching a lesson in his school; he would then ask the coaches what they noticed. But at the last minute, he worried that these elite sports coaches would be dismissive of a classroom teacher in action.

But, Doug rolled the clip, and then posed the question. And then waited.

And then one of the most well-known coaches in the league spoke up. ‘He’s teaching everybody. Everybody.’

And then the room came to life with feedback and discussion.

This story illustrates the universal features of teaching, coaching, interacting, and bringing out the best of those you are leading. And that’s what this book is all about – whether you are a coach, teacher, or something entirely different, the energy and passion combined with the technical expertise will provide many insights.

Read this if…

You are a teacher looking to engage with the key characteristics of effective teaching, learning, and organisational culture.

You are a coach!

Support bookshops and buy it here

6 ways to start your coaching journey

In 2019-20, I lead a staff wellbeing research project, which aimed to explore evidence-based approaches to wellbeing in schools. This culminated in the Biscuits at Breaktime blog, an article in Impact, and, unfortunately, some cancelled primary research when COVID hit. My colleague, Rachel, and I read a lot about Self Determination Theory (SDT), a psychological needs model that really spoke to us; through that lens, coaching kept being cited in various studies as a brilliant way to address a teacher’s autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

But, coaching? Isn’t that basically mentoring? Don’t I do that anyway? Those were the questions that sprang to mind; I was one of the uninitiated, swept along in the conflation of mentoring and coaching. And so began my coaching journey, which is still in its infancy.

What has followed is 18 months of simply the best professional development I have had. Becoming a coach, and being coached, has taught me an incredible amount about leadership, myself, and the power of a trusting, coaching relationship. If you are thinking of becoming a coach, please read on and discover my top tips for getting started.

  1. Prepare the ground – reading, asking, watching

Due to all of the fuss in the academic papers that we read, I decided to do some reading of my own. I started with Coaching for Performance, by Sir John Whitmore. This was probably a bit much for a first-time coach in the making. I understood the premise, but the book alone was unable to give me the feeling of being coached (I’ve since delved back into it for many coaching lessons!). I decided to watch some coaching videos on YouTube, keen to observe how both parties interacted, and if the process was as empowering as it claimed – and if it really did ‘unlock potential’ in the coachee.

My interest was piqued, firstly on an intellectual level, and now on an emotional one. I had almost ‘felt’ coaching. At this point, I did two things. Firstly, I coached myself with a list of coaching questions; this undoubtedly helped me work through a few personal and professional challenges, but, of course, it lacked the energy of relationship and trust that I would later find from a coach. My second move was to celebrate wildly once I’d seen that leadership hero, Andy Buck, had released a book about his own model of coaching: BASIC Coaching. I devoured the book quickly, and enrolled onto the online course. I’ll detail that more in tip 3, but ultimately my advice here is to immerse yourself in coaching in a few different ways. Read, watch, question, engage with a variety of coaches, models, and styles.

2. Get a coach

This sounds obvious, but its importance cannot be overestimated. I recommend that everyone has a coach, even if you don’t want to become one yourself. As a trainee coach, though, having a coach has a few benefits. The most obvious is that once you have been a coachee, you can empathise with the position: the trust you have in your coach is paramount, the vulnerability you feel as you think or verbalise previously untapped ideas, or the other different emotions you encounter throughout the process.

Having a coach also helps you to see how it’s done – a model example of how to get the most out of your coachee, but also how to apply those nuanced techniques such as summarising, replaying, etc.

3. Invest in your initial development

The first course I did was Andy Buck’s BASIC Online course, which was informative and engaging. He spoke with passion and clarity, and it complemented the book really well. I had to coach someone and send it in for assessment at the end, too, which meant that I did 4-5 hours of coaching during the course.

After this, I did a coaching course in my Multi Academy Trust, and, having loved that, I signed up to Growth Coaching International’s Accredited Coaching Program. This was in my top 3 professional decisions ever made. GCI are international coaching experts who specialise in coaching for education. The online course, which ran for six months and was lead by Christian van Nieuwerburgh and John Campbell, involved colleagues from Europe, South Africa, the USA, and Australia. We attended live sessions as a large cohort, accessed weekly modules on the online training platform, watched many coaching exemplar videos, kept a reflective journal, and had to discuss coaching matters with our fellow delegates on the online portal. Best of all, though, was how we were split into small groups for a series of weeks; during this time, we coached each other, listened, gave feedback, and became firm friends. We got countless hours both being coached and coaching, in addition to watching other coaches. Finally, at the end of the course, we were given two coaching sessions by one of GCI’s expert coaches – a wonderful way to consider how we would take coaching forward into our careers. My coach was Margaret Barr, who taught me a huge amount about how to combine humility, warmth, challenge, and professionalism as a coach.

I don’t have shares in GCI, but I do advocate significant investment in your development as a coach. Coaching is a layered, intricate practice and it’s easy to fall into bad habits or to forget about some of the nuanced approaches that take a bit of extra work. Your first 6-12 months as a coach is vital, and is worthy of your time and effort.

4. Practise

Again, at the risk of sounding obvious, you need to coach regularly and keep trying things out. Once my GCI course finished, I decided I would offer my services as a coach (with no charge), so that I had regular practice to complement the reading that I carried on doing. At present, I coach two people within my school, and the rest I met on Twitter! They include an Occupational Therapist, and three teachers. I love working with my coachees and feel that I learn more from the sessions than they do!

5. Find a network

After we finished the GCI course, one of the groups who I spent a number of weeks with agreed to keep in touch. In December, we are going to meet via Zoom and discuss our coaching experiences in the autumn term. This is incredibly exciting! A group of learners coming together to reflect, swap stories, and talk about our future coaching journeys.

Within this group, I’ve also begun a reciprocal coaching relationship with one of my colleagues. We zoom once a half term and coach each other during the meeting. This relationship is one of collegiality and trust, and means we can practice together and then offer honest and constructive feedback at the end. There are other ways to engage in professional networks, of course, such as joining an association like the Association for Coaching, or signing up to a group like CollectivEd, who do great work.

6. Keep developing

After nearly two years, and many hours of coaching, I am still a novice. Coaching, despite one of my friends describing it in jest as ‘asking questions without starting with the word ‘why’’, is a complex process and requires dedication and humility to keep focused on how we can improve.

When you work with a coachee, it quickly becomes obvious that the conversation can have a huge impact on their professional choices, and therefore their emotions, wellbeing, productivity, and so much more. The person you are coaching is worthy of as much investment in your continued development as you can muster.

This might take the form of reading, training, practising, and being involved in professional networks. But mostly it involves identifying as someone who is always looking to improve their coaching.

See the coaching section of my Pocket Library to see my favourite coaching books so far!

I will continue to post about coaching as time goes on. I hope this post was a useful introduction into the six steps I took to become a passionate, developing novice coach.

Please ask me any questions or share your coaching journey!

Thanks

Sam

Leading assemblies: nostalgia and lessons

Today, as I drove down to East Wittering for my half term break, I kept getting visual flashes of standing in front of a room, leading a community of students and staff in an assembly. One of my favourite aspects of the job. Actually, my favourite. Perhaps I miss being a Head of Sixth Form, when I was able to lead a weekly assembly. Or perhaps my head turns towards this subject after a few weeks of remote-assemblies due to a rise in COVID cases at school. Whatever the reason for these visions, after almost two years without regular communal time, I needed to reflect on the power of an assembly, and what I’ve learnt along the way.

Even as I begin to write this blog, memories from over a decade of assemblies continue to come flooding back. The moments where I stared out at a sea of indifferent faces in my earlier attempts, when I over planned and under delivered. Those moments of emotion coursing through my veins as I shared something personal, or a piece of literature or film that moved me. I have a Band of Brothers assembly that I struggle to get through. Don’t even get me started on when I talk about Lion. But what I remember mostly, is connecting with a room full of people, and feeling the tangible buzz that what I just said helped to build us as a team. A culture. A united group on a wonderful journey of community and learning.

Without wishing to become too nostalgic, here are some lessons I l have learnt along the way:

Build culture and values

When you are a head of year or similar, leading an assembly is a chance to create and sustain your team. You must decide which values and messages are key at the beginning of the year, and your assembly is a vehicle to over communicate them, celebrate them, and realign them. Never underestimate the effect of a respected adult standing in front of young people and telling them what really matters to them – what this community is aspiring to, and how it will achieve this. You can keep going back to your year group’s, or school’s, mission for that year. In my head, each assembly takes another step towards every person in the room becoming confident with your overarching message. Confidence breeds conversation. Conversation and discussion creates the shared language and culture to which you aspire.

Refer back to the assembly

Once you have set out your stall in an assembly, the work has just begun. It is time to circulate during the school day, linking back to the content and questioning students about it. How can they see those themes or ideas in everyday life, not just in a quiet assembly hall on a Monday morning? Like good retrieval practice, it is important to keep quizzing and discussing the assembly itself, so that it becomes an important and memorable part of the week. Anything that gets mentioned once for 15 minutes in the week lacks prominence.

Of course, this is an opportunity to listen, too. In the first instance, they listened, you talked. The rest of the week is a chance to ask them about their own views or experiences.

Referring back to the assembly should also feed into a focus for the week, perhaps a form time activity or pastoral curriculum link. It also forms an important part of day-to-day student conversations regarding their choices. ‘It’s so fantastic that you chose to ______ after our assembly this week, I really value how you’ve exemplified…’. Or, ‘we agreed in assembly this week that as a year group, we are kind and loving. I know you buy into that, but it hasn’t worked out in your decision this time. So, let’s…..’.

Long-term continuity

Over the course of the year, you can build on previous assemblies. One year, I was writing a novel. I told the Sixth Form in September what I was doing, and what I hoped to achieve. I told them that I was nervous and that there would be many bumps in the road. That in six months time, I might not be finished, but my daily habits would have helped me get a lot closer. Once a month, I updated them. Word count update. Emotional update! Goal update. As the year went on, this became a hot topic of conversation, but was also a topic that mirrored their studies. For them it was two years of academic endurance where many steps built up to a final goal. Mine was the same – we journeyed and shared together.

Another long-term project I like to set out in assemblies is the use of Kiva, a micro-loan website that helps people from around the world secure loans for their businesses or education. It’s a wonderful tool that focuses on sustainable development instead of one-off donations. I usually set out what Kiva is at the start of the year, and we vote which of 3 causes we will send a loan to (I secretly loan to all 3). Then, throughout the year, we lend to more causes, and check in on those who have used our money already. The satisfaction that students get when you show them that $1.50 of your loan has been repaid because the loanee’s business is growing and succeeding, is just fantastic. It’s important to show students that we see projects through, that things matter for the medium and the long term.

Share vulnerability

As authority figures in a school, our role is to set values and rules, and to uphold them. An assembly is an excellent opportunity to share who you are and any pertinent vulnerabilities that may help build rapport or relatability. At certain moments, I like to talk about how I was adopted. I want the students to understand the struggle I faced with my identity as a teenager, not to gain their sympathy but to share the message that each one of us carries their own insecurities and difficulties – often unbeknown to everyone else that walks through the school gates each morning. This is a key factor in building empathy among a cohort. We all have our stuff, and I’ll get us started.

If an assembly leader can share vulnerability, they model it to the children. It’s okay to admit a ‘weakness’ or emotion. It opens doors. Conversations. Sharing in the future. It means when you are counselling students, they understand that you are an open and authentic person.

The key is to take your piece of vulnerability and to make a link to relate to everyone in the room. If I talk about how I skived college to read Oscar Wilde and Jack Kerouac during my A-Levels (true story) because I was overwhelmed by parental divorce and friendship issues, I can then discuss this with them to reflect on how they cope with difficult moments. What is their tendency? Do they make better decisions than I did? How can they improve on my choices? These moments should be transferable and provide lessons learnt!

Exposure and education

Assemblies, are, of course, a brilliant way to expose students to values, experiences, and cultural capital. Reading James Handscombe’s A School Built on Ethos, I was inspired by how many poems, novels, speeches and moments in history had been discussed in his school. What you speak about in assembly will be noted as important to your students. This is why we must plan carefully and think about inclusion, diversity, and cultural references. I was, earlier in my career, given some feedback that I talked a lot about the wisdom of white, male sports coaches. There was nothing sinister in that feedback, and what I received was that I need to appeal to the audience in front of me by broadening their horizons– it’s not enough to educate the children about what they already know or are exposed to. That was a valuable lesson for my future planning.

Sincerity is the greatest fuel

Some assembly leads spend a long time working on the visuals behind their assembly: PowerPoint, videos, etc. But visuals are no match for the authentic gaze of a sincere speaker. Someone speaking from their heart, whose every glance towards the audience, every connection made, is an opportunity to share their soul and sincerity with those in the room. This is why it’s so important to speak humbly and sincerely, to engage with topics that light your fires; anything artificial, such as a borrowed idea from someone else, will fall flat.

While I miss the volume of assemblies that I used to lead, I know I have a few more in my locker. It took years for me to feel confident of my delivery, and happy with my planning. I’d love to discuss assemblies with others – one of the brightest points of every week.

Hopefully these reflections will resonate with others. Happy assembling!

S

Making The Leap, by Dr Jill Berry

Why I read it 

Aside from the fact that Dr Jill Berry is, I believe the term to be, a legend of the game, I actually won this in a prize draw at the Southern Rocks conference in 2018. I was an Assistant Headteacher in charge of Learning and Teaching, and had brought members of my L&T Group with me for what was a brilliant day of learning and fun – in fact, I met a few members of Team English and the delightful Doug Wise. At the time, I laughed aloud when I won Making The Leap – it seemed laughable to me that I would even consider becoming a headteacher, let alone be good enough to become one. As a Deputy Head now, I’m not making the leap, but I am interested in the wisdom and experience of Jill Berry!

In summary

Jill outlines the process of becoming a headteacher: understanding when you are ready, choosing a school, the application process, the transition, the opening months in post, and then becoming established. Jill applies her own wisdom and experience as a headteacher, but, just as usefully, shares her doctoral research. The six participants in her study, who were making the move from Deputy to Head, are featured throughout the book, adding multiple perspectives and insights.

As I read the book, I quickly realised that almost all of the pearls of wisdom could be applied to preparing for, and beginning, any professional role. The takeaways below are aimed to be transferable so that readers can apply to their own role or aspirations.

Key takeaways

  1. Start with why – sometimes we are taken by the current when it comes to our career – circumstance doesn’t always match intention. Berry encourages middle leaders to think about why they are looking to step up. Such questions include: ‘what do they believe the new level of responsibility will enable them to achieve, and how will that be more rewarding and fulfilling than their current role?’ Or, ‘what is appealing about the extended sphere of influence accorded by the position to which they aspire?’.
  2. Inheriting a role vs inhabiting a role – Berry dedicates a chapter to managing the ‘lead in’ period. There are many practical ideas, here, but chief among them is how we ‘inherit a role’, for example in the way we inherit a culture and context;the question is, how much do we change a culture, and how much will the existing culture change us? This idea of reciprocal socialisation is fascinating to consider, as we work out how we both inherit and inhabit this new role.
  3. The perfect leader? – the perfect form and method of leadership builds in your mind during the course of your career, but this may change over time. The author suggests that, in post, there is the leader you most want to be, and the leader the school requires you to be at that stage.It will take careful consideration at each step to decide how to apply both values and pragmatism to your given context.
  4. Sustainability is the key – while the book is a celebration of moving into headship, it also warns about how to give yourself the best chance of achieving the right balance. From finding a mentor or coach, to contributing to education beyond your school, or focusing on gratitude among the busy days, Berry provides a range of ideas to help heads in what is such a demanding role.

Favourite quote

‘In my opinion, being a head is not dramatically different in nature from being an effective head of department, the leader of a pastoral team, or a deputy head. Leadership is both simple and complex. It is simply about getting the best from all the individuals within the teams for which you are responsible, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’

Favourite moment

As Sam Strickland attests, you cannot truly know the role of a Headteacher until you do the job. Berry calls one section ‘Continuing to build the bridge as you walk over it’, citing many examples where research participants faced unexpected events in the early part of their Headship, such as a bereavement in the school community in the opening weeks of September.

Why is this my favourite moment? I found the honesty of Jill and her participants truly refreshing. We are all muddling along, doing our best, and trying to apply our knowledge, experience and instincts for the benefit of those we work with. The vulnerability shared here, that even headteachers feel imposter syndrome and regularly deal with situations they feel are beyond them, was humbling and a real motivator to keep challenging oneself.

Read this if…

You are considering moving into another professional role – it doesn’t have to be headship

You are a Deputy Headteacher who is thinking about ‘making the leap’!

Buy the book here

The Fearless Organisation, by Amy C. Edmondson

Why I read it 

Ever since I ran a staff wellbeing research project, I’ve been on a journey to find evidence-informed strategies to help staff be the best versions of themselves. Often I’ve found that books go on a merry quest to countless high-performing organisations, in the pursuit of nirvana culture. However, I’d heard that The Fearless Organisation coupled this style with more practical strategies and ideas for the reader, and it delivered.

In summary

In the Fearless Organisation, Amy Edmondson explores the term psychological safety, and what features might create a psychologically safe workplace. It is probably no surprise to you that workers who feel safe to contribute, challenge, and create tend to be more productive and enjoy their work more; but The Fearless Organisation covers so much more. Edmondson points out that we can still be realistic about circumstances at work, for example a project failing, or the economy leading to redundancies at a company, while maintaining our sense of psychological safety. She is adamant that psychological safety is not being too nice or avoiding conflict, but rather it is about having safe, open dialogue in an organisation. It’s trust but at a group level.

The book, then, is dedicated to the discussion of examples of psychological safety from a variety of case studies and research, followed by practical strategies to make your own workplace psychologically safe for your workers.

Key takeaways

  1. Interpersonal risks and how to overcome them – As social beings, we tend to conform and desire acceptance; we work out early in life how to avoid interpersonal risks. We may avoid asking questions in order to look more competent, or not challenge a colleague because we want to avoid being a troublemaker. Edmondson finds that the best teams create cultures of openness and curiosity, where staff are encouraged to question, report errors, and discuss the risks of failure – failure as an inevitable step in the journey, not as terminal.
  2. Psychological safety raises standards – Edmondson’s studies have found that psychological safety in the workplace increases candour, mutual respect, and trust. It is a conducive environment to setting ambitious goals and working towards them together. Put simply, having high standards and high psychological safety is the winning ticket.
  3. How to create a winning team – a study by Julia Rozovsky looked at which teams at Google performed best, and analysed the teams’ hobbies, backgrounds, friends, traits and more – no trends emerged as to why some teams performed better than others. And then they looked at psychological safety, and everything fell into place. Even Google’s brightest, sharpest performers needed to be within a psychologically safe team in order to thrive.
  4. How to create PS: 1. Candour – create genuine candour and openness. Pixar and their ‘Brain Trust’ process are cited, in which groups evaluate projects at early stages, and give constructive, impersonal feedback. The expectation is that all projects will need a lot of work and feedback to begin with – it is natural, anticipated, and celebrated.
  5. How to create PS: 2. Freedom to fail create an environment in which failure and fear are uncoupled. Where the emphasis is on failure not being something to avoid or fear, but as a natural part of learning and exploration.
  6. How to create PS: 3. Be a don’t knower – leaders need humility – they should admit what they don’t know, ask questions, and trust those around them. ‘Leaders who are willing to say ‘I don’t know’, play a surprisingly powerful role in engaging the hearts and minds of employees.’
  7. Making it happen Edmondson finishes by creating her own model to create a psychologically safe, thriving work place. It comprises 3 parts: Setting the Scene, Inviting Participation, Responding Productively. I’d encourage you to read the book to find out more, but it is a transferable and easy to follow model that I’ve already tried to use. In essence, we are encouraged to ‘set the scene’ with a project or idea, clarifying the nature of the work, and acknowledging how failures along the way will be currency for growth. Secondly, we should ‘invite participation’ by admitting we don’t know all the answers, encourage the team to learn more about it, ask open questions of those around us, and create systems and safe places for others to give open feedback. Finally, we must ‘respond productively’, by listening carefully, acknowledging those who flag up errors or ideas, and destigmatise failure throughout.

Favourite quote

‘A culture of silence is a dangerous culture’

Edmondson cites many examples, which may be familiar to you, of healthcare, aviation, and other industries in which staff were afraid to speak up in the face of an error or miscalculation. Their fear of reporting lead to lives being lost, accidents occurring, or financial loss.

Reading the quote above fills me with dread – if there is one thing I want to avoid in my career, family, or social circles, it is a culture of silence in which people cannot express themselves. We’d all like to think we are open to feedback, but it is vital that we take action to make sure this is a certainty, and not a desire.

Favourite moment

In the early part of the book, Edmondson shares a survey that you can use with staff to understand the level of psychological safety in the workplace. It’s a 7-question survey that I will certainly use in my workplace. This is one of the many aspects of this book, such as the model to ‘make it happen’, in which the author challenges us to move beyond our sage nodding along with her wisdom, and to actually take some action in our own workplace.

We might aspire to psychological safety. We might believe it already exists in our workplace. But do we have the courage to survey that feeling among others? This is a great starting point.

Question and reflect

Is your workplace psychologically safe? How do you know? How will you find out?

Do your staff feel safe to express themselves, to try things out and make mistakes? Is it a safe workplace in which to fail?

How does your workplace combine high expectations and psychological safety?

Read this if…

You want to understand how people typically feel in the workplace

You want to explore concepts of psychological safety, across a range of industries

You want tangible, practical strategies to improve the psychological safety in your workplace

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ResearchEd Surrey 2021 – reflection

Dan Cable writes in Alive at Work, that a powerful method to build relatedness and belonging within a team is to ask each person when they are at their best. Which circumstances bring out the best version of themselves? It’s a fascinating question. The rationale is, that by sharing this self-reflection, your shared vulnerability helps to bond the team, but also that each member’s response helps the team to understand what each other look like when they are truly thriving.

Looking around Farnham Heath End School at ResearchEd Surrey 2021, it seemed that this was a circumstance and experience that brought the best out of every delegate and speaker. The air was abuzz with excited conversation, rustling of programmes amidst frantic plotting of routemaps for the day, and of course the scent of cookies that followed one across the site (they were excellent).

There are no typical answers to the ‘best version of yourself question’, but I’ve found among educators the response often involves helping or serving others. When you gather likeminded colleagues together who are taking control of their professional development with autonomy and passion, there is a sense of wonder and enjoyment that is difficult to surpass. It is this feeding of intellectual curiosity and collaboration which will ultimately culminate in the desire to help and lead others.

The tangible thrill in the air that prevailed throughout ResearchEd Surrey has been my experience at many conferences that are focused on evidence-informed sessions when they are run and attended by passionate professionals.

So, what were my key takeaways from the day?

Firstly, it must be said that the organisation was exemplary from the Farnham Heath End and Research Ed teams – every detail had been considered.

Sharing experiences of research

I first relished the evidence-informed period of education that we are currently enjoying in 2015, and began attending conferences in 2016. While those events, books, and blogs were fantastic, it seems to me in hindsight that they were generally about the theory behind a new piece of research, along with accompanying studies. Five to six years on, we now have case studies and depth of experiences that practitioners are sharing. Jon Hutchinson spoke in his session about the importance of evaluating the impact of any initiatives or systems that you introduce, thus aiding your decision about which tradeoffs to make in your school. Now that we have more experiences, we can re-examine research to see how it stacks up within schools and colleges. As Adam Robbins said, is the juice worth the squeeze?

Jade Pearce lead a fantastic session about leading evidence-informed teaching and learning. As she acknowledged, we’ve all read about retrieval practice, cognitive load theory, and other strategies to improve teaching. What she provided her grateful crowd was six years of experience: how did she roll out these ideas to school staff? Which things worked? Which things needed tweaking? Like Jon, who spoke about how they have refined their instructional coaching programme after nearly a decade of working on it, Jade was able to match research with lived experience. You can’t read that in a book in the same way.

Dissemination of research

Of course, it wouldn’t be ResearchEd without some significant chewing of complex theories and evidence bases. My first encounter with that in Surrey was Adam Robbins and his session about how behaviour spreads. Adam picked through the work of Damon Centola, a social scientist who specialises in social norms and how groups adopt new behaviours. Adam did a fantastic job of highlighting the key concepts from Centola’s work, sharing them with wit, humour, and references to interesting studies. I told at least 4 people about the farmers from Malawi. The session trod the fine balance of being accessible and yet complex, piquing my interest to go and read more. The same can be said of Oliver Caviglioli and David Goodwin, who touched upon the excellent work of Annie Murphy Paul in The Extended Mind, disseminating a couple of her ideas, and yet not overwhelming the audience in what is a relatively short time to speak on a topic.

This is the essence of a successful research-informed event: equipping the educators at the conference to leave with enthusiasm, new knowledge, and most importantly, a thirst for more.

Collegiality

Everyone who gathers on a Saturday is on a quest to broaden their expertise, meet other colleagues, and to revel in the autonomy of choosing your own CPD. There are, of course, well known faces moving in and around the session venues, and the chance to do some edu-celeb watching is always a fun activity. I may have succumbed to some name dropping and mentioned how I took Doug Lemov and Joe Kirby to the football recently.

But I can guarantee that everyone at ResearchEd met someone new, strengthened professional and / or personal ties with existing colleagues, or will make a connection with someone post-conference. Despite my jesting at the well-known voices, these conferences are places without hierarchy or ego – and this perhaps contributes to the wonderful humour on show. I laughed countless times during the day. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good laugh, but the sense of positivity and optimism creates a perfect breeding ground for humour, self-deprecation, laughter, and shared experience.

Personally, I enjoyed my brief time with Joe Kirby, a deep thinker who can drill to the heart of a matter within seconds, and then switch to light and carefree within the same discussion. A true gentleman and an exceptional mind. I also enjoyed introductions with Patrice Bain and Jade Pearce, both of whom I’ve interacted with on Twitter, and was just about brave enough to say hello to in person.

I don’t have shares in ResearchEd. This blog post celebrates the gathering of educators from across the country, and beyond, on a Saturday. The combination of autonomy over our development, the variety of sessions on offer, and the purpose driving each and every person who attends conferences or reads about improving their practice, created tangible delight. This event was a true celebration of professionals who want to be better, to grow their minds, networks, and of course, their teaching.

Here’s to continued sharing, generosity, and discussion.

The Coaching Habit, by Michael Bungay Stanier

Why I read it

Every coaching course I’ve been on, and most coaching blogs that I’ve read, recommend The Coaching Habit as the go-to guide for coaching wins. It is renowned for its insightful advice and practical style. After hearing about it multiple times, I had to read it – now, after completing it twice, I’m certainly glad I did.

In summary

The Coaching Habit is indeed practical, charismatic, and personable. Most coaching books are heavy on theory and sincerity (quite rightly!) and much can be learnt from them; here, though, there is a tangible sense of the dynamism of coaching, and Bungay Stanier’s style, oozing from the page.

The premise of the book is twofold: primarily, to help you build a coaching habit in both your coaching conversations, and generally in day-to-day interactions – as Christian van Nieuwerburgh would say, ‘a coaching way of being’. Secondly, The Coaching Habit provides seven essential questions to use in coaching conversations; each question has its own chapter which explores how and why you should utilise said question.

While The Coaching Habit won’t teach you everything you need to know about coaching (you didn’t expect it to, anyway), you will feel empowered and enthused by the author’s ideas and style, and the conversation framework. This book lights fires – fires to improve your coaching, to improve your leadership, and to get out there and coach!

Key takeaways:

1. Why coaching doesn’t always take off – 3 possible reasons are cited as to why only 23% of people surveyed said that coaching had a significant impact on their performance at work or job satisfaction. 1. coaching training can be overly theoretical and detached from your working habits; 2.  you aren’t able to implement the ethos or practicalities of coaching into your workplace, for whatever reason; 3. it’s surprisingly hard to advise less and ask more! The book aims to address these issues by being ‘practical and fast’ and providing the seven essential questions as a conversation framework.

2. ‘And what else?’ – The AWE question itself. Those three little words have made my brain work harder than ever before when being coached. We tend to stop when we think we’ve hit on a good idea, or drawn a conclusion. Having a coach who challenges you with ‘and what else’ (and variations of the phrase), pushes you to think more deeply; just when you thought you were spent, the AWE question fires up new ideas and options. An essential addition to your repertoire, and one that Bungay Stanier provides plenty of advice for implementing.

3. Tame the advice monster – we like to give advice! We assume we have the answers, it makes us feel competent, and we feel more comfortable offering something rather than facing the ambiguity of asking a question. But we don’t know the answers. Our job is to remain curious, keep asking the right questions, and to help our coachee unlock their own potential. This is one of the hardest parts of being a coach, but ultimately it is what will make you a good one, and it’s how your coachee will get the most out of the conversations.

4.  ‘What’s the real challenge here for you’ – Bungay Stanier cites a fictional conversation in which a coachee wants to vent / moan about a colleague. The coach indulges them and bases the conversation around this colleague, who receives quite the critique.  However, while this colleague, or alternatively a project or other issue, is a challenge that needs to be addressed, the onus needs go back to how the coachee can take ownership of the situation. The question ‘what’s the real challenge here for you?’ stops conversations getting derailed and grounds them back in what the coachee can control – now it’s over to them to think through what they can do next.

5. The seven essential questions themselves are a brilliant guide for any coaching conversation. Below is a graphic of them, created by gunterrichter.com

Whether you are a coach, or a leader trying to adopt a coaching approach, these questions are deliberately worded to unlock the best thinking from the recipient. Bungay Stanier explains in detail why they work, and the different contexts in which you could use them.

Favourite quote

‘This book is about making you a leader, a manager, a human being who’s more coach-like. Which means building this simple but difficult new habit: stay curious a little longer, rush to action and advice-giving a little more slowly’

Favourite moment

As I mentioned, The Coaching Habit aims to make changes to the way you lead and coach, often citing the ways we can change our habits (and the work of Charles Duhigg) and become more successful at applying the seven essential questions, and other principles.

After each section, we are met with the subheading: Here’s your new habit.

Followed by (with example filled in):

When this happens… I’ve got an answer to suggest the coachee

Instead of… asking fake questions such as ‘have you thought of…?’ which is just advice with a question mark

I will…. Ask one of the seven essential questions.

The aim is to take your less effective habits, for example when you want to offer advice, and replace them with a practical way of turning them into a positive action.

Read this if…

  • You are a coach looking to improve your practice
  • You are a manager or leader who wants to increase your team’s efficiency, resilience, autonomy and creativity by empowering them with brilliant questions and a coaching habit

My final thoughts are that this is a wonderful book – it truly amps up your desire to be a better coach and leader. Read it as part of a balanced diet of other coaching materials, too – for instance, more ‘traditional’ coaching books will guide you through coaching contracting and ethics, and the nuances of listening and noticing subtle cues from your coachee, among other things. But The Coaching Habit is an essential, dynamic, and inspirational addition to your coaching journey.

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Essentialism, by Greg McKeown

Why I read it

I follow many people on Twitter who have enjoyed similar books to my favourites: Think Again by Adam Grant, or Atomic Habits by James Clear, for example. What they seem to share unanimously is raving positivity about Essentialism, by Greg McKeown. I’ve read some excellent reviews and summaries of the book over the last year or so, but hadn’t quite found time to read it – you’ll appreciate the irony of that as you read on.

Opportunities come thick and fast in our lives – both within and outside our professional roles. We often feel like we do lots of things but never have much to show for them, or that we could do things better if we focused more on the few and not the many. I was intrigued to see how a busy educator could become an ‘Essentialist’.

In summary

Indeed, McKeown sets out to help us do just that: ‘only once you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, can you make your highest contribution to the things that really matter’. The book is split into four parts: understanding the essence of what the essentialist mind-set is; discerning which are our most important opportunities or tasks; eliminating the trivial; and finally, how to make the tasks / opportunities that we pursue as effortless as possible.

The prose is clean, the chapters are divided clearly with subheadings, tables are used to distinguish essentialist and non-essentialist traits, and there is a wealth of practical advice. McKeown also refers to research, studies, and many real-life anecdotes, as you’d expect from this type of book. However, he manages to inform and entertain in equal measure – all the while convincing you – no, empowering you, that you can take better control of your time, choices, opportunities, so that your quality of life and output increase.

Key takeaways

As with the other books that I consider to be the best I’ve read, it really isn’t fair of me to share 3-4 key takeaways alone. My aim is to outline what I found the most insightful, and then urge you to go and read the rest of this excellent book.

1. Do less: we need to move away from ‘I have to’, ‘It’s all important’, or ‘I can do both’ and become more disciplined about how we use our time. Part of this is merely taking control of what we say yes to: being resolute and saying no to requests, or pinpointing which tasks to pursue and which to pull away from. A good question is: ‘Will this activity make the highest contribution towards my goal?’

2.  Discern the important: ‘Scan your environment for the vital few good opportunities, and eagerly eliminate the trivial many’, says McKeown, as he advises us that essentialists view almost everything as non-essential, and therefore do not allow these to consume their time. This is easier said than done. Accepting speaking engagements, contributing to someone else’s work, taking on side projects, or even running many tasks simultaneously, are all possible examples of non-essential activities that may distract you from what really matters. The reader is pushed to eliminate distractions and the unnecessary; it certainly is challenging.

3. Time to reflect: McKeown recognises that many people quantify their productivity by how busy they are, filling their diary with meetings and projects. However, an essentialist puts quality time aside to read, reflect, explore their thoughts. When was the last time you put time aside to reflect? Coaching has taught me a lot about the power of reflection and pushing your brain to think harder; but the real challenge is building in regular reflection time. Here’s my new challenge: to sit with a pen and pad for 10 minutes a day and reflect on if I moved towards my goals, or if I accidentally veered off into the trivial!

4. Living as an essentialist: The final section of the book is aimed at you, once you have got into your essentialist mindset. You’ve focused on what really matters, you’ve turned down trivial opportunities or tasks, and you’re clear about what you need to pursue. McKeown rounds up Essentialism by advising us to build in strong routines, put in a buffer time of 50% extra so that overrunning activities have already been protected, and to keep aiming at gradual, incremental success so that we can continue to feel motivated in small, achievable steps.  He genuinely seems committed to us fulfilling the mission of becoming essentialists, and not just so that we can be more ‘productive’. He regularly talks about the benefits of this way of living: more time to spend on hobbies, or seeing our family more often; the book isn’t a business hack, but a way to improve our wellbeing, motivation, happiness, and success.

Favourite quote

‘Less but better’ – this quote comes from designer Dieter Rams, whose own design principles were based on the phrase – it is a fantastic encapsulation of essentialism.

Favourite moment

I enjoyed the mindset shift that McKeown challenges us with. If the answer isn’t a definite yes, it should be a no. He dubs this the 90% rule: evaluate every opportunity or decision by scoring its relevance or importance between 0 and 100. If an option gets below 90, don’t pursue it.

He encourages us to be ruthless with this approach, and to operate with narrow, precise criteria, so that it will become clear to us whether a task or opportunity is one to pursue or not.

Of course, the effects of this will not always feel positive. Sometimes we will need to turn down colleagues’ requests, or withdraw from being part of something that ‘feels’ exciting. But McKeown argues that the benefits of being an essentialist mean that we must dare to say no, relinquish short-term feelings of popularity, and show courage in the convictions that we’ve reflected on.

Read this if…

It’s easy to read Essentialism and think: ‘well I’m a teacher, I can’t change my timetable or say no to things during the day’. But we can make changes to our mindset to help us become more focused on what really matters.

Read this book if you want insights, and some motivation, into how to reclaim your time and focus.

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Decoding Greatness, by Dr Ron Friedman

Why I read it

I listened to a podcast with Dr Ron Friedman and loved how he spoke about his upcoming book, Decoding Greatness. As a teacher, I often try to decode an exemplar answer, or crunch numbers when analysing literature; without sticking to rigid formulas, it spoke to me that you could strip back the component parts of success. I immediately pre-ordered the book!

Summary

Daniel Pink and Adam Grant are among the top thinkers and writers who recommend this book; it is dedicated to how we can pick apart systems, products, creations and other case studies to improve our own success. Friedman uses countless examples (as well as rooting his ideas in research and science) to show how we can use strategies such as reverse engineering, imitation, and pattern recognition to create our own blueprints to success.

What I enjoy about Decoding Greatness is that, after introducing each idea, Friedman then usually provides a worked example, and then continues by helping you generalise that to other areas or industries. The book is practical and transferable.

Key takeaways:

This book supplied me with at least 10 techniques, case studies, or strategies that I will reflect upon for my own career and other goals. There is a lot to learn from, and yet in this post I’ll try to keep it concise!

  1. Become a collector: collect the most effective, inspirational, or renowned examples of the thing that you are trying to master yourself; this could be headlines for a writer, adverts for an ad creative, or football plays for an NFL coach. The bigger bank you have to refer to, the more you can consume, be inspired by, and think big with! Friedman likens it to creating your museum of expertise, and encourages us all to tour our museum frequently.
  2. Reverse engineering: pull apart great examples to learn from them. Follow the car industry by disassembling cars to see how they were made; deconstruct a TED talk to see its component parts; create a blueprint of what success looks like in your industry. Friedman then advocates thinking critically about what makes them unique. How are they separated from others? Understanding things in detail helps us place what’s unique about them, which in turn helps us create our own USPs or ideas.
  3. Imitation: imitation gets a bad name, and in some industries, copying is more normalised than others. Friedman proposes that by imitating model examples, we can begin to understand how those things were made or fulfilled. The difference between this and reverse engineering is that, imitation might be about copying the way something was done in order to better empathise with the process, whereas reverse engineering is analsying and pulling apart a finished product. The imitation example that caught my eye was a novelist who had copied out chapters from their favourite novels; literally copied them out by hand or on the computer. By doing so, they felt the rhythm of the writing, the decisions that had to be made along the way regarding vocabulary choices, sentence structures, etc. Friedman argues that it’s only by understanding and copying the best examples in your industry, do you then have enough knowledge and experience to be creative and put your own stamp on your work.
  4. Self reflection: one study that Friedman shares, asks participants to try a maths puzzle. After a few minutes, they stop. Group A is given a 3-minute break before they try at another puzzle; Group B are asked to reflect on how it went, and what tips they’d give others for next time. Group B’s results on the second puzzle exceeded Group A’s, and this was reflected in other studies. As a coach, it seems obvious to say that self reflection is a good tool to improve performance; but how often do we reflect on something we’ve done, and think of ways we could improve for next time?

Favourite moment:

Friedman uses the late Sir Ken Robinson’s famous and highest-viewed TED talk to explore how we can quantify features to better understand something. In this example, Friedman counts the total word count, the word count for each section (and marks their overall percentage of the speech), how many times humour is used, when Sir Ken uses positives or negatives, and all other aspects of the talk. In essence, he breaks down the speech into a series of numbers, patterns, and explores its structure. In theory, one could then replicate this (with caveats!) to create their own speech that possesses a proven structure and formula that works.

Friedman acknowledges that everyone has their own delivery style and every talk will have a different purpose or formality, and yet this method of quantifying features can be invaluable.

Read this if…

  • You are interested in improving your success at something that you’re working on
  • You want a range of techniques to improve your mastery in a certain area
  • You teach or coach others about how to build their own confidence and expertise

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The Extended Mind, by Annie Murphy Paul

Why I read it 

My education hero, and fellow Crystal Palace fan, Doug Lemov, tweeted that the excellent Annie Murphy Paul was looking for people to read her book in its run up to publication. A combination of Doug’s recommendation, plus the fascinating subject matter of the book, made this an easy decision, and Annie kindly accepted my request to read The Extended Mind. Due to lots of work commitments, I got behind on my review, but I’m delighted to share my thoughts now and hope you’ll take the time to read the book, too.

In summary

Annie Murphy Paul argues that countless studies have been conducted on how thinking happens ‘only inside the brain’, and that much less attention has been paid to the way people use the world to think. The Extended Mind is the term used to describe how we interact with things beyond our brain in order to aid its thinking and growth.  Examples include how physical places can have an effect on how we think or feel, in addition to movements and gestures, working in groups, and using imitation.

Each idea is explored in turn, with the author using studies and anecdotes to demonstrate the benefits of understanding the extended mind, or in other words to ‘take better advantage of the world outside our brains’.

Key takeaways

  1. Gestures can support understanding and learning: Paul refers to studies, and a fascinating anecdote about a maths teacher, to demonstrate how gestures can be matched with words or terms to help understand or memorise them. When the teacher in question, Brendan Jefferys, noticed that students were struggling with complex terms, he assigned each one a certain gesture. The theory is that the gestures are essentially ‘load lightening’, taking away cognitive strain to focus on the learning at hand, which makes it more accessible.
  2. Room with a view: studies found that working in a room with a natural view allowed call-centre workers to handle calls 6-12% faster, while they scored 10-25% higher in mental function and memory recall tests. This is not good news for my office without any windows!
  3. The power of nature on our brains: it’s not just having a view that helps: we are wired to thrive outdoors, and we don’t just enjoy being in nature more, it actually helps us to think better! Paul states that being in natural, outdoor environments helps to relieve stress and balances our equilibrium, which in turn makes our thinking more effective. There are countless examples in this section of the book about studies which prove how these natural spaces help us to thrive, for example a study showing that people who spent 90 minutes outdoors became less preoccupied with the negative aspects of their lives, compared to those who didn’t. I could name 5 other insights about the power of nature on our brains in this chapter, and it felt validating to explore the different ways that nature actually helps us to think, beyond the ‘feeling’ that it’s nice to be outside.
  4. Belonging in a space: when sports teams play at home, their testosterone rises with the ownership of their home turf. But in workplaces, too, we feel a sense of belonging, safety, and ownership in our usual patch; workers experience themselves as more capable and confident, and they are more efficient. One fascinating example is that those who negotiate deals in their own space claim 60-160% more than the visiting party. Paul quotes Professor Benjamin Meagher and his theory that our brains associate our usual, preferred spaces with the memories of what we’ve learnt and achieved there before; in Paul’s words, our brains get an ‘assist from the structure embedded in its environment’. In Meagher’s, ‘our cognition is distributed across the entire setting’.
  5. The Imitation Game: Studies show that imitation is an effective method to succeed, in a variety of ways. Paul looks at the benefits of imitation, from how looking at examples from others helps us to filter out a variety of options, to avoiding common pitfalls, to saving time, effort, and resources that are required to innovate. Again, there are some wonderful examples, here.

Favourite quote

Sorry, I’m going to carry on banging the nature drum as it was the section of the book that resonated the most.

‘The respite from insistent cognitive demands that nature provides, gives our supply of mental resources an opportunity to renew and regenerate. These resources are finite and are soon exhausted – not only be the clamor of urban living, but also by the stringent requirements of academic and professional work.’

Question and reflect

  • How often do we think about the world around us: how spaces and places can affect not only how much we enjoy thinking, but also improve our thinking drastically? Equipped with this knowledge, how can we create spaces in our lives that help our brains to thrive?
  • Dual coding is popular in teaching at the moment – reflecting on Paul’s chapter on our bodies and physical gestures helping us to think, how could we apply this to something we are teaching or learning?

Read this if…

You are interested in how we think or learn but want a slightly different approach to the other books you’ve read!

Find the book here

Noise, by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, and Cass Sunstein

Why I read it 

I really enjoyed Thinking, Fast and Slow, and having listened to Kahneman talk about his more recent work on a string of podcasts, I was excited to pre-order Noise. I knew that Kahneman and his team would be considered, detailed, and base their work on a large volume of research, and I wasn’t disappointed.

In summary

Noise is defined as the inconsistencies and flaws in our judgments; the reason why one courtroom judge can pass an extreme sentence, and the other a lenient one. Or why 10 members of the same team might all give different answers to the same question, even when they think they are holding a consistent approach with the others. The authors propose that much work has been done over the years on the effects of bias, but not nearly enough on noise.

The book examines different types of noise, such as singular versus pattern noise, as well as ways that we often miss this ‘invisible’ problem, and lastly looks at ways that we can reduce noise in our organisations.

Hugely technical and with lengthy explanations, often linked to specific industries, this isn’t a light read. But, when you persevere with the subject matter and think it through, there is much to learn from this genius group of thinkers.

Key takeaways

  1. Noise affects us much more than we think – the authors use an example from an insurance firm – two underwriters were asked to come up with an estimate for an insurance premium. Executives from the company were then asked to estimate what the difference in their answers would be: they went for 10%, on average. In fact, the difference was 55% between the two estimates. This exemplifies two things for us all: one, that there is likely to be a big difference in the way we judge things versus our colleagues; and two, that we underestimate this variability and the effects of noise. The authors suggest that we often work with the ‘illusion of agreement’.
  2. Noise doesn’t average out – an organisation may audit their noise and find that, ultimately, the average of noise and inconsistency is a relatively low number, for example 10-15%. However, it would be a mistake to think this low number means it all cancels out over time – some noise will be high, some low. But each one tells a story, each one may have lead to a costly mistake.
  3. Mood influences us – unsurprisingly, as proven with judges in court, our mood, the weather, and other circumstances, can influence the consistency and validity of our judgements
  4. Recognising and reducing noise – for me, one of the major gains I made while reading this book was to understand how easily noise, inconsistency and bias creep into our judgements and decisions. The authors do discuss a ‘decision hygiene’ process and ‘noise audit’ to help identify and reduce noise in your organisation, but I will leave that to the book itself to detail for you. The noise audit is particularly useful, and I will be using something similar with the Heads of Year team soon, to understand how and why we make the decisions that we do.

Favourite moment

I was shocked (for a moment) when I read the section on excessive coherence. Let’s say you are given some words to describe a candidate or student. Intelligent and persistent are the first two words. You are then given the next words: cunning, unprincipled. Studies show that your opinion of them changes, but not enough to seriously consider the final words, as you were influenced by your initial opinion of them. If we had received the latter words first, our opinion of them would be completely altered.

We form coherent impressions quickly and are slow to change them. We then assign less importance to the later information because of our confirmation bias that this was an intelligent and persistent person.

The key question we can apply to any situation is: would I have formed this judgement if I’d received this information in a different order? This reminds of me Maria Konnikova’s The Biggest Bluff, and becoming over confident with your poker hand at the early stages; once the latter cards are dealt, you still anchor your judgement on how you felt initially, disregarding the statistical, logical information you have latterly been given. I think we can all apply this valuable lesson to our work – we should disregard our feelings about early information, and logically consider the whole picture, before we make a judgement or decision.

Read this if…

You want to understand more about the flaws and idiosyncrasies in our judgements and decisions

You want to consider the inconsistencies and ‘noise’ in your own organisation

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An Introduction to Coaching Skills, by Christian van Nieuwerburgh

Why I read it 

I am halfway through a fantastic Coaching Accreditation Program from the good people at Growth Coaching International. One of the course leaders, Christian van Nieuwerburgh, wrote this book and has used it as part of the course materials. It is a coaching bible, not merely ‘an introduction’ as the title suggests. I usually read books within a week, but using this text over 10 weeks of the course (so far) has provided the added benefit of chewing over the ideas, revisiting them, and applying them to my practice.

In summary

A friend of mine, who is a qualified coach, joked that coaching is asking questions that don’t start with ‘why’. While amusing, this book cuts through that notion with layer upon layer of skills and values required to be an effective coach. An Introduction to Coaching Skills provides theory and practical ideas for an array of skills, such as listening, questioning, paraphrasing and summarising, giving and receiving feedback, and how to use a coaching framework such as the GROW model.

In addition to Christian’s own views and experiences, the book is packed with research, activities, key questions, anecdotal examples, and even links to a website to watch some of these skills modelled. This book has taught me so much about both the fundamentals of coaching, and the intricate skills that aren’t immediately obvious. The word I use again is: layers.

Key takeaways

  1.  Listening – this section is called ‘Listening to encourage thinking’, and firstly discourages us from completing sentences for our coachee, guessing at difficult words, or interjecting with an ‘it happened to me’-style comparison. Instead, Christian provides lots of techniques to both demonstrate our listening, but also to help us actively listen so that we are in tune with the coachee and their needs.
  2. Summarising and paraphrasing – I have to admit that when I became a coach I thought it was all about the questioning skills. But this book teaches you the power behind summarising someone’s thoughts, perhaps to clarify your understanding, to help your coachee refocus their attention, or to simply show you are listening. The chapter provides lots of ways of using summary and paraphrasing techniques.
  3.  Coaching way of being – adopting a phrase from Dr Carl Rogers, Christian suggests a variety of ways to fulfil a ‘way of being’ as a coach, from authenticity and positivity in a coaching relationship, to the need for the coachee desiring to make a change. The chapter goes on to explore how our self-reflection, awareness, and skills help us to achieve an effective and authentic ‘way of being’ as a coach.
  4. Ethics of coaching – another aspect of coaching that I had overlooked up to this point was the importance of following an agreed code of ethics as a coach, in order to ensure core principles such as confidentiality and integrity in the relationship. There is a global code of ethics that the major coaching associations adhere to.

Favourite quote

‘If I were king for a day’.

Christian heard this quote from a US conference, and decided to turn it into a coaching question: ‘If you were a king for a day, what………’

He observes that putting the coachee in control of everything allowed them to think through the effect of implementing their idea. Suddenly, their view on something was enactable, and now they would have to think through how it would actually work in practice. They realised that the situation was more complex than first appreciated, and, therefore, had to think through more possible options before deciding on the next steps.

So, try this one out with your coachees!

Favourite moment

During the preface (yes, you should read these!), Christian recalls a story that made me smile. In short, he lent a man £20 near Heathrow Airport, after the man asked for help because he’d spent his own money helping his brother. Christian gave the man his number, with the latter insisting that he would call soon to organise a return of the money. Christian felt that he had done the right thing, and wondered if he would have done the same thing before having become a coach. The man never did call Christian or find a way to return the money, but Christian would like to think that he would help a stranger in need if called upon again; ‘becoming a coach has helped me to be less judgmental and more trusting’.

Read this if…

You are thinking of becoming a coach

You are a coach reflecting on your own practice

Find the book here

The Advantage, by Patrick Lencioni

Why I read it:

As you may know, I’m on a quest to understand how staff can thrive within organisations, and have reviewed many books that study this area of working life. The Advantage is written by Patrick Lencioni, an American author who is well known for his charisma, know-how and enthusiasm – having read a lot of research-focused books, I wanted to experience something a bit different in my latest take on ‘organisational health’, and this seemed to fit the bill.

In summary:

Lencioni sets out to write a practical guide to increase organisational health; that is, that everyone in the organisation is pulling in the same direction with purpose, clarity, strong communication, and effective leadership. He splits the process for this into four steps: Build a Cohesive Leadership Team; Create Clarity; Overcommunicate Clarity; Reinforce Clarity.

Each section of the book is very practical, combining theory behind the ideas, along with step-by-step guidance to implement certain initiatives, and then case studies from organisations who have enjoyed success with the methods. What I liked about this book is that it encourages leaders to dedicate time and thought to reviewing organisational health; meetings, away days, and thinking that moves beyond the immediate to-do list that is in front of you, and to the big picture. I found this approach particularly useful given that it’s not always easy to do in education; it took me out of my comfort zone, and helped me to plan more effective meetings for the summer term, as I reflect on how to improve for next year.

Key takeaways:

  1. Open feedback is tough but has major gains: one task that is suggested for a team to have a go at, is to put some time aside, say a few hours. One activity that may foster more open feedback, trust, and reflection is for each member of the team to write down a strength about each other member, and then share them, one by one. Following this, each member writes down a target or weakness for every other member, and shares again. The combination of positive and constructive feedback can be powerful – every member is boosted but also perhaps humbled. It might feel tough at first, but experiencing this as a group normalises giving feedback, and trust between the members to be honest. Do we have healthy, constructive means of giving each other feedback in our workplace?
  2. Six critical questions: these exist to provide clarity; everyone should be able to give the same answer. Why do we exist? How do we behave? What do we do? How will we succeed? What is most important right now? Who must do what?
  3. Overcommunicating your ethos: the leadership team and organisation should keep communicating their ethos, and those six critical questions. Employees should be able to articulate the organisation’s reason for existence, values, strategic anchors, and goals.

Favourite quote:

‘Smart organisations are good at those classic fundamentals of business – subjects like strategy, marketing, finance and technology – which I consider to be decision sciences. But being smart is only half the equation. Yet somehow it occupies almost all the time, energy and attention of most executives. The other half of the equation, the one that is largely neglected, is about being healthy.

Lencioni lists healthy attributes as: minimal politics, minimal confusion, high morale, high productivity, low turnover.

Favourite moment:

‘Better Light’ sketch from the show I Love Lucy.

Ricky, Lucy’s husband, comes home from work one day to find his wife crawling around the living room on her hands and knees. He asks what she is doing. ‘I’m looking for my earrings’, she responds. Rick asks: ‘you lost your earrings in the living room?’. She shakes her head. ‘No, I lost them in the bedroom, but the light out here is much better.’

Lencioni uses the analogy to suggest that leaders look for answers where the light is better, where they are more comfortable. The light is perhaps those measurable activities, e.g. sales, revenue, exam results, data. But organisational health, the way that staff are thriving (or surviving!) is less tangible, will provide ambiguous answers, and takes time and self-reflection to improve. That is our challenge.

Question and reflect

The Advantage discusses how away days and meetings to reflect on our work can be so important to review culture and organisational health. In schools, we are generally time poor – the timetable isn’t going anywhere! My new school has annual away days for various teams – an idea that raised my eyebrows at first. But the more I reflect about taking time to think about who we are, what we are doing and why, away from the fray or the immediacy of work which may influence our long-term plans, the more I’m coming round to the idea.

In that sense, reading a book that is mostly about organisations outside of education is a mixed blessing. Sure, there are ideas that just couldn’t work in school settings, but those are few compared with the others that you wouldn’t ordinarily consider, but could be adapted to your school setting. There is a richness in exploring other contexts.

Read this if…

You lead a team

You want to reflect on your team / organisation for the coming year. Perhaps you are considering your six critical questions, your general culture of behaviour, or want to set new goals.

Support bookshops and find it here

Wednesday’s Wisdom #7: Two Ears, One Mouth – the Art of Listening

‘No, that’s not really what I meant’. The fatal knell of a speaker’s response, once you’ve neglected your duties as a listener with a blundered question or comment. You can probably salvage the visage of the conversation itself, but it sounds like the speaker doubts your understanding. The trust you built may have been undermined. Perhaps you didn’t listen attentively enough. Perhaps you missed opportunities to clarify along the way. Or perhaps you worded your question clumsily. On the surface, this isn’t a catastrophic error in your day; you have hundreds of conversations, it’s difficult to be perfect in each of them, and I’ve obviously catastrophised this example.

But, heck, we’re all good listeners, right? We teach, we lead, we collaborate, and all of those roles require a sensitive ear and at least a smattering of emotional intelligence. As I’ve learnt on my coaching journey, though, it’s not enough to just think you’re a good listener. It’s not enough to be curious, or engaged. We can be engaged and yet make all sorts of incorrect assumptions about what we’re being told, or interject needlessly with our golden advice that turns out to be at best disempowering and at worst incorrect. Listening is a skill that takes practice. It is deliberate. Nuanced. And worthy of study and reflection.

I find that our aim or motive going into a conversation can play a big role in how effectively we listen within them. Consider some of your interactions today, and your motive for listening. Were you simply waiting to hear the information you needed? Were you allowing the speaker time to feel listened to? Were you genuinely engaged in what you were hearing? Did you want to help the speaker? If so, how? Through direction or coaching? On how many of those occasions, today, were you the best version of your listening self? How many of those people you spoke to felt empowered and heard?

Burt (P3, 2019) suggests that, especially in a coaching context, listening can be the ways a listener becomes aware of what a speaker is experiencing and expressing in a given moment. When we feel as though we are being listened to, it can have a profound effect on us; as David Augsberger said: ‘being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable’. The positive feelings allow our brain to work in a safe environment; we don’t have to expend energy and thoughts holding back or guarding ourselves, which allows the liberation to pursue an idea. When you couple this with the listener’s inquiry questions to help deepen their understanding of the issue, or to prompt further thinking in the speaker, we have a pretty potent force (in essence, this is coaching!).

But, this is difficult to perfect every time, and often something goes awry:

  • Lack of focus or distractions – in a busy environment, not giving someone our undivided attention can often occur
  • Perceived lack of time to listen properly
  • Perceived weakness that listening means we aren’t leading with ‘strength’
  • Good intentions, poor interventions – often, we are keen to help those we are listening to. We’ll interject with advice, assumptions about the situation or the person. It might validate our sense of worth or competence to do so, but is that helping the speaker feel heard, valued, or trusted to talk through their own ideas?

An article from the Harvard Business Review carried out research to find out the habits of effective listeners, with some findings indicating that they created safe environments, asked questions, and offered feedback and suggestions as they went along. The key in their studies was that those who were rated as poor listeners stayed mostly silent during the conversation, and then gave feedback or advice at the end; those rated good listeners were involved in the conversation throughout, and therefore their advice was welcomed.

Burt (2019) outlines 4 modes of listening to bear in mind; things that we perhaps do automatically, but could be more consciously aware of while we are listening:

  1. Attention: concentration and focus on the speaker and conversation
  2. Inquiry: the skill to respond and explore the speaker’s account, helping both parties deepen their awareness / understanding
  3. Observation: noticing and understanding non-verbal cues
  4. Resonance: the sensitivity and awareness that allows someone to notice how they are being impacted by the speaker, and how to show that response to the speaker.

In other words, to listen effectively, we need to focus, engage, ask pertinent questions, observe our speaker’s non-verbal cues, and to reflect on how the speaker feels, but also to evaluate how we are making them feel.

Again, it is easy to think of a conversation as questions and answers. You ask questions, they give answers, repeat. But there are other techniques we can use to not simply mine information, but to help the speaker feel heard, and come to greater awareness of their own thoughts. Here are some other key listening skills I have picked up recently from coaching courses, books, and research, which are often referred to as active listening skills:

  • Replaying: playing back certain words or phrases to the person you are listening to, in order to see what hearing back their own wording provokes. Sometimes it affirms their views, and other times hearing the words aloud allows them to clarify or alter that idea. ‘Oh, now that I hear that, actually what I meant was…’
  • Paraphrasing and summarising: it can be useful to sum up or paraphrase elements of what we’ve just heard; this has the twofold benefit of demonstrating our listening and understanding, while also helping the speaker hear what their key points may have been. I find a useful way in to this, adopted from Christian van Nieuwerburgh, is ‘So, it sounds like you….’
  • Clarifying: asking questions to check if your understanding is correct. This helps convey your engagement and determination to understand, as well as helping you make sure you are fully abreast of the situation.
  • Asking how they feel about something: it’s easy to go through a conversation and ask about details, facts, events, options, plans, etc. But how often do you ask about how someone feels? ‘How does that option make you feel? ‘If you achieved that, how would you feel?’.

As I said earlier, I do consider (like most) myself to be a good listener. And yet, practising these techniques during both coaching and other professional conversations is pushing my brain to the limit. I am not yet unconsciously competent, as it were, which means I’m almost mechanically churning through the gears to listen actively and competently. I’m optimistic that, with practice, and making this my daily method to listen and converse, I’ll improve.

While these are all excellent principles of coaching, I don’t see them as being confined to coaching conversations. If you’re interested in reflecting about not only how to ‘listen better’, but to help develop and empower the person you are listening to, try out some of these ideas in your daily chats. I’m a big believer in the ‘coaching approach’ being utilised informally in corridors, offices, classrooms in a spontaneous fashion; good listening doesn’t need to be exclusive to a purposely scheduled meeting.

Enjoy your listening this week.

Sam

Sources and inspiration:

Buck, A (2020) The BASIC Coaching Method. Cadogan Press

Burt (2019) The art of listening in coaching and mentoring. Routledge, London

Van Nieuwerbrugh, C (2017) An Introduction to Coaching Skills. Sage, London.

Whitmore, J (2014) Coaching for Performance. NB Publishing, London.

What Great Listeners Actually Do (hbr.org)

Research Paper: Active Listening: An Essential Skill for Coaching (coachcampus.com)

The Power of Listening in Helping People Change (hbr.org)