Coaching and Leading with Relational Energy | Steve Barkley

Coaching and Leading with Relational Energy

I was introduced to the term Relational Energy in a blog by Kim Cameron.

“Positive energy elevates individuals, is life-giving and fosters vitality. In nature, the most common source of positive energy is the sun. It is the life-giving force. All species, including human beings, are inclined over time toward life-giving energy, and they avoid life-depleting or life-endangering energy. This phenomenon is called the heliotropic effect.”

Allison Sheehan defines the heliotropic effect as a natural search for light. “Which simply means that every living system has a tendency toward the light and away from darkness, or a tendency towards that which is life-giving and away from that which endangers life. For example, if you put a plant near a window that faces the sun, you will soon notice that the plant begins leaning toward the light. In other words, it is leaning toward the light that gives it life. It’s natural for us to want to find the most beneficial thing for us. We want to perform as our best selves and achieve flow and virtuousness in our work. Companies who encourage and enable employees to succeed in these areas will receive benefits from happy and engaged employees.”

Happy and engaged teachers certainly should be a focus of school leaders as the new school year begins among the still confusing impacts of COVID. It is the only way to create learning environments for happy and engaged learners.

Unlike expending physical, mental, and emotional energy which generally requires some recovery time, relational energy tends to elevate and renew itself. We seldom become exhausted, for example, by being around loving, supportive people who help uplift us. In fact, we often seek relational energy to become renewed. Relational energy renews us, uplifts us and refreshes us. It is the energy exchanged between two individuals. (Kim Cameron)

Cameron lists five attributes of positively energizing leaders that I see strongly connecting to effective instructional leadership and instructional coaching.

Listening actively and empathetically

In the Leader’s Guide to Coaching in Schools, John Campbell and Christian van Nieuwerburgh identity these three important guidelines that I see connected to active and empathetic listening:

Being Present – “There are few greater gifts we can give another person these days than being present.” Giving full and focused attention is a powerful way to build trust.

Listening Actively – “Listening at a level that really hears not only words but also emotions is enormously affirming, generating insights and self-understanding.” Listening in coaching isn’t a request for more information but rather enabling the teacher to listen to herself.

Clarifying – “Clarifying consists of confirming that the coach has heard and understood what the coachee has said and intended.” The coachee should gain greater clarity herself from the coach’s clarifying process.

Expressing gratitude and humility

In an earlier blog, I explored intellectual humility with these four questions from Warren Burger:

  • Do I think more like a soldier or a scout? (Scouts explore new territory.)
  • Would I rather be right, or would I rather understand?
  • Do I seek out opposing points of view?
  • Do I enjoy the pleasant surprise of discovering I am mistaken?

Instilling confidence and self-efficacy in others and helping them flourish

Certainly, this is the real payoff of a coaching culture in a school. When teachers see an instructional coach as someone who supports them in achieving their goals rather than as someone implementing a district’s “program,” relational energy builds.
Coaching conversations, where the teacher’s agenda emerges and develops over time, increase understanding, build trust, and promote vulnerability and risk-taking. The teacher’s agenda includes the beliefs, values, and thinking behind the teacher’s decision-making. A general guideline, I recommend, is that a coach wants to know what the teacher is thinking before sharing what the coach is thinking. (From an earlier blog, Uncovering Teachers’ Agendas)

“Truly effective coaching places people above programs.”

(Perret and McKee, Compassionate Coaching)

Being trusting and trustworthy

Increasingly, I am finding instructional coaching and teacher leadership job descriptions that blur the lines between evaluation, supervision, and coaching responsibilities. Answering these questions can assist in building trust: What happens in each of these roles? What can a teacher expect and not expect? How does the observer’s role change in each of these? What responsibilities does the teacher have in each activity? (Find more in this blog, Building Trust with Expectations)

Motivating others to exceed performance standards

I have spoken often about the need for school leaders to keep the challenge of continuous improvement in front of all educators. I suggest that all teachers be asked at the beginning of the year to describe what they are planning to do that they have never done before. Your strongest teachers might be asked what they are planning to do that perhaps no one has done before. Those high-performing teachers should be on the cutting edge of action research helping us discover a breakthrough in learning.

What conscious steps can you take to increase relational energy?

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.”

(Often attributed to John Quincy Adams)
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