Being a Witness to the Good

April 19, 2023
Written by
Brian Sepe

Being a Witness to the Good

May 19, 2023
April 19, 2023
Written by
Brian Sepe

One of the simplest and most powerful ways to build emotional connections is by sharing positive information with others. When people share positive information, they validate, encourage, and even inspire others.

We know that educators are some of the hardest working, passionate, selfless, and impactful individuals in the workforce – you do your best every day to make an impact. We also know that it can be an extremely challenging role filled with stress and anxiety. It’s easy for anyone – coaches, teachers, or administrators – to feel especially vulnerable. Many of us struggle to find solid ground amidst uncertainty, but the good news is that we can share that vulnerability to create an environment of psychological safety.

Feeling safe reduces anxiety and encourages realistic optimism. For instructional coaches partnering with teachers, it’s especially important to focus on recognizing and naming the good we witness. As you are visiting teachers and classrooms to complete coaching cycles, focus on all that you have accomplished this year, on what is going well, and use it as a springboard for next steps. When we are highly sensitive to the positive things that others do, it provides a great service to the educators in our schools.

Too often, the challenges of being an educator and the emotional exhaustion that comes with trying to reach every child every day, make it difficult for teachers to fully comprehend the good they are doing. There’s no one correct way to navigate these challenges, but with a safe and supportive partner, it’s easier to focus on the real reason we’re all here: the students.

To improve at being a witness to the good, we simply need to try to improve the quality of our comments, and then monitor whether or not the way we share information changes the way people respond to our comments. We can explore the three areas outlined in Better Conversations and use the three forms at the bottom of this post to support our reflection and goal-setting.

Bottom-Up Attention and Top-Down Attention

Bottom up attention is the attention we use when we notice something that we can't help noticing. With bottom-up attention, we are positioned to notice things that are seemingly unavoidable. Our bottom-up attention can help us notice pleasant things like the level of student talk in a classroom or unpleasant sounds like the tapping of pencils or pens as the teacher is teaching.

Top-down attention, on the other hand, occurs only when we prompt ourselves to look for something. We start with a lens with which we can hold ourselves accountable for finding the good and set out to notice the positives in a given interaction. With top-down attention, we position ourselves with a sincere intention to find the good and not get distracted with the bottom-up items that will inevitably surface.

Direct, Specific, Nonattributive Comments

Harvard researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey (2001) offer a second suggestion on how to share positive information, which they refer to as "a language of ongoing regard." Kegan and Lahey stress that appreciative or admiring feedback needs to be (a) direct, (b) specific, and (c) nonattributive.

  • Direct comments are spoken to a person in the first person.
  • Specific comments clearly explain the details of what we are praising.
  • Nonattributive comments describe our experience of others rather than the attributes of others.

Learning how to give direct, specific, nonattributive feedback is a skill that can be developed until it becomes a habit of thought and part of our daily practice.

Growth and Fixed Mindset

To continue our pursuit of being a witness to the good, our mindset and actions need to be authentic, direct, specific, and nonattributive of course, and our focus needs to include an emphasis on effort rather than intelligence. Our goal is to communicate to others that we see the good they are doing. Therefore, our comments need to be authentic and encouraging not inauthentic and critical.

After we've committed to creating and cultivating good habits around noticing and communicating, we can continue this development by focusing our attention to refining our language from fixed to growth commentary. We can focus on effort, rather than fixed traits, and using specific, direct, nonattributive comments to strengthen our interactions.

Getting Better at Being a Witness to the Good

Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to be intentional about what we choose to see and how we share our thoughts. Here are three forms that can help you do the important work of being a witness to the good by reflecting on your own work and setting new intentions for a preferred future for yourself and the impact you hope to have on others.

Looking Back: Being a Witness to the Good

Looking At: Being a Witness to the Good

Looking Ahead: Being a Witness to the Good

Do you have a coaching story to share?

We love hearing how instructional coaching is impacting the life, work, and relationships of people all over the world. Share your story with us today.