Silence = space for learning

One of Michael Bungay Stanier’s recommended strategies described in his book “The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever is so simple that anyone can do it. And it can lead to more enlightening conversations with those in your charge, whether you’re a parent, a counselor, or a manager.

Get comfortable with silence.

Stanier’s book recommends seven essential questions for those you are coaching or leading. But in order for the responses to lead to better coaching for you and better learning for them, you need to give them time to formulate their answers. If a question is followed by even 3-4 seconds of silence, many people—and I’m one of them—feel compelled to fill that void by rephrasing, clarifying, or outright starting over with a new question. Instead, just do this (Stanier describes this in the first person, as if you’re reminding yourself how to handle these scenarios):

“When I’ve asked a question and she doesn’t have an answer ready in the first two seconds, instead of filling up the space with another question or the same question just asked a new way or a suggestion or just pointless words, I will take a breath, stay open and keep quiet for another three seconds.”

Stanier argues that it’s during these silences, when people are considering their answers, that they are forming new neural pathways and increasing both their potential and capacity.

Sometimes the best way to create space for learning is to stop giving advice and start listening.

When time to grow is time to go

Patrick O’Connor wrote this post for counselors who are advising underclassmen on their high school plans for next year. But I think parents and kids would be well-served to know how one of the best high school counselors in the business advises colleagues to answer a student who asks a question like the one below in bold.

Do I have to keep up the trombone? This is also the time when students start to evaluate their electives and their extracurricular activities. The cool activity they just couldn’t live without in middle school has lost its shine, but they’ve heard colleges really like to see commitment to some core extracurriculars. They turn to you to know if they have to be miserable for the next two years, or if they get their life back. No pressure here.

In many ways, this is the same situation as giving up French. Colleges do like to see students commit to a few core activities and grow in them (by becoming part of an award-winning robotics team, or getting a promotion at work), but it’s unlikely a student will rise to new levels of leadership if their heart just isn’t into it. Junior year is no time to join seven new clubs—the colleges will see right through that—but if it’s time to grow, it’s time to go.”

When the question isn’t the question

Counselors, many of the questions students and parents pose to you aren’t questions at all. They’re actually introductions. The real questions still need to be uncovered.

Should I prep for the ACT this summer?

I heard that applying early decision increases your chances of getting in. Is that true?

I can’t take AP Bio and the art class at the same time. I should take AP Bio, right?

Wouldn’t it be better to choose UCLA over Colorado College if I want to be a doctor?

Our son needs personal attention. Can you recommend some smaller schools?

They seem straightforward. In fact, they could technically be answered with a simple yes or no. But experienced counselors know that giving a simple answer won’t satisfy the seeker. Instead, veterans will come back with a question of their own.

        Is the ACT the best test for you to take?

How do you feel about  committing to one school?

Do you enjoy your science classes?

A doctor? Good for you. Are you certain that’s your future career path?

Sure, I can suggest some schools. Can you tell me more about what kind of personal attention is most helpful?

Follow a question with a question, and you’ll get one step closer to finding the best answer to give.

8 questions for managers (plus counselors, parents, and students)

Claire Lew’s latest piece, The 8 best questions to ask during a one-on-one meeting, is designed (and perfect) for managers to ask of an employee. But some versions of these questions might be helpful for counselors to ask their students, for parents to ask their kids, and even for kids to ask themselves.

That third suggestion might seem strange, but students, imagine if you regularly considered—and honestly answered—questions like:

How’s life?

What am I worried about right now?

What are my biggest time-wasters?

Would I like more or less direction from my parents or my counselor?

Are there any decisions I’m hung up on?

Wouldn’t you be in a much better position to work towards answers that would make you happier, more successful, and less stressed?

Should learning embrace kids’ mistakes?

The Greater Good Science Center based at UC Berkeley sponsors scientific research into social and emotional well-being, and helps educators, families, and leaders apply the findings to their own lives. Their recent piece, Why We Should Embrace Mistakes in School, shares some compelling findings showing that the best way to set students up for long-term learning and success is not to praise their ability to get the right answer, but to acknowledge and even praise their mistakes along the way.

The notion of somehow rewarding failure can be difficult for many parents and students to embrace, especially when you’re immersed in a college-bound culture that often feels like anything short of perfection somehow falls short.

But if you read the findings with an open mind, you’ll see that the recommendations actually help raise—not lower—expectations, aspirations, and potential. And when kids learn to see the value in the effort over the outcome, they’re better prepared to attack scenarios that don’t have a right answer, and better positioned for a world where there is no such thing as straight A’s in life.

Make it a little better

There’s a lot of wisdom in this pithy passage from one of my favorite management books:

“When you enter your place of work, you never leave it at zero. You either make it a little better or a little worse. Make it a little better.”

It also applies when you swap “place of work” with school, classroom, rehearsal, dinner with your family, etc.

Private counselors: Are you a “mandated reporter”?

Private counselors, have you ever wondered if you’re considered a “mandated reporter”? It’s a question that’s come up frequently at Collegewise, one that I thought I’d answer here for others in our private counseling profession.

Mandated reporters are required by law to report “child maltreatment” to the proper authorities, usually the police or Child Protective Services. The circumstances under which a reporter must file a report depend on the particular state, but the Department of Health and Human Services defines two reporting standards: (1) “The reporter, in his or her official capacity, suspects or has reasons to believe that a child has been abused or neglected; and (2) the reporter has knowledge of, or observes a child being subjected to, conditions that would reasonably result in harm to the child.”

As of the writing of this post, 48 states designate professions whose members are considered mandated reporters, typically those that involve frequent contact with children—teachers, social workers, mental health professionals, child care providers, health care workers, etc. But 16 of those states broaden their mandating reporting responsibilities to include any person who suspects child maltreatment. And two states—New Jersey and Wyoming—don’t name professions at all and simply require any person with reasonable suspicion to report.

Given that state laws can change, I’d strongly encourage any private counselor to review the mandatory reporting laws for your state. Just Googling your state and “mandatory reporting” will likely get you what you’re looking for within the top five results.

I’ve learned when discussing this with some of our Collegewise counselors that dedicated professionals are sometimes uncomfortable if they learn their state does not designate them as mandated reporters. If you research your state laws and find yourself feeling the same way, here’s where that discomfort may be coming from. It can be easier to tell a student who’s revealed something uncomfortable to you, “I’m sorry, but I don’t have a choice—I have to report this because it’s the law,” than it is to say, “I’m sorry, but I’m worried about you and I have to report this because I want you to be safe even if it means you’re mad at me.” The law gives mandated reporters some nice cover in those scenarios.

But whatever your state laws dictate your legal responsibilities to be, most responsible adult professionals who work with kids don’t need a state law to tell them that they should contact the authorities if they have reason to believe that laws are being broken and an underage minor is being abused or whose safety is being put in serious jeopardy. Our policy is to behave like mandated reporters even if our particular states don’t put us in that category. Obey the law, and your conscience. It’s what your students deserve.

What have they done vs. what will they do?

If you run a counseling office or a business of any kind, at some point you might be in the position of needing to hire someone. Most recruiters start that process by composing a list of desired education, experience, or skills, then running a help wanted ad and waiting for people to apply.

The problem with that approach is that it often focuses entirely on what those candidates have done as opposed to what they’ll need to do to be successful in this new role.

For example, we have a lot of counselors at Collegewise who worked as colleges admissions officers. It’s clear that their experience reading, evaluating, and debating those applications brings value to our customers and our company. But that experience alone doesn’t make someone an appealing applicant for a counseling role here.

Helping someone apply to college is entirely different from evaluating that person’s application on the other side. A college admissions officer doesn’t share responsibility for a student’s college admissions outcomes the way our counselors do. They don’t explain the best approaches for one particular student to take in the application and the essays, which might be very different for the next student in line for an appointment that day. They don’t regularly have difficult conversations with families about why some schools may be out of reach, suggest schools that might be a good fit, or help each individual student make the best decisions for them about everything from classes to standardized tests to colleges.

What our counselors need to do is win trust easily. They need to be astute so they can accurately read people and situations. They need to be intellectually curious to learn and retain all the information we train—and that will always be left to know—about college admissions. They need to project confidence so families know they’re in good hands. They need to get kids to like them and parents to trust them.

Just because someone worked at Princeton or Duke or MIT doesn’t necessarily mean they can do all or any of those things. The experience of what they’ve done becomes valuable when paired with the innate talents to thrive in what they’ll be doing.

We went through a similar process when I wrote the help wanted ad for our first inside salesperson. Sure, experience and demonstrated success in sales is a great starting point—this isn’t a good gig for someone who hasn’t already proven they can sell. And we needed people who would be comfortable when held accountable for results.

But even more importantly, they needed to be teachers at heart who were as excited about helping a family make the best decision for them as they were about making a sale. They needed to be thoughtful, clear communicators on the phone and in writing. We needed people we could trust to make our first impression for us. So that’s exactly who we looked for, and thankfully, who we eventually found.

So before you run the same old help wanted ad asking for credentials and experience and references, spend some time thinking about the true answer to the question, “What will it take to be successful in this role?” Those items on the resume might still have a lot of value. But what applicants have done won’t be as important as what they’ll do once they’re in the job.

For counselors: The end of the safety school?

High school and private counselors are likely familiar with this scenario. You have seniors who don’t want to discuss, apply to, or even remotely entertain the idea of safety schools. They believe that a school where they’re virtually guaranteed admission inherently makes that school less worthy. And they want to spend their time, money, and application energy pursuing more selective schools, many of which are those where they stand the least likely chance of being admitted.

If you’re facing any version of that challenge with any of your seniors, high school counseling thought-leader Patrick O’Connor comes through again with his timely and helpful advice, this time with his post “The End of the Safety School.”