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December 1, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 4
The Resilient Educator

How to Coach Emotions

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For a healthy school community, help people handle their feelings. 

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Social-emotional learningSchool Culture
How to Coach Emotions
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Every school leader I've ever known has wanted less adult drama in their schools, aspired to create a healthy community, and hoped to retain most of their teachers. They've wanted to lead an emotionally resilient staff. Yet very few of these school leaders have known how to effectively coach people in dealing with emotions in a healthy way. I'm more and more convinced that there's no way we can transform schools and give students what they deserve without attending to the emotions of the adults in the building. This means school leaders need to learn how to coach emotions.

A Skillset for Handling Emotions

This is in some ways a hard skillset to acquire—yet it's also not that hard. It's hard because school leaders have so much on their plates, and many don't think that coaching, especially coaching related to emotions, is a high priority. Doing anything related to emotions (talking about them, feeling them, acknowledging them) seems "touchy-feely," unprofessional, and perhaps even a waste of time. The dominant mindset in our organizations is that emotions should be dealt with in private and left at the door or they will be an obstacle to productivity.
And yet, week after week, school leaders are faced with emotions—their own, those of other adults, and of course, children's emotions. This is because we are human beings, and humans have feelings. Most school leaders I've coached or taught eventually recognize the benefit in having skills to address emotions—and discover that learning those skills is easier than they anticipated. Here are some of the skills involved.

Recognize and Acknowledge Emotions

Most of us know when someone else is feeling an emotion. We see it in their body language or facial expressions, we sense it in their tone, or we hear them say something like, "I'm overwhelmed!" When you recognize that someone is experiencing an emotion (assuming you know them fairly well or are in some kind of working relationship), it's best to say so, express curiosity, and invite exploration. This can sound like:
  • "I'm hearing a lot of emotion in your voice. What's coming up for you?"
  • "I hear that your last class was rough. Tell me more."
  • "It seems like you've got a lot weighing on you. Do you want to talk about it?"
  • "What feelings are you having right now?"
When you acknowledge someone's emotions, you are acknowledging their humanity and communicating care. If these kinds of phrases aren't in your lexicon, it might feel awkward to say them the first few times. But discomfort is part of learning. It'll pass.

Invite the Person to Name Their Emotion

When you recognize emotion in someone else, refrain from labeling the emotion you observe. Don't say, "I can tell you're really angry," or "I'm sorry to see you're so sad." Most of us don't like others to label our emotions, but it's empowering when someone allows us to identify what we are feeling. You might see anger, but the person might realize that what they're truly feeling is grief or fear. Sometimes it's appropriate to say something like, "I'm noticing a lot of sadness in what you're sharing. Did I get that right? Are there other emotions present?"
Sometimes we don't have words for emotions. You might ask a teacher how they're feeling and hear, "I don't know, I'm just stressed," or "I'm tired! There's so much going on." Stressedtired, and overwhelmed aren't really feeling words, according to psychologists. They indicate a number of underlying emotions, including sadness, fear, and anger. If you ask someone what they're feeling and they struggle to find the words, share your guesses: "Maybe this is sadness?" or "Is there some frustration here?" Be willing to be corrected. Helping people understand what emotions they're feeling is the first step to helping them deal effectively with those emotions.

Communicate Acceptance

By normalizing emotions, you communicate acceptance of them. Doing so acknowledges someone's humanity, indicates your comfort with feelings, and also communicates that emotions aren't a problem—because they aren't! Emotions come and go. We can learn from them, and they aren't something to be afraid of. Accepting emotions can sound like:
  • "It's normal to have a whole bunch of feelings when there's a change you didn't expect."
  • "Hey, having feelings is human. It's great you're aware of what's going on for you."
  • "I can see that you're really upset. I hear that it was hard to get that parent's feedback. These feelings seem normal to me. Thank you for sharing them."

    The first step to creating resilient communities is to welcome emotions back and create a new relationship with them.

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Encourage Others to Explore Their Feelings

When we have a healthy relationship with emotions, they come and go, and we learn from them. When we don't have a healthy relationship with our feelings, we can get stuck in them and express them in ways that hurt ourselves and others. Emotions only really "go" once they are understood and we've felt them in our bodies, because emotions live in the body.
To have a healthy relationship with emotions (and cultivate resilience), we need to explore our feelings. While this kind of learning deserves more time and attention than can happen within a work setting, a leader can invite someone to dip their toes into such exploring through questions like:
  • "I hear that you're frustrated. What do you think that emotion is trying to tell you?"
  • "I know that you're really having a hard year. You deserve help to explore these feelings. Where do you think you could get support?"
  • "I know that you were hurt by the district's decision. If you want to unpack that, I'm here."

Start With Openness

There's a whole lot more to say about how to coach emotions. But by simply starting with an attitude of openness and curiosity, you'll get more comfortable talking with colleagues about feelings—and that's a huge step. Emotions have often been maligned and stuffed into back closets. The first step to creating resilient communities is to welcome emotions back, give them attention, and create a new relationship with them.

Elena Aguilar is president of Bright Morning Consulting, a sought-after speaker and presenter, and author of many books, including The Art of Coaching (Jossey-Bass, 2013) and Coaching for Equity (Jossey-Bass, 2020).


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