The International School of Yangon (ISY) is a community of compassionate global citizens.
This means a lot more than hugs and high-fives. ISY is a school that has chosen to harness the power of compassion to fully develop the physical, social, and academic potential of its students.
Like many educators, I am interested in what motivates people. Before I knew I was joining ISY, I read ‘Coaching with Compassion: Inspiring Health, Well-Being, and Development in Organizations,’ a research article out of Case Western Reserve University. As I found myself contemplating how compassion can determine the happiness and success of our students and wider school community, I read it again. I thought I would share what I took from it.
SNS v PNS
The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are separate branches of the autonomic nervous system that controls the functions of the body that are not under conscious control. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated when the body responds to stress. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is activated when the body is calm.
Research argues that SNS and the PNS have a suppressing effect on each other. Therefore, one of the two systems will dominate the body’s functioning at any one point in time.
The arousal of the PNS has several physiological effects. It slows the heart and triggers the release of hormones that reduce anxiety and heightens feelings of attachment to others. This is conducive to cognitive openness, improved cognitive performance, greater perceptual and emotional openness and accuracy, and openness to behavior change. The arousal of the PNS may even lead to the generation of new neural tissue.
The arousal of the SNS also has several effects on the body. It speeds up the heart and increases blood pressure. Blood flow increases in neural circuits considered necessary for survival and decreases in other neural circuits. Cognitive functioning is therefore impaired and neural tissue growth is inhibited. The SNS is associated with emotions such as fear and anxiety and its arousal leads to a state of stress and defensiveness. In this state, people focus on problems, threats, and obligations and tend to perceive even neutral stimuli as dangerous.
To learn and grow to our potential, we need to be operating in our PNS. As educators, we need to be cognizant of this fact and ensure that we do not tip our students (or our colleagues) into their SNS.
In the article, coaching is described as a ‘facilitative or helping relationship with the purpose of achieving some type of change, or new level of individual or organizational performance.’ In a school, coaching relationships exist between teachers, students, administrators, and parents in all manner of combinations.
There is a multitude of specific coaching techniques and behaviors that those in coaching positions could employ but research suggests that it is the general approach to coaching, rather than specific techniques, that predict learning and performance.
Coaching with compassion
Compassion is defined as an ‘interpersonal process that involves noticing another person as being in need, empathizing with him or her, and acting to enhance his or her well-being in response to that need.’
Not surprisingly, compassion is a key component to what is described as the coaching with compassion approach to coaching.
The starting point of coaching with compassion is to help the person being coached (the coachee) develop or articulate a personal vision of their Ideal Self. The Ideal Self is an ‘individual’s vision of who he or she wants to be and includes his or her goals, values, and deepest aspirations for the individual’s future.’
Invoking the Ideal Self arouses the PNS in two ways. First, it is a powerful emotional event that can activate neural circuits that allow the coachee to consider possibilities that they might have otherwise ignored or considered threatening. Second, sharing their Ideal Self with someone who listens and wants to help them achieve their goals creates an important perception in the coachee that the coach cares thus creating a feeling of safety. This feeling of safety arouses the PNS.
Another important component of the coaching with compassion approach is to begin by identifying strengths before weaknesses, building upon the strengths of a person in pursuit of their Ideal Self.
Underpinning the effectiveness of the coaching with compassion approach must be a trusting relationship between the coach and the coachee. The coachee must feel comfortable enough to openly discuss his or her Ideal Self with their coach so they can work together to work towards it.
Coaching for compliance
As coaching with compassion takes into account the hopes and aspirations of the coachee, it is very different to coaching that focuses on influencing the coachee to do something desired by others. It is also different to coaching that aims to help the coachee but pays no attention to the coachee’s Ideal Self. Even if the intention is to help the coachee, ignoring the coachee’s hopes and aspirations means that the coach is essentially telling the coachee how they ought to behave. However well intentioned the coach, any conflict between the coachee’s perceived Ought Self and Ideal Self will activate the SNS in the coachee.
Coaching for compliance is the term the article uses to describe coaching toward the Ought Self. The article contends that coaching for compliance is more likely to tip a person into their SNS through feelings of guilt and obligation which invoke stress and negative emotions.
Coaching with compassion is also different to approaches to coaching that start with a person’s deficiencies. Focusing on deficiencies without first acknowledging strengths can lead to a defensiveness that is associated with the activation of the SNS.
Implications for a school
To learn and grow to our potential, we need to be operating in our PNS. It seems that the critical factor in ensuring that we are operating in our PNS in our studies or work is to have had our own goals, hopes and aspirations listened to and understood by those who are in a position to help us. If our own goals and view of our development are taken into account, we can be coached with compassion to meet the expectations of others. This is an important consideration as we work with and for our students.
Listening to and seeking to understand another are acts of compassion that activate the PNS of both the listened and the listener. These acts of compassion have a cumulative and lasting effect upon us all with the potential to define our success and happiness as individuals and as a community. Using the metrics of student academic growth and achievement to measure the compassion of a school community may seem counter-intuitive. But it is now starting to make sense to me.
Boyatzis, Richard E., et al. “Coaching With Compassion.” The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, vol. 49, no. 2, 2012, pp. 153–178., doi:10.1177/0021886312462236.