Education Opinion

Asset-Based Coaching: Focusing on Strengths

By Elena Aguilar — April 10, 2016 4 min read
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When I became an instructional coach, I focused almost exclusively on closing the big gaps in a teacher’s practices. I thought we needed to start with the areas of greatest need. In addition, deficits command a lot of attention--when I walked into a classroom, it felt like the teacher’s deficits were jumping out at me in neon. For many reasons, this approach didn’t work.

I now primarily coach strengths and look for the places where we can use those strengths as a foundation to explore an area of growth. For example, if a teacher is struggling to build productive relationships with parents, I will first coach him to strengthen relationships with his colleagues--which might already be solid and positive. I’ll work with him to identify the moves he makes to develop relationships with peers and then slowly we’ll transfer those skills to working with parents. I’ll use the positive emotions about the relationships he’s developed with colleagues to build confidence about his areas for growth, as well as the concrete skills and actions.

When we focus on strengths, and when our clients trust us, they cast their own gaze onto their areas for growth. They move towards closing their gaps--we don’t have to push or nudge. Asset-based coaching isn’t about ignoring the areas of greatest need--it’s about solidifying other areas first and helping someone feel so confident in their strengths that they feel almost invincible when it comes to tackling areas for growth.

What Is Asset-Based Coaching?

Asset-based coaching is a deceptively simple, but powerful approach to working with adult learners. Essentially, there are two predominant ways that we can think about making behavioral change: we can focus on what we’re doing wrong and try to do less of it or we can focus on what we’re doing right and try to do more of it. Researchers in many fields have found that by focusing on strengths, talents, competencies, and things we’re doing right we are far more likely to make long lasting change. Taking an asset-based or strengths perspective is an undervalued and underused approach for working with learners of all ages and has the potential for yielding the results that many of us hope to see in schools.

When we focus on strengths, we look for what someone is doing well, at the possibilities they see, at their visions for themselves and their teaching, and at who they recognize as supporters on this journey of growth. Assets can be found within themselves as well as in their environment. We’re looking for possibility and potential everywhere.

Why Asset-Based Coaching Works

It’s useful to understand why an asset-based approach works--and it comes back to the way our brains are wired. When we’re focusing on what we’re not good at, at our deficiencies and areas of struggle, negative neural pathways in our brain are reinforced--the pathways that produce self-defeating statements like, “I’m such a failure, this won’t work, I know I’m not good at X and I’ve been trying to get better for many years. What’s wrong with me? Why am I so bad at this?”

Take a moment to think about something you’ve tried improving in (perhaps eating healthier or getting more exercise) and notice how that internal dialogue amplifies. The majority of us are well aware of our areas of weakness and casting more light on them creates distress. This decreases our ability to take action, learn, and see possibilities. It’s not that we can’t learn when we focus on areas for growth, but there’s more struggle. We’re at odds with our brain.

When we focus on our strengths, we can access the positive emotions that inspire action and open us to learning. Asset-based coaching strives to magnify strengths and what we focus on grows. In partnership with our client, we seek out what they’re doing that’s effective, we highlight their practices that are working, and bring to light their hidden skills. As coaches, we want to be careful that we’re not doing too much pointing because the client needs to acknowledge and embrace his strengths in order to really benefit. If a coach is always the one saying, “You did that so well!,” then the client hasn’t internalized the recognition of his strengths.

When It’s Hard to Find Assets

The idea behind asset-based coaching isn’t to delude us into thinking there are no problems. But if all we think about, day after day, is someone’s faults, we build a wall of alienation between us. If we can find just one good thing about someone and reflect on it, our view of that person broadens. We still see all the problems, but we also feel a different quality of connection to the person we are thinking about. We may also see some entry points that we’d previously missed that might allow us to start coaching towards change.

It can be hard to find a strength in someone in whom we see many deficits. Imagine you are on a treasure hunt and start small, look for the little things--keep looking and you’ll find something. Also make sure you’re asking your client to name the things they feel they’re doing well, or the motivation that’s driving them, or the possibilities they see. Assets can be found in their attitude, their will, and their vision for themselves and their students. They aren’t just about what we are doing well at this moment but rather about strengths and potential within them as well as in their environment.

First Steps

Asset-based coaching requires a mindset shift--from focusing on deficits to seeing potential. There’s no better place to start than within yourself. Spend some time reflecting on your own strengths as a coach or leader, and on identifying your own potential and possibilities. This will help you get primed to then look at the strengths and assets in others.

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