Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Teachable Moments or Coachable Individuals?

I have nothing against teachable, but I would prefer that we refer to people, not moments, as teachable.

In today’s political lexicon, a teachable moment refers to an event that can profitably be used to teach us all something.

But, if a tragic event makes us more susceptible to a teacher’s influence, that need not be a good thing. It may involve exploiting someone‘s post-traumatic vulnerability.

As I suggested, moments are not really teachable. The expression is a figure of speech. But it does make sense, so I cannot object to its usage.

All things considered, it is a step beyond the phrase: “the audacity of hope.”

Two years ago I pointed out that “the audacity of hope" is a grammatical error. It’s not very clever, and does not rise to the level of a figure of speech.

Ever since, I have wondered whether, perhaps, if the nation had been in its right mind, it would still have voted for a candidate who did not understand the difference between “of” and “to?”

Reasonably enough, teachable moments come down to us from the classroom. They involve the interaction between teachers and pupils or students. Teachability is the province of youth, of the unformed and the uninformed.

This means that when you try to turn current events into teachable moments, you are treating the citizenry like your students, like people who are in need of academic instruction.

Don’t be too surprised if they take offense to the implied condescension. You are saying that if they do not agree with you, that can only mean that they are ignorant.

Teaching involves the exercise of power. Whether it is in a classroom, a lecture hall, or a seminar room, teachers are going to test you, to see if you have learned your lesson.

You are going to be graded by, you are going to be judged. Not judgmentally, of course.

In a strange way, the Obama administration seems to think elections are like final exams. The only thing is, it sees the voters as the ones being judged.

Think about that for a bit.

For most of its history psychotherapy has functioned as a form of teaching. It was invented by an auto-didact and still works to teach people lessons, about their past and their motives.

In its original form, it relied heavily on whatever the patients was dreaming of feeling about the analyst. Dreams about the analyst were the original teachable moments.

Cognitive treatment broke decisively with this form of therapy. It does not involve helping you to understand yourself; it aims at retraining your mind or your behavior.

It prescribes homework exercises, which are like mental workout sessions, helping you to strengthen your mental muscles so you can better handle depressive thoughts.

I have consistently compared cognitive therapy to coaching. A cognitive therapist works like a coach who tells you to do a certain kind of warm-up, followed by an exercise routine, followed by extra work to improve your swing. He wants you to develop your skills, not to learn what might make you tick.

As all cognitive therapists and coaches know, some people do these exercises dutifully. Others do not. This has little to do with curability. It involves the person’s coachability.

Someone who is teachable is apt to learn and to absorb new ideas, be they good or bad. Someone who is coachable is willing to follow direction and to improve capacities that he already has.

Let’s say you are an aspiring entrepreneur. You have a great idea and you want to start a business. You are seeking investment capital, and you present your case to an angel investor like Catherine Mott, just for instance.

In an interview with the New York Times Mott explained that when she is evaluating a business plan, she is more interested in the people than in the idea. Link here.

It is great to have a great idea. But, even if it is coupled with great enthusiasm and passion, a great idea is not enough.

An investor like Mott wants to know whether you will be able to implement your idea, to turn it into a successful enterprise.

When Mott is evaluating you as a future executive, she will want to see whether or not you are coachable.

But what does she mean when she says that she is looking at whether or not you are coachable?

It means that you will know who you are, what your strengths and weaknesses are. If you have had a distinguished career as an IT executive you shouldn’t make yourself the director of marketing. If you have had a career in sales you should not pretend that you will be able to manage a biotech startup without the collaboration of technically skilled colleagues.

Coachable means building on strengths you already have. It does not mean acquiring skills in fields you know nothing about.

Coachable also means being able to take advice. If Mott advises you to do this and that, if you fail to follow through, she will judge you ill.

She is looking for someone who takes advice easily, who implements it effectively, and who does not let his or her ego get in the way.

A coachable person does not merely take advice; he is sufficiently humble to allow his own ideas to be challenged.

In a couple of words, coachable means that you have good character.


The Ghost said...

tyo me the mark of a teachable monent is when we see the results of some action that are 180 degrees out of synch with the intent of the original action.
We tax cigarettes to make people smoke less becasue we have learned that taxing something causes people to do less of said activity.
If we raised cigarette taxes and saw no change in the number of smokers then THAT is a teachable moment because our original assumption has proven to be wrong.
Most of these "teachable moments" we are seeing today are nothing like that ...
The only teachable moment of the Gates/Cambridge police fiasco was that Obama "assumption" that police acted improperly was wrong. It should have been Obama that had a teachable moment, not the rest of us.

Anonymous said...

A cognitive therapist works like a coach who tells you to do a certain kind of warm-up, followed by an exercise routine, followed by extra work to improve your swing.

Or in my case, my musical technique. Your statement really hits home with me.

I would hardly call musical teaching "cognitive therapy", but it does have elements of that. With instructors nonexistant in my area, I have to go to seminars and lessons elsewhere, internalize the coaching and then implement it on my own.

Because teaching is, as you say, an execise in power. To improve my playing, I find it takes iron self discipline and a clear-eyed ability to ruthlessly criticize myself. An ability to "stand outside myself" critically and inflict the drills and work on my technique and musicality.

After a brutal session of warm-up, followed by an exercise routine, followed by extra work to improve my playing, I need a stiff drink to start feeling better and ackowledge the progress I am making.

It's really kinda disempowering and can become depressing. I am painfully aware of my shortcomings and have to talk myself into enjoying my playing skill and instrument: the beautiful music and instrument upon which I break myself.

After periods of grinding at practicing, drilling and getting very down on myself, I play exquisitely at performances and competitions; it all feels worth it until the next round of teaching teachable me.

When I hear someone playing an instrument, any instrument, masterfully and "effortlessly", I think about how much time, psychological agony and physical effort it takes to get there.

You can be your own coach, but if you do it right, it's gonna hurt. Still, it beats being happy doing something poorly.


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, guys, for two great comments.