I just finished reading a lean, practical, and user-friendly book to enhance my coaching, facilitation, and general “getting along”(?!) skills. In The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier describes what he calls the “TERA quotient” for increasing people’s level of engagement with you at work. Drawing from neuroscience, he claims that there are four factors driving every human being’s sense of engagement with others. I love his acronym for coaches and managers because it is highly relevant to teachers as well, and I see direct applications to working with 1) an individual student who appears apathetic, 2) an off-task group of students, 3) an entire classroom, and most certainly 4) a colleague or staff member you struggle to understand (and vice versa).

Underlying the TERA quotient, is recognition of the basic evolutionary drive to move toward rewards and away from risks in order to survive and thrive as humans. And, of course, moving away from risks is crucial in sustaining a much-needed sense of safety, which is a central consideration of this model.

As you read about the TERA quotient, note Stanier’s four key questions and consider just one person (or group of people) who may be challenging for you at this time. How might this student, colleague, or group of individuals respond to you if you made conscious adjustments relative to the four factors below?

T is for Tribe: “The brain is asking, ‘Are you with me, or are you against me’?”

How can you help students or colleagues feel a greater sense of belonging—as if they really are part of the group? Some strategies might include physical proximity (sitting or standing at the same level), a light, reassuring (and appropriate) touch on the arm (yay for oxytocin!), and the thoughtful use of language that moves away from “I” and toward “we.”

On a classroom level, key evidence-based strategies might include group generation of norms or a community agreement, highly structured cooperative learning activities with clear roles, shared materials, and structures for positive interdependence.

E is for Expectation: “The brain is figuring out, ‘Do I know the future or don’t I’?”

How might you alleviate any fears, confusion, or anxiety about what is going to happen next when approaching a charged discussion with a colleague or preparing students for a lesson or an assessment? In this case, the assumption is that too much uncertainty is disconcerting, so how can you prepare students or colleagues for what is to come? There is a fine line in instructional delivery, for sure (as you don’t want students to be too comfortable, and therefore, complacent). However, you can’t go wrong in providing a clear learning target and a detailed set of directions, verbally and visually. (And perhaps you might do that right after an intriguing inquiry activity or extended anticipatory set to whet their appetites.)

In terms of communicating expectations with a colleague or co-teacher, the more transparent the better. “I am hoping that we can discuss a detailed plan for tomorrow’s presentation, outline who is doing what, and how we might signal each other if we are going overtime or need to adjust our pacing? What are your needs and priorities for this meeting?” Clarity of intention alleviates the mystery and can burst the anxiety bubble.

R is for Rank: “Are you more important or less important than I am?”

Rank is not necessarily about someone’s actual title or formal position, but about how power dynamics are playing out in a given context and moment. If a colleague feels diminished or lower in status, he may also feel less safe and secure, and therefore less likely to risk engaging. If this is the case, consider how you might consciously attempt to adjust (or depress) your own status through humility, self-deprecation, and the practice of openly sharing your vulnerabilities. As a teacher, I find that those moments when I own my mistakes and joke about my quirks and foibles, my older students, in particular, are really with me.

There are also ways to help raise another person’s sense of rank or status. Note your physical position when talking with a student or colleague. At times it might be helpful to sit down while the other person stands, simply to shift the dynamic. Most importantly, ask good questions and engage in inquiry while deeply listening to indicate that you trust that another person or group of people can figure things out on their own. Step back, stop talking, get curious, and ask genuine questions.

A is for Autonomy: “Do I get a say or don’t I?”

Here again, questions are absolutely crucial in promoting a sense of voice and agency.

  • What are you hoping to get out of this meeting?
  • What is the most important topic to discuss right now?
  • What is the real challenge for you here?
  • What are you most excited to learn about in this unit?
  • If you could design a project to meet this target, what would you choose to do?
  • What was the most useful thing you learned today?

Apart from asking questions, offering options is equally important. Does the person in front of you feel like she has the opportunity to make any choices here? Or are you making all the choices? How can you adjust your joint goals for the conversation and/or lesson, so that there is some give and take?

The Four Big Questions

“Are you with me or against me? Do I know the future or don’t I? Are you more important or less important than I am? Do I get a say or don’t I?” As I appreciate how crucial these questions are to my own sense of safety in the workplace, I can also begin to grasp the significance of these questions for my colleagues (and students) as we negotiate a joint sense of safety and well-being together.

Consider focusing on one or two factors in the TERA quotient (Tribe, Expectation, Rank, or Autonomy) this week with that challenging colleague. Take note of any shifts in the quality of your interactions—and feel free to check in and comment below.

As a teacher educator, I have been preparing materials for a communication and conflict resolution workshop at the end of this month. My workshop curriculum has evolved over the years, and I am convinced that a primary focus on specific (and somewhat prescriptive) conflict resolution strategies isn’t always the best use of participants’ time. When someone is triggered during a conflict (and emotionally flooded), those nicely packaged and somewhat scripted tools, phrases, and strategies aren’t necessarily accessible—nor do they feel authentic to the speaker in a moment of upset.

My angle in this fall’s workshop is to focus more broadly on self-awareness and personal reflection so that participants can explore their personality preferences and patterns of relating relative to typically challenging workplace scenarios. If we know ourselves pretty well—our strengths, weaknesses, and default reactions, we may be more readily able to pause, take stock, calm our bodies, and reboot or redirect the trajectory of a difficult conversation at work. Further, if we are more broadly attuned to our skills and strengths, we may be more likely to approach our workplace with a greater sense of purpose and agency in the first place.

Tool #1:
Because my university no longer offers the popular MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) instrument for students, I have been reviewing free online tools that build on the work of Jung, Myers, and Briggs, and I found a very user-friendly, abbreviated, and reframed version of the formal MBTI measurement at http://www.16personalities.com/.

The researchers at this London-based company called Neris Analytics, use the acronym format introduced by Myers-Briggs, but they have renamed several traits from Jung’s model and added a fifth trait. The five independent scales below represent five aspects of personality outlined in the following categories:

  • Mind: How we interact with the environment (Introverted vs. Extroverted)
  • Energy: How we see the world and process (Observant vs. Intuitive)
  • Nature: How we make decisions and cope with emotions (Thinking vs. Feeling)
  • Tactics: How we approach work and planning (Prospecting vs. Judging)
  • Identity: Our confidence in our abilities and decisions (Assertive vs. Turbulent)

Survey results feature percentages relative to each scale, indicating the strength of each preference (rather than simply labeling you as a “type”). The website also provides free information about your profile relative to strengths, weaknesses, relationships, career paths, and workplace habits.

Tool #2:
The second tool I have been using regularly in my Resilient Teacher Workshop over the past year is the VIA Survey of Characters Strengths. This scientific survey was created under the direction of Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, and it has been used in hundreds of research studies in 190 countries. Although it is a very simple survey, it helps you to get a clearer picture of your best qualities and strengths so that you can make positive changes for yourself and your work team. The twenty-four character strengths (e.g., creativity, curiosity, humor, and perseverance) fall under six broader categories of virtues including: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence.

The creators of the survey propose that knowing your own particular constellation of character strengths is a step toward living a more authentic and happy life. In fact, Seligman and his team have conducted research on leveraging strengths that suggests long-term mental health benefits. Participants in his study took the VIA survey and selected one core character strength that was personally energizing and easy to use. Then, they brainstormed at least seven new ways to express that core strength each day for one week. Participants in this study reported experiencing higher levels of happiness and lower levels of depression (even six months after the week-long experiment).

Consider using both of these survey-based tools (simply as “indicators” rather than “labelers”) in order to foster personal growth, spark small group discussion, and/or cultivate a more positive, collaborative environment in your workplace.