Some months ago I was leading a training with coaches on the skill-mastery process where I was discussing the critical role that success and failure have in the learning process with particular emphasis on the value of examining moments of failure. During that session, a couple of the participants brought up their reluctance to use the word ‘failure’ with their clients because many have had such negative experiences with it. I explained briefly then that they could use whatever word they wanted for it, but in that training session and among coaches I have been using the terms in a scientific/engineering way – where success and failure are neutral, impersonal points of information about cause-and-effect, and these are necessary in the learning and development process. As coaches, we use these terms in a neutral way, and it would be good if our clients could learn to use it that way also in order to fully benefit from it.

I recently listened to the podcast #181 interview with Dr. Gio Valiente on The Knowledge Project which brought up the memory of that session and urged me to reflect upon it further which I will do below…

While I appreciate and practice sensitivity to clients who are struggling in this way, a central purpose of coaching is to help individuals become stronger in their weak areas, rather than accommodate those and remain fragile. The client could adopt ways of avoiding failure (by whatever word they choose to call it) to avoid the negative experience, or they could develop a new, more positive relationship with it. The coach is in a perfect position to guide them into this positive relationship and it is done well with compassion and gentleness.

Photo by Emily budd on Unsplash

We might say, “If there is no failure (only success), there is no learning.” At the heart of human learning – of all organismic learning, for that matter – is what is commonly called the process of ‘trial and error’. We are motivated to accomplish something; we come up with an idea and try it; in the first attempt there are errors and it does not succeed; we evaluate whether we just need to try the same idea again, or we need to modify the idea or come up with an entirely different idea to try; we attempt another trial, and so on until we exhaust our motivation or make some progress toward the goal and form a more successful approach from each breakthrough. Examining the fine details of failure helps us see what parts of the idea need to be changed and which to keep in order to make it better and better each time. At the point when learning quality and motivation drop it’s time to let go of the activity for a while and refresh.

Success and failure are just information – they are data points that one uses to home in on the better path to their objective. The strong emotional response to failure (or success) is a secondary experience, something tacked on to it by other psychological and social influences. The problem is not the fact of failure, but the response to it. Rather than miss out on the benefit of all that rich information because of the secondary response, let’s keep the useful information flowing while working on changing that secondary response from a negative to a positive and productive one.


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