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November 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 3
The Learning Zone

Five Habits of Humility

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These practices can help coaches achieve the humility they need.

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LeadershipSocial-emotional learning
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"If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher." —Buddhist author and teacher, Pema Chödrön
When John Dickson, author of the book Humilitas, told a friend he was planning to write about humility, his friend responded snarkily, "Well, John, at least you have the objective distance from the subject!" (p. 12).  I feel my friends could make that same comment about me. I'm especially interested in the topic because I recognize a need to foster more humility in myself.
Humility, though, isn't just a personal growth area for me. I want to learn about humility because I have seen ample evidence that it's important in learning, especially in leading and coaching. When I ask coaches and administrators in my workshops to describe leaders who positively shaped their lives, humility is the trait that's always mentioned. Most experts in leadership, positive psychology, self-help, and religion also identify humility as essential. To lead, to persuade, to be a good person, to live a true and beautiful life, they say, we must be humble.

What Is Humility Anyway?

Humility is tricky to define. When I asked people on Twitter to define it, I got a variety of helpful responses. Respondents said humility is: putting others ahead of ourselves, listening before talking, caring, and recognizing how small we are within the awesome grandeur of the cosmos. Some defined humility as being a partner, not a controller, or as having the courage to change our views based on what we learn from others. As one respondent, @tech_and_tacos, wrote on Twitter, "Humility involves putting aside pride, position, and ego to connect with others and assist them in reaching their desired goals." Humility is also risky; when we put others' interests ahead of our own, sometimes our interests get overlooked.

To lead, to persuade, to be a good person, to live a true and beautiful life, they say, we must be humble.

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We can gain a better understanding of the power of humility when we consider the alternative: arrogance. When we move through the world arrogantly, our pride and self-interest interfere with our ability to learn—after all, if we're sure we're right, what can we learn from others? Arrogance damages relationships and limits our ability to influence people. As John Dickson noted in Humilitas, "It is a simple observational reality that the humble are frequently more persuasive and inspiring than the arrogant" (p. 135).
Understanding what humility is not is just as important as understanding what it is. Humility is not being a doormat. People will be less effective advocates for others if they fail to advocate for themselves. Humility isn't a lack of confidence. Even a humble coach, for example, should be confident about the coaching cycle they're leading and open to learning from their collaborating teacher. Humility also doesn't mean we have low self-efficacy. Consider this quote often attributed to C. S. Lewis: "Humility isn't thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less."

Yes, We Can Learn Humility

I'm convinced that humility is a learned skill, not just something we're born with (or without). Certainly, our genetic inheritance and environment shape who we are. But the following five "humble habits" should move us down the humble path at least a little.
1. Listen first. Letting our partners speak first is a way of demonstrating humility. When we authentically listen, we quiet our minds and prioritize what the other person is saying so we can understand their needs and emotions. When we listen first, we learn what others know before we start sharing what we know. Humble listening isn't a simple technique; it's a way of interacting that communicates that we genuinely value what the other person has to say.
2. See the good in others. My working assumption about life is that everyone has goodness in them if you dig deep enough. We can foster our humility by looking for that goodness in others and letting them know we see it. This isn't always easy. Our brains are wired to see the negative first, so we need to be intentional about looking for the good in others. And we need to accept others' imperfections. When we let go of the need to judge and adopt a desire to appreciate, we move closer to being humble.

We can foster our humility by looking for goodness in others and letting them know we see it.

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3. Be ready to admit you're wrong. We aren't being humble if we feel we always need to be right. We also aren't learning as much as we could if we're unable to admit when we're wrong. To be a little humbler, we should actively encourage others to help us see our errors, asking questions like, "If someone were to criticize this idea, what would they say?" or "What can you see here that I am missing?"
4. Get a clear picture of reality. One of the surest ways to become humbler is to see reality from different perspectives. Having a clear picture of reality gives us perspective on how we fit into the big and complex aspects of life. It can help us be more grateful and more aware of the limits of our own ideas. Usually, reality will teach us that our suggestions aren't as helpful as we think they are, and people don't want our ideas as much as we think they do. This is why I believe that video is like steroids for learning. Coaches can video record their conversations to see, as my friend Christian van Nieuwerburgh likes to say, "what it feels like to be on the other side of me."
5. Speak humbly. If we want to be humbler, we must consider what message our words are communicating. When we say "my school" or "my teachers," for example, we may unintentionally communicate that we have power over others or even that we "own" the teachers. A humbler way of talking is to speak about "our school" or "our community." Additionally, humble communicators often offer ideas provisionally ("Let me just put this on the table for us to discuss" or "You know more about your students than I do") to allow room for others' views. And when people share ideas in a humble way, they often end up being more influential.

Moving Closer

These five habits are only a few ways of practicing humility. What matters most is that we avoid action or ways of communicating that suggest that we think I'm better than this person. We may never achieve purely humble intentions; our actions are always a complex mixture of concern for others and ourselves. But we can move closer to being humbler.
And one other thing to remember: When we think we really are very humble—we probably aren't.
Author's note: Many of the ideas in this column grew out of a conversation I had with my humble friend, Christian van Nieuwerburgh.

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The Definitive Guide to Instructional Coaching
End Notes

1. Feyoh, M. (2023, April 12). 57 Pema Chödrön quotes about love, life, and gratitude. [Blog post]. Happier Human.

2. Dickson, J. (2011). Humilitas: A lost key to life, love, and leadership. Zondervan.

Jim Knight is a founding senior partner of the Instructional Coaching Group (ICG) and a research associate at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. He has spent more than two decades studying professional learning, effective teaching, and instructional coaching.

Knight has written several books and his articles on instructional coaching have been included in publications such as The Journal of Staff Development, Principal Leadership, The School Administrator, and Teachers Teaching Teachers.

He directs Pathways to Success, a comprehensive, district-wide school reform project in the Topeka, Kansas, School District and leads the Intensive Instructional Coaching Institutes and the Teaching Learning Coaching annual conference.

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