The Missing Piece of the Puzzel

I was recently talking with a client working in higher education, who from the start became a friend.  He and I are connected in our earnestness to do work that is meaningful - work that we hope matters and that elevates the lives of others.  He paid me the best compliment I have received in a very long time; one of those compliments that makes you smile from the inside out because you feel truly seen for the best of whom you know yourself to be.  He said; “Kristin, you have a rare balance of head and heart.”

If is from this place of balancing the head and the heart that I wish to make a difference. I yearn to connect people to the best within themselves, much like he did for me. I see possibility and potential where others often just experience frustration and stuckness.  This is especially true as it relates to college students - particularly those for whom the path to success is less than easy, and unfortunately less of a guarantee.

The real question I continue to ask myself is: With all the time, effort and resources allocated to student support services, where do there still exist blind-spots to driving greater equity and better outcomes for more students?

I do not claim to know the best technology or systems to ensure that we’re strategically identifying and prioritizing students most at risk.  But, it is my observation that we’re doing perhaps two things that are keeping us too myopic in our efforts;

  1. Allowing our reliance on technology to disproportionately provide the in-road
  2. Approaching student success efforts with a disproportionate focus on “building relationships/sharing knowledge”

Please note my use of the word “disproportionate”. I use this word very deliberately because when we invest heavily in one valuable area to the deficit of another, we risk unintentionally diminishing our vision. To be clear, both technology and the desire to build relationships and share critical knowledge with students is paramount and has made an important difference. These two solutions are elemental, however they are only two pieces of the entire puzzle.  The goal is to get as close to wholeness as possible and in that effort, I see an essential missed opportunity - one that balances both head and heart, while still remaining scalable.

The piece that I see missing - the gap, as it were - is around whom students know themselves to be. Here’s the thing: students don’t just need a relationship with key support people, and they don’t just need access to and support around the transfer of knowledge.  What they FIRST need is a solid relationship with themselves; a belief in who they are and in what’s possible.  

Does that sound uncomfortably abstract in nature? Well if so, this is not at all surprising because there are very few models or approaches to render it more grounded, concrete and actionable.  Let’s unpack this.

Most approaches to student coaching or mentoring arrive at the endeavor from the lens of;

  • Where are you now?
  • Where do you want to be?

  • How are you going to get there?

While at the same time, concepts like “social-emotional intelligence” and “non-cognitive abilities” are recognized as important factors in student success, but not embedded in those above questions. Folks, we’re getting closer; our conversations are starting to evolve, but they are not quite there.


The most fundamental question, and the one that will deploy non-cognitive capacity in students is;

Who do you know yourself to be?

Students need to have a vision of who they are as a college student that is both current and realistic, while at the same time inspired and transformative. Both can be unlocked through thoughtful inquiries that bring awareness to the unique experiences, qualities and demonstrated capacities of our students. When they can put words to “whom they know themselves to be” from the lens of capacity rather than deficiency, they simply take care of themselves differently… Meaning, they move toward relationships and are more likely to access knowledge and resources more reliably.

I am eager to connect with thought-partners who are passionately committed to shepherding success for more students.  I have created avenues to make this possible for institutions in a scalable way through the use of direct to student experiences.  What would it be like if more students - from the get-go - had the ability to invest in and identify their own strengths, prior to facing the invariable challenges awaiting them?

Ask these two questions and you’ll instantly become a better coach


Spoiler alert, the two questions do not include;

  1. “Where are you now?”

  2. “Where do you want to be?”

  3. “How are you going to get there?”

  4. “What is your personal why?”

All great questions - in fact, critical questions when you’re supporting a college student in his or her first semester. Particularly a first generation, low income college student

But, do those four questions cultivate the “non-cognitive skills” students must leverage to push through to graduation when personal doubt, overwhelm, situational and financial stress loom large?  I worry they will not, based on my decade working with students.

If college success coaches could include just two additional questions to their coaching repertoire, which two questions would give them the most bang for their buck?  Which two questions - especially in light of the reality that many students do not engage in coaching as frequently as is beneficial - would have the most significant impact?  

If you only get one meeting, how do you make that meeting the most beneficial in the long term for the student?

Let me backup: that last question is too broad and too deep for this post. However, if there were two questions that may not necessarily overhaul impact, but certainly improve it, here they are;

  1. “Share a time in your life, when something was hard but you saw your way through.  What did you learn about yourself in overcoming that?”

  2. “How will you use this personal awareness when things get tough as a college student?”

These two questions are honestly a teaser, because once they’re asked and a conversation and exploration ensues, it’s all too easy to imagine more questions germinating from them.  Let’s follow this conclusion further....(and I said that I would just give you two...):

  1. “If you saw someone else overcome the obstacle you shared in the way that you did, what words would you use to describe them?”

  2. “What particular challenges do you anticipate will be the toughest for you this semester?”

  3. “When things get hard, what two resources will you leverage as someone who is “resilient” in the face of obstacles, like you’ve demonstrated?”

Now, I chose the word “resilient” in question #3, but please, use their word/s.  Students may offer words like “determined”, “hard-working”, “not afraid to ask for help”, “patient”.... Who knows?  The point is, the words are theirs, and they serve as the first step in forming what needs to be an empowered narrative in the face of what will, for many, be a challenging time in their life.  The more - from the get-go - coaches can ask questions that inform students’ “sense of self” and belief in themselves, the more prepared a student will be in navigating difficult life terrain when - not if - things get hard.

These questions develop critical non-cognitive skills!

Play with this. Experiment.  Embrace that it may be different or a departure from what you typically ask. Know that questions that explore personal identity have the most lasting and profound impact because at the end of the day, when the only conversation students hear is the one in their own head, who they know themselves to be is in charge and steering the ship.  Don’t you want that voice to be as confident, prepared and self-assured as possible?



The Risk of Playing it Safe

As college success coaches, most of us continue to play it as safe as possible in the execution of our coaching.  The irony is, the safer we stay, the greater the risk for our students.

Here’s what I mean; in playing within the confines of asking students; “Where are you now?” “Where do you want to be?” and “How are you going to get there?” and even spending time in the territory of “What is your personal why?” (thank you Simon Sinek), you miss asking the most important question coaching of all.

Stay with me (the most important question is coming...).

Then, you dole out advice: you share critical resources, cheerlead and teach students how to navigate online platforms and fill out a FAFSA, just to name a few.  You impart important deadlines and encourage students by letting them know just how much you believe in them. Sound familiar?

And, all importantly, you build wonderfully trusting relationships.  

This last one is especially huge.  

You’re so good at this that if you were not, I would never encourage you to ask the “most important coaching question of all”.  Seriously, you’re ready.

When we’re not pushing the parameters of our coaching, we’re not fully coaching. And, more importantly, students are not fully benefiting.  

To drive more substantive student impact, coaches must ask their students the question…

“Who do you know yourself to be?”  

What?  How awkward is that?   Again, stay with me….

Coaching must include shifting how students know themselves in the face of invariable challenges. We need to stray from asking just the “where”, “how” and “why” questions and trust more fully in our coaching ability to navigate the “who” questions.  The most impactful coaching leverages students’ personal capacity so that they’re more adept at moving in the direction of their goals (starting with the goal of graduation), by knowing themselves more fully and believing in themselves more deeply. This starts by actively asking students questions that inquire into the best of themselves - both when things are going well, and particularly when they’re not.  

Dreams become reality when we identify, develop and exercise more personal qualities like; belief in ourselves, resiliency in the face of adversity, self-advocacy, grit, growth-mindset and leadership. These are just some of what are called “non-cognitive” skills. Over the course of a decade in higher education, I have learned that most coaches are not confident in their ability to do this well. Or even at all.


Many want to, but don’t know the route, while others feel it’s just outside of their comfort zones. They share that they don’t want to sound like a counselor, and they certainly don’t want to push students beyond their comfort zones.

As a coach and trainer, this poses both a problem and a challenge desperately in need of a solution.  

With proper training, skilled coaches will not get “too personal” - they will keep their eye on the prize, facilitating conversations with purpose and professionalism while collaborating to build the kind of “non-cognitive development” students urgently need to reach the finish line in pursuit of meaningful, gainful employment.  With proper training and a sound approach, coaches will learn to hear the invitation from their students, recognize the cues and seize the opportunities to ask “who” questions with confidence and conviction.

So coaches, prepare to embrace what was formerly considered “outside your comfort zone” - and prepare to grow.  Learning how to coach really well is certainly not easy.  But, learning to inquire into the best of who students know themselves to be is the most potent defense against many of the reasons students drop-out or stop-out, like;

  • A lack of personal belief
  • Inflexibility in the face of adversity
  • Lack of confidence and sense of belongingness
  • Feelings of inadequacy
  • Fixed Mindset
  • Feelings of powerlessness and stuckness

Moving out of your comfort zone is the first step in supporting students to do the same. Take a moment to consider what’s at stake when you don’t.


Non-Traditional, First Generation and Low Income Students; Tapping into their Wealth of Resiliency

I want to challenge you to think about non-traditional, first generation and low income college students from a different lens. Please know that I fully understand the very real scope of the challenges they face, but that it is perhaps precisely because of these challenges - not in spite of them - that they may have an even better chance of achieving improved outcomes, beyond what we have seen thus far. I invite you to entertain another avenue upon which we can travel the landscape of their experiences -  both prior to and while enrolled in college, with the support of narrative based coaching. I have a game plan...

Here’s the thing. I keep hearing about, reading about and talking to people in student support services who are saying that traditional college students are struggling with resilience. Everyday obstacles like conflicts with roommates or receiving C’s or even B’s are apparently cause for anxiety and stress and reasons to access mental health services on campus. This is problematic and may speak to a generation of young students who are arriving on campus under-prepared, as it relates to their “resiliency”.

So, what if being a non-traditional, first generation and low income college student was seen as a potential indicator of success because it carries with it an increased history and habit of resiliency? What if we treated it as such and invested in programs to reinforce it?   

If indeed the reduced ability to exercise resilience is a buy-product of a life of “helicopter parenting” as some have suggested, where kids are not given the freedom to face natural consequences and instead have become accustomed to their parents managing their everyday lives, then it’s worth examining if the opposite is also true. Shouldn’t we also be exploring if the lives of students who have not had this experience, but rather a robust history of facing lots of life-stressors, might bring with them increased resilience?

Allow me to share a story to illustrate just this point. Years ago, I was coaching a student who had hadn’t had the opportunity to go to college at the traditional age. When she was eighteen, she was a single-mother, working to support not only her own child, but to help keep her extended family afloat financially, as well. By the time she reached her early thirties, she knew that with just a high-school diploma, the future she wanted for her own children and the career and financial aspirations she felt for herself, remained illusive. With her kids in daycare, and working full time at a job she hated, she had selected an online college so that she could find a way to fit school into an already packed life. In so doing, she hoped to forge a more financially stable path forward by being the first in her family to earn a college degree.

It would be easy to see her life as a college student as harder than that of a traditional aged student whose sole responsibility is to take care of him or herself for the first time - to focus entirely on the experience of being a student without the worries of juggling a full time job and full time parenthood.

But, “easy” is subjective and requires a great deal of context. This is where investing in the narrative of resiliency becomes so powerful.

In the first meeting with this student, our conversation started out with her in the depths of major doubt and frustration. She was in a panic and her fear presented itself as frustration and anger at a system that she felt was not serving her immediate needs. She was starting to adopt a mindset - a narrative -  which went something like, “Here we go again… more evidence that I was not meant to do this, that I do not belong and was foolish for trying to tackle being a college student. Why have I invited this additional stress into my life? I don’t need this!”

It was the first week of school and the books that she had previously ordered had not arrived and the bookstore was sold out. There was an assignment due - based on the reading - and she was unable to get a hold of her professor or allocate much time later in the week to get caught up.

The temptation for most coaches at this juncture would be to go into “problem solving mode” - to jump into an immediate game plan. But, experience told me that getting solution focused when she was operating from a dis-empowered mindset and narrative was a futile exercise -  and we had a major coaching opportunity presented to us!

I first acknowledged the obvious so that she knew that I saw her in this moment, and that she had an ally in me and indeed, the problem would get resolved - but not right away.  I said,  “This is stressful and it will eventually be resolved, but probably not as fast as you’d like. I am not going anywhere.”

Then, I asked her permission.

I asked for her permission to pull back from the situation - to see herself in it - from a distance. I asked her to trust me in this process, and because I had immediately validated the situation, and expressed confidence in the power of the conversation I was inviting her into, she agreed.

Then we got down to the real business of updating her narrative.

“Tell me about your typical morning routine - what does it take to just get your kids and yourself out the door in the morning?”  You see, based on all that I already knew about her, I took the gamble to assume that her life was not easy and that she already regularly demonstrated a lot of the traits that are required of college students to be successful. The gamble was about to pay off.

She recounted a disciplined daily routine in the face of stress. Hmmm...

I asked her what it required of her to stay on top of her schedule like this, and she said things like, “organization, patience, determination - her love of her kids and the commitment I made to being their mom”.  To be clear, this did not initially flow, so I had to try to a couple of approaches to get her talking more and follow my lead;

  • I told her own “story of the morning routine” back to her: if this story were about someone else, I asked,what words would she use to describe that person? The words started to come more easily.

  • I also asked her who in her life was her biggest fan. She said her grandmother. I asked her if her grandmother were on the phone with me now, what words would she use to describe her granddaughter. She continued to share more words like loving, a fighter and a mama-bear.

This was good. I took the words - her words - and said them back to her. I asked her to write them down; organized, patient, determined, loving, committed, a fighter and a mama-bear. I then shared that these words sounded like she was describing someone who was pretty resilient. Did she agree?  She emphatically said yes, adding that she has had to be resilient her entire life.

We got to where we needed to be in the conversation - we had arrived at her informed and empowered narrative. I was now onto perspective building.  So, my next questions included…

“How does knowing this about yourself help you manage the frustration of today’s book issue?” and, “How does it give you perspective about your ability to handle this particular obstacle when compared with all of the obstacles you have managed in your life?”

From here, she was connected to the best in herself. She had remembered who she was, where she’d been and from this place she led the charge in creating a game plan, after I simply asked, “So what’s your first step in resolving this?”. She was beginning to coach herself - I added a few nudges here and there and showed her some school resources - but she was in a much clearer head-space and tapping into her own wealth of internal resources.

This approach is indeed a paradigm shift in how to coach students. It changes the conversation about coaching, and it certainly changes actual coaching conversations to include the almighty power of personal belief by leveraging strengths in the midst of challenge.

For coaches and the coaching institutions that entrust them, here’s my game plan: I offer a  straightforward training protocol that gives your coaches the tools to have the kind of conversations that many of our students need most  All students bring so much - and in particular, non-traditional, first generation and low income students bring an abundance of untapped experiences, and yes - resiliency - we just need to equip them with the ability to see who they are and who they are becoming, in the face of difficulty!