Bright Spots Coaching

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One of the many useful bits of advice in Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch was, to use their terminology, ‘find the bright spots’. Rather than focusing on the problem we need to solve, they suggest, it can be much more effective to identify where things are going well and replicate that behaviour.

It is a simple idea, and thus easy to implement immediately, but it also has depth to it – the more you think about it, the more it offers. Which is why I’m writing about it – to tease out some of its ramifications, and to work out how they can help us in the choral rehearsal.

The morning after I read this bit of the book, I saw Mareike Buck use the technique beautifully in her warm-up with The Rhubarbs in Bonn. She remarked that one particular chorus member was using a gestural technique they were clearly familiar with to aid vocal production. That person looked pleased to have the compliment, and everyone else joined in the gesture.

It was a powerful example of how singling one person out for praise can inspire a group to voluntarily change their behaviour, without actually asking them to.

Another way we can find bright spots in rehearsal is in transferring skills from piece to piece. When people are finding something tricky, especially while learning new repertoire that is as yet unfamiliar, it helps to point back to music they know better where they’re already exercising that skill.

So, bright spot coaching takes the idea that rehearsal instructions are best phrased positively (focus on the solution, not the problem; give the intervention, not the diagnosis), and supercharges it. It says: this thing we want to happen, the solution is already happening over here, let’s all join in. It makes the task seem much more do-able just knowing that someone is achieving it, and having a model to emulate also gives us information about how to do it.

In the Heath’s terms, that is, finding the bright spot sets up two of their other key techniques. First, it shrinks the task. Change feels hard when the amount of change needed appears too much; it is easy to be daunted. Finding a bright spot can tell us we’re not at the start of the journey, we’re already partway through it.

Second, the process of working out how the bright spots work allows us to script the critical moves. What exactly is the lead section doing when they sail effortlessly up to the top G in that song? Let’s do that for the top G in this song too. That we can do something in one context not only reassures us that it should be possible in another, but also gives us information about how.

This is Paul.
Paul keeps the back of his neck long when singing high notes and relaxes his jaw.
Be like Paul.

The third of the two further techniques (you see, writing things down always gets more ideas flowing) that finding bright spots allows is to rally the herd. As Robert Cialdini has documented so thoroughly, people pick up a lot of their behaviours from each other. So if you say, ‘You’re all looking so gloomy,’ you are likely to encourage everyone to continue looking gloomy, as that’s norm. If instead you remark on the one person who is smiling, that’s the behaviour that is normalised.

Thinking about it, this is particularly powerful in a choral situation where the director can see everyone but they can’t really see each other. If you stand in a circle and only one person smiles, gloominess is still the norm. If the only information people have about smiliness levels is a compliment given to one singer, they are much more likely to join in. (Mind you, standing in a circle can still be good for smiliness, as people are generally nice to each other and like to make encouraging eye contact around the room.)

Bright spots coaching helps keep our eyes on our destination. This is where we are headed, and our desired future is already happening here and now. It is a very motivating technique and I bet you are already using it a good deal already. But now you’ve thought about it specifically, you can deploy it at will for even more impact.

(See what I did there?)

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