How to Coach Learning Out of Failure

No one likes to fail, but some failure is actually good for us. A little failure now and then will make us stronger. I’ll tell you why, and how to coach learning out of failure. 

“Failure” is an emotionally-charged word. Discouragement is it’s constant companion. The word “failure” has a note of finality or completeness. Black or white. Bad or good.

Rarely is failure all or nothing. Without failure we wouldn’t learn and grow. Here are two reasons a little failure is a good thing:

Reason 1: Failure Leads to Reaching Our Potential

Some people go to great lengths not to fail. On the surface, that’s understandable. However, by aiming for only what is attainable you risk staying firmly in the grip of mediocrity.

A pole vaulter only knows her upper limit by moving the bar higher and higher. In sport as well as work, you can only reach your potential by pushing your limits, and that means risking failure.

As you coach others, challenge them to reach higher than they think they can go. It’s only then they develop their potential.

Reason 2: Failure Leads to Learning

The greatest learning (or at least most memorable learning!) come from failures.

I plan and lead many multiple day events each year. Back in 2007, I planned a 5-day event in the Los Angeles area. All my previous events had been well-attended. Registrations for this one, however, only trickled in. In fact, I had to cancel it, something I had never done before. When I did, the retreat center kept my $2,000 deposit. Ouch!

This failure caused me to closely examine all aspects of my event planning: how the event is contracted with the venue, my marketing, pricing, and where and when my customers want to travel. The result was I learned a number of important lessons that became principles for how we how plan successful events. This learning has reduced a lot of stress and risk, giving us a planning model that allows us to know when we should create a new event and when we shouldn’t.

How to Coach Learning Out of Failure

Failure is an opportunity to learn from what went wrong and what went right.

Take, for example, a recent domestic failure on my part. My wife asked me to bring home milk and eggs and be on time for dinner. I stopped by the store and bought eggs and then remembered we needed bread too. When I arrived home she asked me for the milk. Failure.

While the overall result may not have been what my wife hoped for, much of what I did actually were quite positive.

  • I remembered to stop by the store, which was nn improvement over previous requests!
  • I bought eggs.
  • I bought bread, which she didn’t mention but we needed.
  • I arrived home on time for dinner.

I only missed one small part. Buy milk.

Every so called “failure” is made up of a number of different actions – thoughts, decisions, and behaviors. Now here’s a coaching secret: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” Don’t overlook the successful parts of a failed action in your rush to fix it.

I’m not talking about positivity here, but rather true behavioral reinforcement. By reinforcing all forward-moving behaviors we increase the chances that the person will do them again next time.

Learning from failure means learning what worked, as well as what didn’t work.

Here are the 4 steps I use to coach failure:

  1. Acknowledge all the forward-moving actions. Find thoughts, decisions, and action and reinforce them. Don’t let discouragement cause the person to miss the parts that they did well.
  2. Identify the failed parts. Reflect on what happened and identify where things went astray. Be specific. Look at all the steps that went into the action.
  3. Coach out the learning. Ask, “What insights do you have from this experience?” Take a moment to focus on what the person learned, or relearned, through this experience.
  4. Make a revised plan of action. Ask, “How would you like to move forward from here?” Using the learning, create a revised way forward to achieve their goal.

Failure happens all the time in small ways. To not learn from failure is tragic and sets a person up to repeat their errors. As coaches, we can help people move from failure to learning, growth, and success.

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    Keith is President of Creative Results Management. He helps busy leaders multiply their impact. Keith is the author of several books including The COACH Model for Christian Leaders.

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    One thought on “How to Coach Learning Out of Failure

    1. Thanks, Keith. I really needed to read this today for myself, following an event that capped a relationship that I felt very fail-y about. Its easy for me to go down into that dark place where all I see is where I didn’t do well, and not take a realistic “post mortem” of the good and bad, and see how, moving forward, I can learn and grow.