Circles of concern and influence

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Even though we may never have named it as such, Covey’s theory of circles of concern and influence is one which most of us have been taught from our infancy. It is founded on a wonderfully simple principle that the things that worry us are not necessarily within our power to change or control. As children, we are forced to grasp this on an almost daily basis: within the home, we realise that we are subject to rules and restrictions which concern us deeply, but over which we have little to no influence (and usually rightly so!). Once we move to nursery or school and begin to interact with our peers, we begin to see again that, whilst other people’s behaviours and reactions may bother us, we do not always have any recourse to change them. However, it seems to be as adults that we forget this simple lesson and start to worry constantly about occurrences well outside of our control. As teachers and education professionals, this worry can become all-consuming and damaging, both at work and at home. So what can we do about it?

Covey’s principle is explained best in his own words:

"Proactive people focus their efforts in the Circle of Influence. They work on the things they can do something about. The nature of their energy is positive, enlarging and magnifying, causing their Circle of Influence to grow” (Covey: 2004)

circle of influence

As the above diagram suggests, focusing on what we CAN control becomes self-fulfilling - we start to find that we can in fact control more and more.

In an education setting, it is so easy to become entangled in the reactive focus, by focusing our energy on all the elements we cannot control (one has to be careful here - of course, we know that individuals can and do make huge changes in their own environments and the world at large. However, we must also accept our own limitations). A classic example in the world of education is policy changes - do we spend personal, department and meeting time complaining and feeling cross about policy changes well beyond our remit of control? Yes. Does it help, beyond the temporary satisfaction of venting? No. All it really serves to do is increase feelings of helplessness and frustration, which are not conducive to a positive working environment or inspiring teaching.

So instead of feeling cross about policy changes outside of our circle of influence, for example, let us turn instead to what is within it: we do have control over how we teach; we do have control over how prepared our pupils are for their exams; we do have some control over how they feel about those exams. What differences might we see if we directed our policy-angst energy towards those positive tasks instead?

This realignment principle can be mapped onto most scenarios by asking three simple questions:

- Does it concern me?

- Can I influence it?

- If not, what can I influence instead?

A useful exercise which anecdotally can be successful with pupils feeling overwhelmed or struggling with friendships is easily adaptable for adults: just draw your circle of concern and your circle of influence inside of it (see above). Then proceed to fill each area with what you can and can’t influence.

What is in your circle of concern only, well outside of your circle of influence, that it would do you a lot of good to cast aside?

*If you would like to read more about Covey’s ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, you will find the text reference below.

Covey, S.R. (2004). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. London: Simon & Schuster.

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