“Hurry up and finish speaking, so I can tell you why you’re wrong!”

Have you ever found yourself thinking such a thought, instead of really trying to grasp what truth might be said?  Of course, such impatient waiting is not true listening, and rarely serves us well.  It leaves us poised for a fight, rather than ready for insight, understanding, and growth.

Listening is a critical skill in all of our lives.  In business we’re concerned with management, supervision, marketing, sales — all tasks involving relationships.  We need to listen to employees, managers,  customers and potential customers, suppliers, stockholders, neighbors — all those who are impacted by our policies and operations.

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People generally don’t come to me for “coaching” (I prefer to call it clarifying) because their lives are working well, because their creativity is flowing, or because their organizations are functioning at maximum potential.  They come  because of perceived gaps, deficits, problems, and challenges.

Typically we’ll start work with the client filling out “Wheel of Life” forms, such as the one shown at the left.  This one focused on personal issues such as health and family’ others are more about business or work, creativity and production, organizational health.

My clients probably assume that I’ll zoom right into those quadrants with the lowest score or ranking.  If “health” or “personal growth” is the area of least success, isn’t that the place to start?

“No!”, I insist.  Instead we start with the best ranking areas, reviewing what efforts, what paradigms, what personal initiatives led to that success.  By experiencing, and reviewing, how we succeed in some areas, we can best plan our success in others.

This chart focuses more on management skills and tasks, such as planning, team building, maintaining accountability.  Most managers experience challenges with some of these areas, while enjoying success with others.

Coaching (or clarifying) is not a substitute for skills training, but it can be critical in bringing out those skills when needed.  Sometimes what’s needed is not a whole new skill set,  but just a metaphor, a paradigm, or an idea.

One client of mine was challenged bringing out the aliveness in one of the managers who reports to her.  My asking, “How did I just get that strong response from you?” was all the hint she needed.  We each model behaviors for those around us.  The  questions I was asking her were part of our coaching — they were also tools she could use with her staff.

This model is not complex, and is can be completely transparent.  Most coaches have no secret agenda, or magic method.  By asking cogent questions, offering honest support, and allowing our clients space to think, to respond, to take charge, and to grow, we get to see incredible results.

When our daughter was in high school, the school organized an evening program for parents on “resiliency theory”.  The lead speaker pointed out — as all the parents present already knew too well — that our children were at risk getting hooked on alcohol or on illegal drugs, that they may be in a crash with a drunk teenage driver, that our daughters  could get pregnant.  Indeed, there were perils at every moment!

All this is true, but not helpful, the speaker explained.  What was more helpful was the fact that our kids had been navigating these dangerous waters for some time, and had mostly been making good decisions.  We needed to identify the strengths that led to those decisions — such qualities as character, judgement, integrity, and courage — and find ways to highlight and support those strengths.  We needed to empower our children, reminding them of the positive qualities that they have to draw upon — rather than focus primarily on the risks that they face.  The risks were real and important, but they were not a key to safety and positive action.

What he was talking about, we learned, is “resiliency theory”.  There’s an excellent summary of these ideas at the WestEd Health Kids website:

At its foundation, a resilience based approach to youth development is based upon the principle that all people have the ability to overcome adversity and to succeed despite it. Resilience is a strengths based model meaning its focus is on providing the supports and opportunities which promote life success, rather than trying only to eliminate the factors that promote failure.

Research has consistently shown that the presence of these developmental supports and opportunities provide a better indicator of whether youth will grow up to become successful well-adjusted adults than the presence or absence of risk-factors (i.e. poverty, drug-use, etc.)

I’ve found this a helpful approach with people of all ages.  Recently I took on a new ‘coaching” client, a manager who came with a list of goals reflecting difficulty in social skills, a sense that he was managing short term operations but not visioning or achieving long term goals, and a concern that he was in some significant way a disappointment to his staff.  Indeed, when I had him complete an inventory of strength and weaknesses, and of the parts of his work and personal life that were working well or that were lacking in significant ways, I could see the same judgements and concerns reflecting in his answers.

We could have wallowed in those negative perceptions.  It might have been cathartic, and perhaps satisfying, but I doubt that it would have been empowering.  Instead, I suggested that we start by reviewing all the areas where he had given himself the highest ratings — to see what innate strengths, and what positive actions had made those parts of his work and personal life function so well.  That was the beginning of a healthy coaching relationship that has seen him energize his staff, spend more time envisioning and working for needed changes in his organization, and feel better about himself and his contribution at work.  Our focus is on what we can do, rather than on what might have eluded him.  He’s in control of the coaching sessions, and I believe he’s more in control of his life.

What makes a great question?

September 26, 2009

What makes a great question?

Of course I have my ideas about this one.  All of my consulting and “clarifying” (my term for “coaching”) involves asking questions that illuminate, that invite understanding and inquiry.  Even in doing photography, I often start with questions.

But this one is for you!  I’ll be interested to see your responses