Good morning. I hope it’s sunny where you are.
Earlier this week I spent a day coaching several leaders, which I love doing. And I realized that night that I had spent a lot of time talking. This is a bad thing for a coach. Clients like it: hearing stories is less work than being coached, plus I have really good stories to tell. But what I did and why I did it was specific to a particular time and context, and whether I was successful was also dependent on time and context. My experience was just my experience, and not a blueprint for anybody else’s.
In the coaching training I do with my colleagues at the Center, we work intentionally and specifically on how to listen, and the perils of giving advice. Whenever possible, I enlist my colleague Bob Villanova to talk about a situation in which his giving advice led a new superintendent into trouble, and I’m grateful for the humble, humorous, and self-deprecatory way in which he tells it, because he also communicates a comfort with vulnerability that makes it a lot easier to build trust.
This recent article from the New York Times seems to me to be a vivid illustration of the point I was trying to make in a previous Coaching Letter (#23)—that whenever people talk, even when we think we are giving helpful advice, we are imposing our own mental models on the situation. (Don’t read the article if you’ve had a hard day—it’s a tear-jerker.) The article is written by someone living with stage 4 cancer, and the things that people have said to her are completely mind-blowing, but I can’t say I’m all that surprised. There are plenty of other first person accounts of people dealing with extraordinarily difficult situations whose challenges are made more difficult by the advice they receive—sometimes ignorant, sometimes facile, sometimes cruel. (I have a really good/salutory story about that, too…)
I have mentioned Charlie Seashore before—he was one of my coaching mentors, and my north star for what it means to be totally focused on another person and what she has to say. He used to say that we can last 30 days without eating, 3 days without water, 3 minutes without oxygen, and 30 seconds without giving advice.
I wish there was an easy way to fit the consideration of advice and its alternatives into the work we do with leaders, but often it feels like a bit of a stretch. What I mean is, I think it’s really important, but it’s not often what we are hired to do—but I fantasize about some kind of workshop that would make leaders more like coaches and coaches more like leaders. I highly recommend Ed Schein’s book Humble Inquiry—in fact, I was thinking of trying to do an online book study, maybe over the summer, with this as the first book. Email me if you’re interested. He talks about the discipline of listening and asking questions rather than telling, and the benefits that result—excerpt attached, courtesy of my colleague Kerry. That excerpt, and this TED talk, are good places to start in thinking about listening and questioning in the service of others. Maybe use them with others to start a conversation about this. Let me know if you try that, or want to talk more about it.
Good luck with what you’re working on, and let me know if you need anything from me.
Isobel Stevenson PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106