Friday, March 4, 2011

Quiet Leadership - Instead of Giving Advice, Help People Think for Themselves

You may know that my wife, Kathleen Scott, is a writer. She contributes regularly to the San Antonio Express-News Travel section and sometimes to the Food section. She also is working on a third draft of a mystery novel.

I think it's remarkable that she made a successful transition from commercial banker to writer. The skills involved in each are totally different. How many people have done that? Since I have a PhD in English and make a living writing nonfiction content, from time to time I serve as a kind of live-in editor and writing coach. In the past, whenever she asked for my input, I'd listen to her concerns or read a passage and then give her my recommendations.

The other day, I decided to take a different approach. She brought up a difficulty she'd been having in her writing routine, and I wondered what would happen if I encouraged her to think it through for herself. It went something like this.

"I'm spending way too much time selecting photographs for my articles. When I research a piece, I take hundreds of pictures. I have to upload them all, sort out the bad ones, name the good ones, organize them and find the best ones for the article. It takes hours and I don't get that much for an article."

I immediately thought of a couple things she could do to reduce that task. But instead of suggesting them, I asked: "How important is it to cut back on the time you spend?"

"I've got to do something about it. I spend so much time on it I could make more money flipping hamburgers."

"Have you got any ideas?"

"Well, I probably take too many pictures."

"Could you cut back and still deliver good pictures?"

"I think I take multiple pictures of everything because I'm afraid I won't have everything I need for the article."

"Do you really need to take so many pictures?"

"Probably not. I know from experience that I'll always get enough good pictures for the piece. They only use three or four of them. I take a lot because I might want to use them for other articles later."

"Is that working for you?"

"In retrospect, I may never use them. I probably should just do a good job covering the important things for the piece."

"How would you do that?"

"I do a good job planning my articles. I think I'll meet with my editor to get a better feel for what she likes and doesn't like."

"Sounds like that could really reduce the time you spend sorting through them."

"Yeah. Hey, you're really good at this..."

Cool...immediate feedback! I didn't have to give advice and she worked out her own solution. This approach to coaching is different for me.

I picked it up in an excellent book called Quiet Leadership (2006), by David Rock. It's one of the most useful books on leadership that I've read in a long time. He begins by talking about how the brain learns, which endeared me to him immediately. Plus, he wrote it for the manager on the ground, outlining some important new skills.

His core premise:
Our job as leaders should be to help people make their own connections. Instead of this, much of our energy goes into trying to do the thinking for people, and then seeing if our ideas stick....

If we are to help other people think, we might develop a whole new set of skills--such as the ability to create the physical and mental space for people to want to think, the ability to help others simplify their thinking, the ability to notice certain qualities in people's thinking, the ability to help others make their own connections.

The spirit of this approach...

“Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.”—Author unknown

I've found that it boils down to listening well, resisting the impulse to give advice, then asking appropriate questions to get the other person to continue thinking about the problem. More about this...

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

1 comment:

Meredith Bell said...

What a great example of applying this approach of getting people to think for themselves, Denny. Stories from life experience do help to make a principle more real. Kathleen is lucky to live with such a skillful guy!