SEEK FIRST TO LEARN
“The truth you believe and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new,” says Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön. Surely clinging to narrow versions of the truth has prevented many law makers from creating anything new during debt ceiling talks this year.
Instead of talking about attachment to truth, coaching pioneer Thomas Leonard talked about how the need to be right led him to make mistakes. He distinguished between being right and striving for accuracy. He said that needing to be right made him ask leading questions or push clients to see things his way. On the other hand, when you aim for accuracy, you seek, in Leonard’s words, “to learn instead of to teach.” Why? What is the accuracy you are aiming for?
For me, striving for accuracy starts with trying to see the wholeness
of a situation: the client, her experience of her dilemma, her
organization--and also my own thoughts, standpoint, feelings and
motivations. In order to understand that wholeness, I have to ask a lot of questions.
• Am I really present to this person or these people?
• What is going on for them?
• What are their hopes and expectations?
• How is their organization and their organization’s environment influencing them?
• What other “data” might help my clients and me understand their situation?
• What is there but remains unexpressed? The unexpressed hides in plain sight in body language, humor, stories, seating arrangements and the use of time and space, to name a few examples.
Edgar Schein calls the quest for accuracy “humble inquiry.” I love the phrase because it helps me remember that real helpfulness, grows out of humbly, sincerely aiming first to learn. Once I see as much as I can about the whole picture, I can help clients problem-solve—both through my line of questions and through sharing perspective, knowledge and resources gained from consulting for and studying organizations. (See “coaching as perspective” in the sidebar link.)
This year I’ve been working with a company division that struggled to
define a new work area that is even ill-defined within their rapidly
changing industry. Team members struggled, feeling that they should have
the answers. I asked a lot of questions! Early in the project, my
questions helped me see the difference between my client’s confusion
about the new work function, confusion about how to structure group
problem-solving, and confusion about how to organize the new work. I led
them through processes that first aimed for an accurate articulation of
the problem and then divided the complex problem up into workable
bites. As experts in their technical field, they eventually defined the
new function. I helped by choosing, sequencing and leading the group’s
problem solving. Then I helped them organize the new work function by
showing them what the new cross-functional team needed:
• a clear leader/driver,
• strategic priorities aligned with the company’s strategic plan,
• a measurable work plan,
• protocols for bringing issues to the group and for taking problems to the division head, etc.
It is an oft-repeated misunderstanding that you go to a consultant to give you “the truth” about your problem. The consultant-as-guru is not, I think, the way to give accurate help—help that is really on target. Seek first to learn.