I was on a coach mentoring call the other day, where certified coaches practice and critique each other to get better at their craft. And I noticed that one of the coaches kept trying to solve her client's problem.
That's a no-no for coaches. Our job is to be a "creative thought partner" to help clients figure out how to reach their full potential. That typically means helping them discover or create new ways of doing and being, rather than giving them the answers.
Focusing on solving other people's problems rather than supporting them to find their own answers can also be a no-no for leaders. Yet it's an issue I see all the time.
And I get it. It happens for many reasons.
- We're hard-wired to solve problems. It's a natural response.
- It can be frustrating to feel like we're "wasting time" listening to others try to figure something out when we feel like we already know the answer.
- When people come to us for help, they often just want us to give them the answer. "Just tell me what to do." While that might solve this problem in the short term, it doesn't help them develop the capacity to solve the next challenge that comes their way.
- We think it's our job as the leader to solve problems, to have all the answers.
So what's the issue with doing this?
- People can tell when you're not really listening, or are just listening to offer your own opinion about something. It makes them feel invisible, ignored and unimportant, which can cause them to shut down or worse, not ask for help or offer ideas next time.
- Unless the problem is a technical one with a clear right answer, the solution you think is best might only be best for you – not for them. The premise of coaching (and modern leadership) is that people who have lived experience with a situation generally know what they need to resolve it. Their real problem is not having access to the right supports. And since we all have different lived experiences, in particular when it comes to gender, race, ability, geography, etc. it's almost impossible for me to know what's best for you.
- When you "leap" to a solution, you miss the opportunity to better understand the real problem, which means that you often end up investing in the wrong solution. (This is a key premise of design thinking).
- Finally, whenever we give someone an answer, we cut off any chance to explore potential solutions that might be a bit out of the box, which ultimately kills any chance of enabling real innovation.
How can you get better at coaching people to find the best solution for their problem?
- Practice listening to understand, not resolve. Ask open-ended questions (that don't suggest solutions). Pause after they finish speaking. Give them space to think.
- Check your privilege. You may have more education, money, opportunity or support than they do. That doesn't mean you know best. Practice seeing them as fully capable, powerful people – you'll be amazed at what doors that shift in perspective can open.
- Create clarity. Lead open conversations with people to clarify expectations – theirs and yours – about what you need from them and what they need from you for everyone to reach their goals. Confusion and uncertainty are our two biggest barriers to engagement and change. You have the power to eliminate them.
We all have opportunities to lead change in our lives. But to do that, we need to understand what leadership means to us, and how we can best use the power it gives us on our q.west for good.