Learning to stop helping

Coaches are often very smart and insightful people. This is to be expected because coaching isn’t easy. If you're a coach like me then you practice design thinking and creative problem solving as part of your daily work. But coaches, when they’re coaching, aren't supposed to solve problems for people. No matter how smart they are. They're supposed to help that person process they're own thoughts and come to a solution for themselves.

Then comes the dilemma; what if you know the right answer?

We’ve all been there, watching someone struggle with a difficult dilemma and having this overwhelming urge to point out a very clever solution that has occurred to us while we’ve been listening. Some of us, in moments of weakness, have even gone so far as to subtly manipulate the thinking of our coachee to help them arrive at the answer that we’re so sure is the right one.

But here's the rub; you don't know the right answer. Or at the very least you can't assume that you do. It may well be that you have a good idea but are you sure it’s the best idea? And by best I mean not only objectively optimal but the right fit for your coachee.

That’s the crux of it – your answer may be perfect for you but coaching assumes that the best solution for the person with the problem will come from that person. It’s the foundation of the coaching approach – boost awareness, facilitate thinking, ask questions and then help the coachee stay the course.

Further more, when you give advice, consider what you're assuming. You're assuming that you're smarter than your coachee, that you understand his or her life better than they do. This assumption is unsafe. It's also arrogant.

When you find yourself tempted to give advice, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What if I'm wrong?
  2. Even if I'm right, should this solution come from me?
  3. What might I be destroying if I speak now?

You could perhaps sum all these up with one position question?

  • What would I do if I assumed my coachee is as good a thinker as I am?

In fact, this question goes far beyond coaching. What if you assumed that everyone you spoke to was as capable of thinking as you are? What if you believed that the homeless person on the street could be as insightful as the founder of the latest billion dollar tech breakthrough?

A short while ago I wrote about the feeling of relief that I felt when switched from believing that people needed me to save their problems for them to believing that the world is full of good and powerful people, filled with potential.

Apply that same thinking to your life. Would you feel a sense of relief if you knew the people around you were capable of solving their own problems and only needed you to believe in them? How would you manage your team differently if you knew they were smart and ready to use those smarts? How might you treat your children differently?

Coaching isn’t about teaching, but being a coach teaches us many things. The first lesson, of course, is humility.

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