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Coaching the Person, Not the Problem

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John Dewey may not have been successful at transforming our educational systems, but his gift of defining how to grow people’s minds can be seen in the actions of trained coaches.

Coaching Isn’t Rah-Rah

Most people I know like the idea of having someone act as a sounding board when they feel stuck trying to think through a dilemma. Talking about a problem can help people look at how their thoughts help or hinder their goal achievement. They don’t want non-specific encouragement. “You can do it” statements feel patronizing, especially to the high achiever.

In fact, good coaching isn’t always comfortable. Learning often happens in a moment of awkward uncertainty—when we come to doubt the beliefs and assumptions that underlie our choices. Dewey also acknowledged the discomfort that accompanies doubt as inherent in the process of learning. A surprising fact, disruptive reflection, or incisive question is needed to break down what we think we know. Then, we are open to learning. The breakdown doesn’t always feel good. Yet over time, we usually are grateful for the insights we gain.

For example, I had a boss who had this uncanny ability to read me. He knew what drove me, what I desperately wanted, and what barriers my own brain created that got in my way. His questions broke through the walls in my mind so I could see my blind spots. My realizations were often painful, but I knew what I had to do differently.

Once, when I was on a rampage about the incompetency of my peers and the overload of work I then had to do, he said, “It seems that everyone disappoints you.” As I paused to think about his observation, he added, “Will anyone ever be good enough for you?” There was nothing left for me to say.

Back at my desk, I wondered if I had always focused on other people’s flaws. I saw how this pattern had hurt my personal relationships for years. With one reflection plus one question, he made me face how I was playing out this pattern at work. I would never see my work relationships the same again.

His observation and question made me stop and question my thinking, which was terribly uncomfortable. In the midst of this discomfort, I became more conscious of how I distanced myself from others by my need to prove I was better than them. I wanted to be a leader. Instead, I was a complainer. The painful truth led me to learn how I could better work with others and, someday, lead them.

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