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Have you tried …?

It’s considered cool. More and more leaders are striving to develop a ‘coaching leadership style'. But what does that actually look like?

Here’s a classic example of what it doesn’t look like.

NON-COACHING APPROACH

Colleague: “It happened again. I feel horrible. I got quite angry at Ian this morning. I’ve really got to get these bursts of emotion under control. I just don’t know how to do that!”
Leader: “Have you tried counting to 10?”
Colleague: “I wouldn’t have a chance to do that – I don’t even know that it’s coming until it’s already happened!”
Leader: “Well, could you try meditation?”
Colleague: “I already tried that, but it didn’t work.”
Leader: “How about if you just apologize and promise that it won’t happen again?”
Colleague: “Well, of course I apologize! But I am not comfortable with promising, because I don’t know if I can keep that promise.”
Leader: “Have you thought about discussing this with some sort of specialist?”
Colleague: “No. [long pause] I never actually thought of that. [another long pause] How stupid of me, I should have thought of that myself.”

You can just see the car spinning its wheels in the mud.

So, what is actually happening in the above conversation? The leader is working hard to generate solutions disguised as closed (yes/no) questions. These expressions are loaded – with advice! The colleague is simply rejecting each and every suggestion.

These types of closed questions start with:

• “Have you tried … ?”
• “Have you thought about … ?”
• “Could you consider … ?”
• “Could you try … ?”
• “How about if you … ?”
• “Why don’t you just …?”

Notice that the (often passive-resistive) response of the employee usually takes several forms:

• “That wouldn’t work because…”
• “I already tried that, and it didn’t work.”
• “I don’t want to try that.”
• “I am feeling stupid because I didn’t think of that myself.”

Let’s push the ‘reset’ button and take a coaching approach.

COACHING APPROACH

Colleague: “It happened again. I feel horrible. I got quite angry at Ian this morning. I’ve really got to get these bursts of emotion under control. I just don’t know how to do that!”
Leader: “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
Colleague: “Yeah, I’m really trying to stop this regular pattern of venting, but I haven’t managed yet.”
Leader: “What have you already tried?”
Colleague: “Well, meditation. I like it, but I don’t see it reducing these anger spurts.”
Colleague: “And, I am careful to get sufficient sleep.”
Leader: “Ok. What else have you tried?”
Colleague: “Well, I always apologize.”
Leader: “How does that go over?”
Colleague: “Well, it gets old, when I keep repeating this behavior.”
Leader: “What triggers your anger?”
Colleague: “Pfffst. Good one.”
Colleague: “Hmmm. Let me think.” [long pause]
Colleague: “Actually, each one of them involved someone missing a deadline. [silence] Hey, I didn’t realize this. [silence] Meeting deadlines is a core value of mine.”
Leader: “Deadlines. Hmmm. How can knowing this help you?”
Colleague: “Actually, I could leverage this. When there are deadlines involved, I could watch out – kinda go on super alert. If I do that, maybe I could stop myself on time.”
Leader: “How would that work?”

Leaders and coaches, when you hear things like "Have you tried…?" coming out of your mouth (or about to), take a step back and formulate an open question out of pure curiosity, instead. You’ll get your colleague or coachee to be much more proactive in figuring out what is really going on, and coming up with solutions.