One of my professors in graduate school once told me that he’d learned more from his doctoral students across his 30-odd years in the business than he had from anyone else. I left my career in academia too quickly to ever find out if the same would hold true for me.
But now that one part of my career is devoted to writing coaching, I see the wisdom of his words. Through my clients, I am privileged to learn about a range of topics that are entirely new to me: educational reform in Africa…emerging social class systems in China…the history of architecture in London, to name but a few. But the process of coaching has also taught me a great deal about myself.
Learning to Listen
According to the International Coach Federation, coaching is about “partnering with (people) in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.” Simply put, coaching isn’t about fixing people; it’s about helping them to fix themselves.
To facilitate this resourcefulness requires, among other things, being a good listener. This skill didn’t come naturally to me. We all bring listening filters to the table that influence what we hear. Some of us listen to judge. Others listen to win.
Me? I listen to fix. When someone presents me with a problem, I tend to want to go in and figure out how to solve it. That’s a useful skill, and it has served me well in a number of different parts of my life, both personal and professional.
But as organizational psychologist Adam Grant reminds us, while excellence comes from doing what you do best, you need to make sure you’re doing it at the right times. Grant calls this a “super strength,” and his point is that it cuts both ways.
Overcoming Your Listening Filters
I was reminded of my fix-it bias during a recent session with one of my clients. Towards the end of a session, she said something along the lines of “I’m afraid I won’t be able to write this chapter when you’re not with me. It’s like we’re in a three-legged race, but my ‘free’ leg hasn’t caught up.”
It was a terrific metaphor, one that made me sit up in my seat and, well, listen. What she was trying to say – in the nicest way possible – was that somewhere along the way, I’d moved from being a writing coach to being an editor. I’d been showing her what to do, but not empowering her to do it herself.
The trick with listening filters is to become self-aware enough to identify them. And once you’ve done that, you must – as a coaching colleague once put it to me – ask yourself: Because of my filter, what did I miss?
With this particular client, I’m pleased to say that after her “three-legged race” comment, I was able to step back and turn the reins back over to her. A couple of sessions later, she began to show a lot of progress in her writing on her own. I’d succeeded in getting out of the way of her learning process.
Equally important, I’d learned something about myself.