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Answering is easy, asking is harder

Leadership often is about not showing the way

An illustrative image for this article
Original photo by myself

Oh, that urge to provide a solution.
You know what I mean.

You're talking to someone – a member of your team, a co-worker, a friend, your child –, they're laying out a problem and asking for your help. It's a pretty complicated issue, and they don't know how to move forward.

You want to give them an answer, but you also know that if you do, even if you're confident of it, is a shortcut.

Most of the time it's a shortcut around learning, which is serious enough. But often it's a shortcut around the friction involved in developing self-awareness. Or a way to avoid hard (yet necessary) conversations with others. But you really want to help them. It may even be your job to do so!

So you tell yourself "I just want them to get through this, solve this problem and keep moving" and give them a solution or two for the problem at hand. You may even put a lot of effort into explaining the solution clearly. You consider alternatives, articulating truly valuable advice. The other person expresses their gratitude, maybe even some admiration for your ability to solve their problem. And you feel that warmth of being perceived as even smarter than before.

Well, that's easy.

You fished. And you know that teaching someone how to fish is much more valuable. But actually doing it requires significant self-restraint. Even for the best-intentioned. That's because we don't realize how many normal conversations are actually teaching moments in disguise.

Here I share a couple of tips for how to hold back your fishhook and keep your mind in a coaching mindset.

First, pause

The first step is always to embrace silence.

Give the other person time to reflect on what they said. Sometimes simply framing and describing a problem can unlock a solution in people's minds (that's even easier to see in writing). If you jump to answers too quickly, you miss out on the opportunity to let the other person develop their own solution.

If that's hard for you, try to breathe. When you hear the ask for help, take a subtle, deep breadth, and give the other person a few seconds to complete their thought. It may be just enough for them to see a path forward and not only arrive to a new conclusion, but develop a mental map for how to get there.

Then ask questions

You're not a zen master in an 80s movie (if you are, wow, thanks for coming to my website). Don't make the silence too long. If it persists, you've got to fill it in. And now's the moment to ask another question back.

A good question is the most elegant type of nudge. It shows that you trust the other person to think on their own, leveling any tense power dynamic. It acknowledges the challenge as worthy of exploration. It gives a possible hint of a solution, without going all the way there.

In my experience, the best nudge-like, coaching questions are short, open-ended and run the risk of sounding like the caricature of a psychoanalysis session. But they work!

Four of the ones I find myself naturally using over and over again (and why) are:

  • And what do you think?
    People often have hidden ideas they're not ready to articulate, which makes them see a problem as much more of a wall than a small hurdle to overcome. When you create the space for them to express their true thoughts, the problem may shrink
  • And how does that make you feel?
    We sometimes say something is a problem not for objective reasons, but because we don't feel aligned or included in it. Articulating these feelings can point to the real underlying problem.
  • And why is that a problem?
    More often than not, unspoken assumptions make a challenge seem harder than it is. Digging into why the other person sees something as a problem can help reframe it and sometimes cancel it.
  • And what else have you tried?
    We make problems seem harder because of constraints we impose upon ourselves. We assume certain paths aren't acceptable, and soon hit a wall. By encouraging others to list what else they've explored, you can help them see solutions they may have overlooked.

But please, don't constrain yourself to these. Try to find the best question for each situation, keep note of what worked and what didn't, and iterate on your approach next time.

Stick through it

This way of engaging in conversation can drain quite a bit of your energy. That's is counter-intuitive, since you're not providing answers, you're "just" helping people find their own. But holding back from providing answers can be exhausting. Our culture rewards answer so much that sticking to questions can feel like a mistake

But that's the way towards empowerment and real growth, which makes it oh so worth it.

Thanks to Neeraj Mathur for unknowingly nudging me into writing this.