May 2010: The Advice TrapMay 18, 2010
I recently received a call from a man I will call Tom Winters. He heard from a merchant friend that Leadership Coaching helps business owners manage difficult relationship issues.
Fifteen years ago, Tom and his sister had a major conflict over the insurance business started by their parents. The business has since been sold, and the parents deceased. He and his sister haven’t spoken since, except superficially at the respective funerals of their parents.
On the surface, the unsettling question of who would lead the business triggered the cut-off. But the main issue for Tom was his sister’s “flat-out refusal to repay” a $28,000 loan he extended to her before the blow-up took place.
“I couldn’t believe my ears,” Tom said. “My sister outright admitted to me she had no intention to repay the loan because I supposedly had more resources at the time. Unbelievable.”
A bit of probing revealed why Tom was calling me now, after so many years of no meaningful contact with his sister: the wedding of his only daughter was set for next spring, and because his daughter was close to her first cousins (the children of his sister), Tom felt some pressure to invite his sister to the wedding.
“I just don’t know what to do,” Tom told me in our initial phone conversation. “I need some advice from an objective professional.”
Focusing on Tom
In short order, several opinions about Tom quickly bubbled to my awareness:
What’s wrong with this guy not speaking to his sister?
Maybe his daughter’s wedding offers the face-saving opportunity Tom has been waiting for to reconcile with his sister. Or maybe he wants nothing to do with her.
Tom is messing up the relationships his daughter has with her cousins.
I bet Tom’s wife is fueling the discord between him and his sister. What did she think when the sister didn’t repay the loan?
Judgments like those – focused on the client – set me up to give advice. My brain moves towards deciding what’s wrong and fixing it. Within minutes, I start generating solutions.
Like a hungry trout instinctively nipping at fresh bait, it’s hard to resist playing the “expert.”
Focusing on Self
As the coaching continued, I started questioning myself. Realizing I was too fast, too sure and doing all the work, I pulled back and wondered:
Do I understand the context of this problem?
Is the goal here to give a solution or to help him think better?
When I tell him what he should do, does Tom lose more than he gains?
Where does my urge to solve and fix come from? Is it an innocent desire to help another, or does the emotional satisfaction of wearing the wise mentor hat say more about my neediness than about Tom’s best interests?
Asking questions about ME had the effect of calming me down. It occurred to me that, at best, my “solutions” were subjective hunches. Without saying so, I decided to delegate back to Tom the responsibility for figuring out what to do.
Questions and “I” Positions
So I asked him questions about his motives, and about his options regarding the wedding. I littered my language with “I” positions like, “I’m not sure what I would do in your position,” and “It’s hard for me to tell whether or not you want a different kind of relationship with your sister.”
That got him thinking.
In the end, he invited his sister to the wedding. She responded with a “thank you, can’t make it” note. Now, he faces another crossroads: does he ignore her until the next wedding/funeral, or do something different?
Even though Tom taking responsibility for his own problem is messy and energy-intensive, it has one big advantage: whichever way this goes, he knows he will have to live with it. I call this “positive pressure.”
Giving advice, while sometimes appropriate, is chronically over-used by presidents, parents and other societal leaders. Had I followed my judgments and given advice to Tom, he would not have had to think or take responsibility. Without intending any harm, I could easily have promoted his dependence.
How does a coach deliver value without giving advice? This involves listening well, staying neutral about the problem, asking thought-provoking questions, and modifying all “I” statements away from solutions.
Often the biggest enemy of helpfulness is an over-anxious coach more interested in looking brilliant than in promoting responsibility.
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