When solving problems can get you killed

Last week I had the pleasure of spending time with local non-profit leaders, teaching them to incorporate real coaching into their management/leadership tool kit.  Within a couple of hours, the group was well grounded in the pillars of “real coaching” – listening, asking powerful questions, and moving the coachee to action.

Once we moved beyond those pillars, there was some regret expressed by the leaders that they would have to let go of solving other’s problems for them. Yet they stated that they did not want someone solving THEIR problems. I pointed out this disconnect by jokingly stating “My husband knows if he tries to solve my problems that I’ll kill him (figuratively of course)”. (When I told my husband this story later, he nodded that he understood).

The lesson is that most people want – and need – to solve their own problems. You may be one of those yourself. And, you might notice that when someone steps in and gives you direction or advice, you can feel your blood boil with a desire to do anything but what they have suggested.

So, when does it make sense to use your coaching toolkit instead of your problem-solving toolkit?

The time to coach: Coaching requires reflection and time. You can coach best when there isn’t an emergent or urgent situation that requires immediate attention (if the building is on fire, asking “What would you like to do about this?” is not a good idea). Or, when the person you are coaching is impossibly unable to find a solution (although I would argue that sending them away to think about alternatives and picking the conversation up after they’ve reflected is often a fine alternative strategy). Also, when they are learning something new, you may find that problem solving with them (at least initially) or teaching is the best approach. Wait until they get better grounded in their work, at which point you can switch into coaching them.

The people to coach: I would propose that people who want to learn, develop, and discover on their own without your direct problem-solving skills are the best ones to “really coach”. They tend to be fully engaged in their work, curious, and eager. There are more of them out there than you might think. Even the most seemingly intractable of employees may want to learn. They may ask you to solve something for them, but in reality, if you listen, ask, and move them to action without solving their problem, you’ll find that they can be good thinkers who really want to figure things out with your coaching assistance.

Try listening, asking insightful questions, and moving others to action rather than getting yourself all tied up in solving other’s problems. Coaching others is a form of human development that will help them to learn and become less dependent on your advice. And that’s good for them and it helps you to avoid getting killed.

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.