Words Make Worlds
October 1st, 2023
Hello, and welcome to the Curiosity Edition of Words Make Worlds! I’m Andi, an executive and team coach who believes that coaching skills are essential for leaders in the increasingly complex, uncertain, and relentlessly changing world we find ourselves in. The siren song of technological solutionism is strong, but for now organizations are still made of people and as long they are, knowing how to build strong, trusting, collaborative relationships is crucial to individual and organizational success. And coaching is a skill that can deliver exactly that.
Before we jump into today’s theme of curiosity, let’s cover where we are at so far:
- We started by setting up a learning container, a set of activities/ done in the morning and evening to hold the work you are doing as you develop a Coaching Leadership Style. Think of it as scaffolding for learning.
- Then we talked about working with strengths (and values). This is incredibly important for developing your unique Coaching Leadership Style and for being authentic and transparent with others. When people know what is important to you and what your values are, they understand you more deeply and trust increases. Don’t be a chaos ball of uncertainty and unpredictability.
- Throw in the Loop of Awareness, a useful tool for freeing your attention. When you learn how to utilize attention intentionally, more of the world opens up in service of noticing, observing, reflecting, learning, and taking choiceful action.
- And then we talked about optimism and the role it plays in supporting change and growth. This is a posture that invites participants to plant their feet firmly in reality while taking an optimistic view of what is possible in the future. This is incredibly important when it comes to supporting others in sourcing their own knowledge, creativity, and decision making in service of the person they are becoming.
Some of you might be scratching your head and thinking “Andi, where is the coaching in all of this?” Isn’t coaching about asking good questions? If you have been following along and trying out the practices and exercises, I imagine you’ve noticing some subtle shifts in the conversations you are having. That’s because you are already coaching. By changing your mindset, using attention wisely, leaning on your strengths, and seeing the inherent resourcefulness in those you work with, your presence itself is having an impact (more on presence in a future edition).
But coaching is also about asking good questions, and we’re going to get into that today from the perspective of Curiosity, an important quality to cultivate in the mindset of a coach.
Curiosity isn’t necessarily about questions, though they are a part of it. Curiosity is an orientation towards life, a willingness to embrace a state of not knowing, and a genuine interest in uncovering something new. A very useful skill in rapidly changing times. The questions that arise from this place can unlock new ways of seeing, thinking, and acting.
Curiosity in coaching isn’t about gathering information so you can decide what to do. Instead, it acts in service of the learning and growth of the person you are working with. It illuminates areas for exploration so that you can discover what is hidden from view. Questions that come from genuine curiosity can be evocative or provocative, an invitation to pause, reflect, and deepen understanding. Co-Active Coaching recommends paying close attention the impact your questions have - when you ask one, where does it send the other person? Do they remain at the surface giving easy answers, or do they go to new places, quietly listening to the answer that form as new insights and understandings come forward?
Genuine curiosity, sourced from a place of openness and wonder, leaves no room for fear; the excitement of exploration and discovery is too pervasive for anything else to be present. Which is wonderfully liberating for both the coach and the person being coached! Imagine being in a conversation at work - a conversation with your boss no less - where it is truly okay to not know. And to feel fully supported in your exploration to find that knowing, to engage in reflection and discovery until you see yourself and the situation in new ways and new possibilities emerge.
When this happens, people become more generative in their ability to source creative solutions. Curiosity also builds deep connection and trusting relationships, a critical component of high performing teams. Imagine two conversations: one rooted in problem solving, the other rooted in curiosity. In the problem solving conversation, questions are asked to gather information and figure out the source of the issue in order to fix it. Sometimes it can feel like an interrogation, where questions thinly mask judgements, blame, and negative assessments of the people and decisions involved. The conversation rooted in curiosity has no need for any of this because judgements, blame, and negative assessments are conclusions, they close us off to learning, and curiosity cannot exist simultaneously with conclusions. The questions in this conversation put everyone on equal footing, seeking to uncover and understand something new, with genuine interest for what can be learned. The first conversation creates defensiveness, reactivity, and distrust. The second generates curiosity, responsiveness, and trust.
It can be really easy to get hooked by the content of what someone shares with us. The nitty gritty details of who said what, and who did what, and when, and what happened after that. With coaching, you really don’t need all those details because your curiosity is about the person, not the issue. This is a subtle and important difference. When you focus on the person, your curiosity and coaching orients around who they are in relationship to the issue, how they interpret the situation, and what possibilities they see or don’t see. What happened in the past doesn’t really matter. You want to keep the conversation in the present and oriented towards the future.
And one last thing - get curious beyond the words. Listen to their gestures, tone, energy, posture, pace, and tempo. If something shifts or change, get curious! If someone who usually talks fast and has a lot of energy slows down and gets soft, get curious!
This is a collection of micro practices you can try out in the coming weeks:
- In your next 1:1, limit your responses to questions and mirroring. Questions should primarily be of the how and what variety, though when and who and where can work too. Do your best to avoid why questions. Mirroring helps the conversation feel a little less awkward - by sharing back the words and phrases the other person is using (exactly as they are, no modifications) you serve as a reflection, helping them see and hear themselves more deeply and clearly.
- Keep your questions short. Ask one at a time. Avoid leading questions. Pause and allow space for the other person to reflect and respond.
- If something goes sideways, or you feel the sudden pressure of needing to have an answer, throw your hands up in the air and shout, “How fascinating!” in the style of Benjamin Zander. I’m not kidding. I used to do this at work a lot.
- From the Hendricks Institute comes the very useful HMMMMMMMMM. It is very hard to make this sound and not feel more curious. If you need to up the curiosity factor, just let out a good HMMMMMMMMM.
- Before you ask a question, preface it with the words, “I’m curious…”
- When in conversation with someone you are coaching, try standing or sitting side by side looking out a window (if you don’t have a window maybe a painting or a nature poster with an inspirational quote). If you can’t do this physically, just imagine you are together shoulder to shoulder, equals looking at the same thing and wondering about what is possible.
- When the conversation is over, reflect on what happened and ask yourself, “What is even more mysterious about this person?” This question keeps the curiosity and wonder alive against the very human propensity to label, categorize, interpret, and judge the world around us.
Before you step into any of these practices check in with yourself and see if you are truly open to learning or not. If you are, embrace your genuine curiosity and jump into the conversation. If you aren’t, pay attention to what is being activated in you and give yourself what you need in the moment. This might be a break from the conversation, a few deep breaths, zooming out from the details, acknowledging and accepting exactly where you are, etc.
Leader as Coach Starts Tomorrow
The next cohort of Leader as Coach kicks off on Monday, October 2nd! If you want hands on practice learning essential coaching skills to maximize your leadership impact, come join us! This six week cohort-based course will give you the skills to have better conversations, increase accountability, unlock potential, and increase team performance.
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I hope you enjoyed this exploration of curiosity. I am VERY CURIOUS to know how these practices are going for you, what you are learning, and questions you are holding. If you feel like sharing, just reply to this email.
See you in two weeks!