Four Modes of Coaching Magic: Respond Mode - How to Encourage Thinking (When People Just Want You to Fix It)

Sep 10, 2022

What is the best way to initiate thinking in your team members when they come to you? 

Some bosses get irritated if people come to them more than they’d like. This is actually a chance to celebrate. Celebrate the fact that they trust you and your insights! It's much more challenging to engage their thinking when you need to go to them (we’ll explore that next), because you need to get them engaged in the topic from scratch. When they come to you with an issue, it's already an active need in their mind, and the best time for them to learn is when their mind is actively exploring a topic. In order to solve the problem most efficiently, you need to get them to the main issue quickly.

Here are some ways you can choose to respond when your people come to you.

  • Ask “What is your request?” This is especially appropriate when they come to you with a complaint. Our brains can see things that are wrong 10 times more than they can see things that are right. Without engaging our thinking skills, or without intent, we can easily look around and find a lot to complain about. One way to turn this around on your people is to ask the simple question, “What is your request?” This automatically engages their brain toward what they want to see happen (possibility-based thinking), versus looking at what is not happening or not going well. Complaints can slip into never-ending spirals of negativity, whereas requests are a step toward spiraling up toward improvement. This step can also help you, the coach, get to the heart of the matter, and what’s really on their mind.
  • Invite them to think with you: When your people come to you, make it easy for them to get right to the point and invite their thoughts by using the sentence, “What’s on your mind?” This is how you create the structure for a great coaching conversation. This question is beautiful for a few reasons. First, it does not carry judgement. I once had a boss that when I’d approach her, saying, “Hey boss, do you have a minute?” she’d respond with, “What’s wrong?” A few months into this, I started to feel the energy draining every time I needed to interact with her. She approached our conversations with a default attitude that something was wrong (deficit-based thinking) most times we talked. I found myself avoiding her. Using “What’s on your mind?” opens up the brain to possibilities as well as honors the potential of a problem or issue. Second, this question implies that the recipient is already thinking. When you ask me what’s on my mind, I go into my brain to see what I’m thinking. Other less-effective responses include: “What’s wrong?” “What’s up?” or “What’s going on?” All three of these will elicit a response of the replay of a situation, or a he said/she said recap of events and facts. And although those may certainly be helpful, starting with thinking often gets the conversation off on the right foot. And third, it's been my experience that the question, “What’s on your mind?” cuts through chit chat and saves me, the coach, valuable time in my day.
  • Celebrate their ideas–this is the holy grail for bosses: When a team member comes to you with an idea, celebration is in order! This means they are thinking! However, I’ve seen some bosses shy away from encouraging thinking or idea generation because they are not truly looking for ideas, they are only looking for good ideas. We need to sort through a few ideas to get to the best ideas, so we could say that every idea is, in fact, leading us to a good idea! Could we also say that there are no bad ideas? What if all ideas were celebrated? When someone comes to you with an idea, try the following phrases to help them continue thinking and exploring the idea with you.
    • “Tell me more.” This encourages them with positive energy.
    • “What problem are we solving here?” This ensures that their idea is relevant and focused on improvement.
    • “What opportunities could we take advantage of?” This often gets them thinking in a bigger way. 
    • “How could this help?” This is a way to get the idea focused on results.
    • “Who else have you run this by?” This encourages collaboration and transparency, helping them understand at a deep level that you are not the only person with whom they can collaborate.
  • Turn requests for information into thinking opportunities: Most often, employees need information. These requests probably take up most of your interaction time as a boss. These may include very simple questions such as: 
    • “Who is the contact at ABC supplier that we use?”
    • “What’s the login for XYZ software?”
    • “Have you seen the way the document is printing?”
    • “Where did we decide to keep the new tools?”

When faced with these requests, most bosses stop what they are doing and just give a simple answer. If you want to engage thinking, you could reply with, “Where have you looked?” “What have you tried?” “Who else have you asked?” or my favorite, “Have you watched the video on that?” 😊 This approach to requests for information helps your people stop and think about resources to use other than the easiest one: YOU! 

We experience this as parents, too! “Mom! Where are my shoes?” Mom should say, “Where have you looked?” If my son had only looked in one spot before taking the easy way out and asking me, he usually doesn’t even answer my question, he just heads out to look in more places. I foiled his attempt for the easy way out with my questioning.

Basically, answer their question with a question of your own. Over time, these question responses will save you time! Your people will become more self-reliant for the easy stuff and they’ll start coming to you as a thinking partner rather than an information terminal. 

  • Enroll them in the solution to their issue: There are times when employees come to you with issues that only you can solve. I’ve seen lots of bosses just state, “I’ll take care of it.” If you’d like to engage their thinking, enroll them in the solution. “What would you do to solve the issue?” “What would your first step be?” or, “What would our first step be?” “What’s the ideal outcome?” “What is your request?” “Help me think through this.” “I’d like your thoughts on how we could solve this together.” “What part of this solution can you be in charge of?”

NOTE: Although your own time management is outside the scope of this book, if you find yourself with a line of people outside your door, needing your time and attention, applying the above techniques can help you shorten the length of that line. Also keep in mind what we established in the Teach step, that it's really difficult to do effective coaching if you have not invested in the Teach phase of the Thinking Advantage. Another tool to consider is using group Issues Solving sessions, where your people can learn to count on peer-to-peer issues-solving rather than seeing you as the sole source of solutions. The Entrepreneurial Operating System® has a meeting agenda and an Issues Solving Track that is effective for this. 

Next time, we’ll talk about how to Coach your people to think more when you’re the conversation initiator.

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