On Curiosity (Part 2)

On Curiosity (Part 2)

March 19, 2023
An Overview:

Three provocations for greater coachability.

Curiosity has been on my mind a great deal since the episode Pearl and I recorded for her podcast The Rebel Curiosities. Her questions got me thinking not only about how essential it is that us coaches be curious, but also how some of the most powerful sessions I’ve had with my clients have only been possible thanks to the gift of their curiosity as well. After all, each question I ask as a coach can only be an invitation. My clients’ curiosity helps them walk on through, rather than shut the door.

Relatedly, I often get asked by new and prospective clients what coaching will require of them. They’re eager to learn what they can do to get the most out of our time together. In one sense, they’re asking me how to be coachable. It’s a quality in high demand these days — featuring prominently on lists of “qualities investors look for in founders,” and in research linking it to better employee job performance and higher promotability.

On the face of it, coachability is nothing more than receptivity to the feedback we need for growth. So simple, yet evidently difficult enough in practice to be an uncommon quality. So, how does one become more coachable? I’ve written an answer below in the form of three provocations for greater coachability. With Pearl’s podcast in mind, curiosity is key because these ideas are fundamentally non-obvious. I don’t mean to suggest that these are pre-requisites to coaching! If anything — and I might be biased here — there’s no better way to grow in one’s coachability than to get coached.

"The Buddhist teacher Tara Brach says: “The boundary to what we can accept is the boundary to our freedom.” When we can accept five minutes of experiencing the vulnerability of asking for help, we free up the hour we would’ve spent lining up backups to our backups."

#1: Don't believe everything you think.

I have the privilege of working with hugely successful, high-achieving clients, who’ve gotten where they are by dint of their powerful thinking. They’ve built entire careers on their ability to think summa cum laude, award-winning, venture-scale thoughts. No surprise, then, when they bring that to our coaching sessions as well. In fact, many seek me out precisely when they get stuck grappling with particularly difficult thoughts.

Thoughts like: “I want to be more empathetic, but that means I have to lower my standards.” Or “I should be more confrontational to be a good investor.” Or “I’m worried that I’ll need to be inauthentic to get promoted here.” As a coach, my curiosity about these thoughts isn’t about their content, but their container. What leads us to believe that empathy can’t co-exist with high standards? What strongly-held values lead us to label “confrontational” the thing we’d like to learn to do? What fixed ideas about who we are make some behaviors feel inauthentic?

My job as a coach is to help clients walk this path of self-inquiry. Done correctly, it has the power to save us weeks, months — even a lifetime — spent enacting and re-enacting the drama of a thought, without realizing that we can step out of the scene, rearrange the set, and rewrite the script. What distinguishes poorly-staged thoughts from the ones that have brought us success? Not much, unfortunately. Poorly staged or not, our thoughts can’t help but seem to us perfectly reasonable — precisely because they’re ours.

For those of us whose entire lives have only confirmed the importance and urgency of our thoughts, it can prove especially difficult to avoid getting caught in snares of our own devising. Coaching works by helping us do what’s difficult to do alone — reflect on containers and stages, rather than contents and dramas. The first step in that journey? Don’t believe everything you think.

#2: Stop doing what works for you.

When I first set out as a coach, I imagined myself tackling lots of leadership dysfunction. To my surprise, my experience has been the opposite. I find myself working with exceedingly functional leaders, who have developed powerful strategies over the course of their careers that work for them. What brings them to coaching is not dysfunction per se, but the discomfiting feeling that what had until recently worked so well no longer does, or now requires more energy than before.

It is an axiom of biomechanics that the body will use all available resources to perform a task. If we run with an injured hip, our body uses our calves as a resource. If we bench press with a weak chest, our body uses our shoulders as a resource. These patterns develop below our consciousness, the compensations of a bodily intelligence meant to help us continue functioning. Save for a slightly altered gait or rounded shoulders, we often don’t notice these compensations, precisely because they work. But when strain builds or we need to perform at a higher level, we hit a wall and develop injuries from the overuse of our coping strategies.

I’ve come to believe that a similar intelligence operates at the level of our minds. Each of us is gifted with unique resources we draw on unconsciously to overcome our other limitations. We use our ample self-reliance to bypass the vulnerability of depending on others. We use our superpower for seeing all sides to circumvent conflict. We use our exquisite sensitivity to the needs of others to avoid causing disappointment. There is nothing inherently wrong with any these adaptations. If we’re able to stay safe and keep the challenges coming at us to a minimum, it’s entirely possible to make it though our lives with no awareness of the tradeoffs we’ve made to survive.

My clients don’t have that luxury. The pursuit of peak performance and hypergrowth generates immense strain that shows you exactly where you’ve traded off your gifts to avoid challenging your limitations. Our compensation patterns may work, but they do not scale. In coaching, my clients and I embark on something akin to a rehabilitation of the mind. Just as physical rehab asks us to unlearn our compensations and work with the injury or weakness we’d initially worked around, I invite my clients to stop doing what works for them. It’s impossible to understate how counterintuitive this is. It can feel like being asked to give up the only thing that’s keeping disaster at bay. But if you open yourself to the process, you will discover new resources in places you didn’t know you had any.

#3: Feel worse to get better.

A few weeks ago, I woke up one morning to a full day of virtual meetings to discover that our WiFi had gone out. Storms had knocked out power in parts of San Francisco, causing a cascade of failures that apparently included some important servers. Within an hour, I’d scoped out hotel options, called a co-working space to confirm they had WiFi, priced out what it would cost to tether from my phone, and clicked “refresh” on PG&E and Comcast’s outage maps with embarrassing frequency. It took a bit for self-awareness to kick in: What was I actually doing all this for? My disproportionate reaction was not really about WiFi, but about not wanting to “be a bother” and to experience the vulnerability of needing to ask my colleagues and clients for their understanding and flexibility.

As I described above, we have a natural intelligence for trading off our gifts in order to bypass our limitations. When we’re willing to Stop Doing What Works For Us, what we often find is that we’ve expended a great deal of our resources to avoid a feeling we really don’t want to have. My example about the vulnerability of “being a bother” may have struck you as familiar, or absurd, but most of us don’t make it to adulthood without having at least one place in our emotional landscape that we’d readily make exorbitant tradeoffs to avoid. Depending on our early experiences in life, this could be anything from “helplessness in the face of others’ troubles,” to “not having all of the answers,” or simply “being the cause of others’ disappointment.”

My clients seek me out because they hope coaching will help them feel better. Imagine their dismay when I tell them that getting better may well involve being willing to feel worse, at least at first. The truth is that the resources we need to achieve our deepest aspirations — that next round of funding, that next promotion, finally becoming the leader you want to be — are already close at hand. But they’re currently tied up in strategies for avoiding some unwanted feeling. Is avoiding five minutes of vulnerability worth an hour of disaster planning? Ten? What about a lifetime? What are we willing to give up to avoid an unwanted feeling? With our great ambitions but limited time and energy, what can we afford to give up?

The Buddhist teacher Tara Brach says: “The boundary to what we can accept is the boundary to our freedom.” When we can accept five minutes of experiencing the vulnerability of asking for help, we free up the hour we would’ve spent lining up backups to our backups. When I work with clients to grow this capacity for allowing, noticing, and accepting the unwanted feelings we’ve been avoiding, it frees up mental and emotional resources that then become available for use. If you’re willing to feel worse in exactly the way that feels so scary right now, I promise that it will get so much better.

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