If you are a therapist or coach, manager or consultant, you’ve been schooled to be a guide, a mentor, and accept the conventional one-up/one-down, inferior/superior power juxtaposition. People come to you for answers and give you the authority and trust to help them find solutions they couldn’t find on their own.
During a recent conversation with a coach who prides himself on Always Being Right! (Clients who don’t heed him are told to go elsewhere.) and wondering who would choose him as their coach, I began thinking about how Helpers go about helping, and why clients often ignore their suggestions.
I believe there’s an ‘accepted practice’ problem here: Helping professionals use questions to obtain information from clients to ‘understand’ the identified problem so they can then ‘help’ them find solutions.
But – and I know this is an unusual thing to say – conventional questions are so biased that they don’t necessarily help Helpers uncover accurate data, causing Helpers to sometimes unearth inaccurate or unhelpful answers. To make matters worse, even the way our questions are interpreted is suspect. Let me explain.
BEYOND THE BRAIN
So many of us – healthcare providers, sellers, coaches, leaders – truly want to help Others find their best outcomes. In this article, I’ll provide a much-simplified explanation of how brains cause behavior change, explain where much-appreciated skills fall short, and introduce you to new skills that can facilitate permanent change without resistance. And I’m aware that discussions about brain chemistry aren’t always on the top of everyone’s reading list, so I’ll try to make this painless to provide a few take-aways.
I’ll begin with the ‘big picture’ and explain how our brains cause us to do what we do, based on my decades developing systemic brain change models.
Simply, our brain is an enormous database that captures and organizes the data from our lives, stores it in circuits, and uses it as the foundation from which to make decisions.
Each of us operates from historic, unconscious, and unique neural configurations, stored as memory in 86 billion brain neurons that hold our history, our ideas, our values and from which our decisions and behaviors arise. Obviously, we each think and act uniquely. Obviously, no one else has access to our brain circuitry; no one else has our life story or history; no one else can ‘get in there’.
Technically change occurs when the unconscious brain components that cause and maintain the problem at hand get reconfigured. Behavior change is a brain problem.
HOW BRAINS STORE INFORMATION
I’ve spent decades unpacking how brains are organized to develop facilitation models that enable real choice. I’ve discovered that to achieve permanent change, Helpers must enable clients to locate the underlying components that caused the identified problem and reconfigure them in a new way that resolves the problem AND conforms with the unique norms of the individual.
And herein lie the problem: standard questions and usual listening practices steer the Other to where the Helper, using their own unconscious assumptions and curiosity (even though they’re sometimes accurate), thinks the answers are stored and possibly miss where actual answers reside.
Once I realized this, given I see myself as a professional coach, trainer, consultant, I began developing questioning and listening models that use brain change as their foundation.
I also discarded my role as a Helper in the normal sense of the word and become a Decision Facilitator, to facilitate Others through their brain maze to find the precise, unconscious, memory storage circuits where their own answers may be hidden. This not only truly serves but enables people to find the full complement of elements that must be reconsidered to easily develop new behaviors with no resistance. And it avoids the power imbalance problem.
WHAT IS CHANGE? NO, REALLY?
Change is systemic, not as simple as merely doing something different. Indeed, new behaviors are OUTPUTS that result from new neural reconfigurations that must not only be created but must integrate with what’s already there – the existing core values, mental models and Beliefs – or the new will be resisted. Too often, Helpers omit the entire systems element and merely try to change behaviors.
You see, because brains are set up as systems, and all systems conform to an agreed-upon set of norms, any change request represents a difference, a threat. This is the problem with noted change management models – they forget to align and get buy-in from the person’s core systems and merely attempt behavior change. It’s like trying to get a backward moving robot to move forward by explaining, questioning, and showing videos; the robot must be reprogrammed.
Without taking this into account, by trying to change a behavior by trying to change a behavior without getting buy-in from the system, people will resist, or not maintain, the change. Knowing a ‘good’ solution doesn’t mean it’s possible to implement it congruently or over time.
QUESTIONS AND LISTENING
To truly help, Helpers must facilitate Others through their brains to congruent, systemic change. Here are the reasons people have difficulty finding internal answers and making decisions.
Brains: The time it takes to figure out, to unearth and gather, all the criteria needed to make a decision that leaves the system congruent is the time it takes to act on it. No, they’re not dragging their feet; they’re trying to change congruently.
See, the brain’s 86 billion neurons are stored and labelled in ways that may be difficult to consciously access. In fact, words or ideas don’t even enter brains with intended meanings attached but as meaningless sound vibrations (Neuroscience actually calls words ‘puffs of air.’) which ultimately get turned into the signals that then get dispatched to circuits that will translate them into meaning.
The problem arises in the translation process. The neural dispatch unit (the Central Executive Network, or CEN) dispatches these incoming signals to a ‘similar enough’ set of brain circuits for interpretation. To make the process fast (It takes five one hundredths of a second for the entire process.) the CEN chooses the quickest route to translation circuits, almost always a frequently used superhighway that may only have a tangential connection to the original signals and intent.
Let me say this again in a different way: all incoming words get translated by whatever circuits the CEN chooses to send them to without our agreement or knowledge! And these circuits don’t always represent the best translation.
Most of us aren’t aware that our thoughts, realizations, understandings, are merely versions of what our brains have already translated for us. That means whatever ‘new’ enters is biased by our history, translated according to what’s already there, and has a hard time being accurately understood.
Unfortunately, curiosity-based questions meant to ‘gather data’, are restricted by the Helper’s assumptions. Sometimes Others uncover the exact data we need in order to help them. But sometimes our questions direct the client’s brain to an unhelpful answer, and something more valuable remains unretrieved.
To help Others find precisely where the necessary data is stored, Helpers must have NO assumptions, NO biases, and NO belief that we have anyone’s answers. All we need is to send Others to the right circuits where their answers are stored. And for this, conventional skills don’t work.
Listening: Given that listening is hampered by the ‘brain circuit translation’ problem it’s near impossible for anyone to listen without bias regardless of how well they ‘listen’. And it gets worse: The circuits that receive the signals from the CEN for translation mechanically discard the ones that aren’t an exact match….and they never tell us!
Net net, people only hear some fraction of what a speaker means and assume they’ve ‘heard’ accurately! Obviously, this problem applies to both Helper and client!
To avoid biases and misinterpretations, to help Others discover where their answers are stored, Helpers must listen differently and don’t assume they ‘understand’ what’s been said. I actually developed a process called Listening for Systems, which bypasses our assumptions and hears what’s intended.
If you’d like to learn more I wrote a book on the subject: What? Did you really say what I think I heard?.
Questions: This one is the most uncomfortable for Helpers. Conventional questions are formulated to elicit data as per the needs, intent, languaging, curiosity of the Asker. Given our clients listen unconsciously with subjective ears that may not match the Helper’s intent, or know where the unconscious answer is stored, it’s quite difficult to elicit accurate data.
To this end, I spent 10 years inventing a new form of question (Facilitative Question) that foregoes data gathering per se and instead leads Others to the brain circuits and memory channels to precisely where the appropriate data is stored. If you go to my site I explain how I invented them and provide descriptions and articles.
By posing unbiased, systemic questions that lead brains to appropriate circuits, by listening without assumptions, by trusting everyone has their own answers, we can truly serve Others beyond any natural biases we might have.
AN EXAMPLE OF DISCOVERING UNCONSCIOUS ANSWERS
The new job of Helpers is to begin with the assumption that clients may actually have perfectly good answers stored in some place where their brain isn’t looking.
Here’s a simple example of a recent coaching interaction. [For an in depth discussion of how, please contact me. Happy to discuss.]
A coaching client complained she was unable to get into her Witness, or Observer (Observer offers choice: a meta experience with a broad view and unbiased options), and too often responded inappropriately from her ‘Self’ place (No choice: an automatic response from a biased superhighway).
I began by suggesting she notice if she had any history of going into Choice/Observer. Turns out, she frequently went into Observer when her kids were little (A skill all of us have as parents, I might add, or our kids would rarely make it to adulthood!).
I then helped her recognize the unconscious triggers that brought her into Observer with her kids, how to feel/see the triggers in her body, notice how to make them conscious at the moment they went off, then we created a mind/body trigger to alert her to the need to redirect the automatic response and go into Observer. And from then on, she had a permanent ability to access Observer on demand.
HELPERS AREN’T HELPING
Unfortunately, this skill is not taught in coaching schools or MBA programs which continue to teach to ‘be aware’, be ‘open minded’, take a ‘different perspective’, ask ‘probing’ questions to ‘give the Helper the information’ they need to ‘help’. But as you now know, neither standard questions or conventional listening will always collect accurate information.
When Helpers try to have answers for Others, our track record is spotty: clients use some of our suggestions and ignore others because they may not have gotten to the core (and unconscious) factors that caused the problem to begin with.
And because our advice ultimately brings Others up against their own shadow, their own inabilities, their need to go beyond their own capability for help, they push the Helper away regardless of the length or success of the relationship. Inadvertently, because no other way has been developed to professionally help Others, we infantilize our clients.
I know that most coaches, leaders, managers, and Helpers truly want to serve Others. Please consider shifting your goal and learn new tools. I’m happy to help. I’ve developed new skills for Helpers (coaches, sellers, managers, healthcare providers, therapists) to enable folks to discover and create their own answers while reducing the power imbalance and bias, as well as learning tools to teach you how to listen without bias and pose Facilitative Questions. Please contact me in case you’re interested in learning how to do this, and we can all Help as true Servant Leaders. firstname.lastname@example.org
Sharon-Drew Morgen is a breakthrough innovator and original thinker, having developed new paradigms in sales (inventor Buying Facilitation®, listening/communication (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), change management (The How of Change™), coaching, and leadership. She is the author of several books, including the NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell). Sharon-Drew coaches and consults with companies seeking out of the box remedies for congruent, servant-leader-based change in leadership, healthcare, and sales. Her award-winning blog carries original articles with new thinking, weekly. www.sharon-drew.com She can be reached at email@example.com.