Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Why Telling People What to do Doesn't Work

On the first day of the Cognitive CoachingSM Training, we were told – “Telling people what to do doesn’t work.” What a relief! Someone was finally acknowledging it and not only that – we were about to learn some tools that do work. What are these? Supporting people’s thinking by asking reflective questions and paraphrasing!

I knew very well that telling people what to do didn’t work, and yet I didn’t know what else to do. As a consultant people ask you what to do – and expect you to tell them. Almost all of our practices in the social sector are a form of telling people what to do. Sometimes people personalize the lack of effectiveness by internalizing it. Someone recently told me “ I’m not a persuasive person.”

If we look at this as a personal shortcoming rather than a result of how the brain works – then we may either be looking at solutions that don’t work i.e. trying to become more “persuasive” or giving up. However, if we look at how the brain works – we have some clues about why these coaching tools of reflection and paraphrasing work so well, and how we can use them individually and with groups.

There are three parts of the brain, the central core which governs automatic functions like breathing, the second layer the limbic system which responds with the fight or flight reaction, and the outer layer the neocortex which is where higher level thinking occurs. When we ask certain types of questions such as deficit based questions like “What do you need?”, “Why did you do x?” or when we tell other people what to do, or give them negative feedback -- we trigger the limbic system’s fight or flight reaction. When this happens people can NOT access higher level thinking. There are actually chemicals released by the brain that prevent higher level thinking, and these take awhile to wear off.

In the great book The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom – they discuss how telling people what to do sometimes creates the exact opposite result.

• Noted psychologist Carl Rogers found that expert advice giving such as “You really need to talk to your boss” or “ I want you to interview for this new job” actually has the opposite effect.
• When confronted with an aggressive push, most people shut down and become even less likely to change.
• Listening and acknowledging people’s experience helps people find their own solutions to problems.
• When people feel heard, when they feel understood and supported, they are more likely to change.

Sometimes when we tell someone what to do – it triggers the fight or flight and actually creates resistance. Other times, it doesn’t trigger the fight or flight – but it doesn’t stimulate thinking.

When we ask reflective and strengths based questions we help people access their higher level thinking. Questions like “What are your peak experiences working in teams, creating lasting change?” What are you doing well?” “What would it be like if you did more of this?” helps people access their own resources.

What happens in the brain when someone is told what to do compared to when an insight occurs? Lots of synapse action goes on when someone has an insight. This allows for powerful learning to occur. So -- the more we can support others thinking – the better the results for both us and them. This is why all of our consulting work involves supporting peoples thinking through a variety of methods and strength based approaches. There is nothing better than supporting people figure out how to use their own resources to create what they want.


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