More on the Goldfish Question

I am always surprised by how hard it is for myself, and really for anyone, to answer what sounds like one of the simplest questions that we could be presented with: “What do you want?”

 

We go through life with desires, pursuing the things that will make us happy, wake us up in the morning, and fill our stomachs. But when we really think about what we want in life, it can be a real challenge to come up with an answer. In my own life this has been a paralyzing question and the careful interrogation of myself and my life desires can really make me shake and bring about anxiety. I’m guessing that many people feel the same way, so we don’t spend a lot of careful time thinking through what we want, and as a result we don’t actually know.

 

Sure we all know when we want coffee or a doughnut or when we want a new car to one-up the neighbors, but these are just auto-pilot desires that we don’t have to spend a lot of mental energy dealing with. If we did, we might find that we don’t really want all these things to begin with.

 

In coaching situations, Michael Bungay Stanier loves to use this question. In his book The Coaching Habit he calls this question the foundation question and describes it this way:

 

“‘What do you want?’ I sometimes call it the Goldfish Question because it often elicits that response: slightly bugged eyes, and a mouth opening and closing with no sound coming out. Here’s why the question is so difficult to answer.
We often don’t know what we actually want. Even if there’s a first, fast answer, the question ‘But what do you really want?’ will typically stop people in their tracks”

 

At the beginning of the summer of 2018 I was struck by an idea from Robin Hanson, which he detailed in his book co-authored with Kevin Simler titled The Elephant in the Brain. Our conscious mind is something like a press secretary. It is handed a script to explain our actions in a way that looks good to the broader public and creates a virtuous narrative about why we do the things we do. I believe the reason we can’t answer the question about what we want is because it stumps our press secretary. What we really want is to be popular, do work that isn’t that hard but looks and sounds impressive, and we want to stand out to get positive social recognition which brings with it the possibility of dates, more money, and other perks. It is hard for our press secretary to spin that to come up with a virtuous reason for us to want these things.

 

If we spend more time thinking about what we really want and why, we can find reasonable goals and accept that part of why we want the things we want is because we are inherently self-interested. It is OK to desire the fanciest car on the block and it is OK to work hard for positive social recognition. What is not OK, however, is for our desire for these things to be hidden from ourselves and to push toward those things in a way that is ruinous for ourselves and others. By carefully interrogating our desires we can start to think about what we want and whether it is truly reasonable for us to desire these things. Rather than lying to ourselves and saying that we are really passionate about automobile performance, or that we really just like running and fitness, or that the extra space on the home addition is really just going to help our children, we should at least be honest with ourselves in why we want those things. Then, when we are asked the goldfish question, we can understand that we have some self-interests motivating our behavior, but we can also begin to select things that we want that won’t be self-defeating or leave us on a hedonistic treadmill. We can find desires that align with our values and find places where our desires are satisfying to who we want to be and align with well thought out values.

Aware of Advice

Yesterday I wrote about our internal advice monster. That part of us that is waiting for a conversation and a situation where we can jump in and show how smart and interesting we are by providing someone with great advice for fixing their car, lowering their blood sugar, booking a hotel room, or finding new music to listen to. Whatever the situation is, our brains are always monitoring the environment listening for a chance to contribute some sort of helpful advice and insight.  In the post from yesterday I also wrote about the work of Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson who suggest that we evolved to show off our mental tool kit, not because we want to be helpful, but because we want to show off our interesting knowledge and demonstrate the value we provide to our tribe.

 

Michael Bungay Stanier encourages us to build greater awareness of our advice monsters in his book The Coaching Habit. He writes about the importance of listening rather than providing advice and says, “An intriguing (albeit difficult) exercise is to watch yourself and see how quickly you get triggered into wanting to give advice. Give yourself a day (or half a day, or an hour) and see how many times you are ready and willing to provide the answer.” Bungay Stanier’s book helped me see just how often I slip into advice giving mode without actually realizing it. Trying not to jump in and give everyone advice is difficult, and once you begin to look for it you see just how common it is. I had not realized just how often I wanted to give advice, even if the thing I was giving advice about was not something anyone was interested in or was not a central part of the conversation I butted my way into.

 

The key to Bungay Stanier’s advice is the development of self-awareness. Much of our day and many of our habits and routines happen on autopilot. We hardly recognize how frequently we give advice because it is not something around which we have any self awareness. Paul Jun introduced me to the idea of awareness as a flashlight, focusing in on a specific point, or backing out to reveal more things that were previously hidden in the shadows. The more we focus on our advice monster, the more that we recognize how much of our advice giving behavior was hidden to us, always ready to spring to action, but never actually something we recognized. This exercise will help us learn more about ourselves and help us improve our conversations, plus it will also help us develop self-awareness skills that can translate to other areas of our life. Before I began to focus on self-awareness, I was oblivious to how often I do things like mindlessly give advice, and I would have challenged the idea that I give advice out of habit without actually intending to help anyone, but after improving my self-awareness I am more willing to believe that unwarranted advice giving is something I do all the time. The great thing about Bungay Stanier’s advice it that it helps you see the elephant in the brain described by Simler and Hanson, and helps you develop self-awareness skills that can be applied to other areas of life.

Advice Monster

In his book The Coaching Habit, Michale Bungay Stanier suggests that we all have an advice monster living inside us.  The advice monster knows what is best for everyone. It knows how to solve the worlds problems. It is a genius and has no faults. It knows other people so well that it doesn’t need to listen to their problems or thoughts because it already has everything figured out for them ahead of time. In fact, the advice monster knows other people better than other people know themselves and it understands social problems and infrastructure problems and monetary problems better than experts and academics who spend their whole lives and all their time working through and thinking about such problems.

 

The short and more accurate description of the advice monster is this, the advice monster is a jerk. It lives inside us and wants to pop out and shout at every moment. And this idea of the advice monster is backed by science. Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain why humans evolved to have advice monsters living inside of us. Speaking takes energy, and sharing advice and insights from what we learn overtime gives away our hard earned knowledge basically for free. We should have evolved to be stingy speakers and eager listeners, hungry to take in valuable information about where there is good food, about what dangers lie ahead, and about who to follow on Instagram. But instead, we evolved to speak and shout knowledge about for everyone to hear.  When someone else is talking rather than listening we spend all our time thinking about what we should say next, rather than listening for any helpful info they can give us.

 

The evolutionary explanation from Simler and Hanson is that we are simply showing off when we speak and we evolved to do this. We evolved to show off our mental  toolbox. The things we have learned, the observations we have made, the dots we have connected, and the insights we take from what we see and learn are valuable, and we want to display that to the group we belong to so that others will see us as valuable allies. We have an advice monster because we are political social animals, and to survive as part of the tribe we needed to show our value, and what better way to be valuable than to have novel information about building tools, about where food can be found, and to be able to tell stories that help improve group unity.

 

Unfortunately today, the advice monster is ruining lives and destroying relationships. Coaches today cannot simply let their evolved advice monster run the show, or the people they coach will never grow. Bungay Stanier offers a quick haiku to describe the way we should be coaching once we cut out our advice monster:

 

“Tell less and ask more.
Your advice is not as good
As you think it is.”

 

Expanding on the idea of the advice monster, he writes, “We’ve all got a deeply ingrained habit of slipping into the advice-giver/expert/answer-it/solve-it/fix-it mode. That’s no surprise, of course. When you take the premium that your organization places on answers and certainty, then blend in the increased sense of overwhelm and uncertainty and anxiety that many of us feel as our jobs and lives become more complex, and then realize that our brains are wired to have a strong preference for clarity and certainty, it’s no wonder that we like to give advice. Even if it’s the wrong advice–and it often is–giving it feels more comfortable than the ambiguity of asking a question.”

 

Listening doesn’t feel good because it doesn’t engage our evolutionary biology. Nevertheless, it is the way to actually solve other people’s problems. We never truly understand them and their problems as well as we think we do, and certainly not as well as they do. The key is to ask questions and encourage others to find the answers they already know exist. This pushes the advice monster aside and helps us actually be useful for the person we are supposed to be helping.

Answers Versus Questions

I read Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit about a year ago, but I still struggle to adapt his main point into my daily life. What Bungay Stanier recommends is that we ask more questions in conversations, because questions get the other person thinking in a way that develops their thoughts more thoroughly. We like to give advice and tell people the answers we think they need to hear, but our answers often fail to help the other person. Our answers come from our perspective which is limited and does not truly capture and address he issue and concerns of the other person. Questions on the other hand, encourage the other person to think more critically about what they are going through and helps them identify the right answer to the right question.

 

One of the chapters in Bungay Stanier’s book begins with a quote from Nancy Willard, “Answers are closed rooms; and questions are open doors that invite us in.” In coaching, there are two important considerations when thinking about questions versus answers. The first is that an answer doesn’t really get the person we coach to think very deeply about their problem. The second is that an answer may not actually be addressing the right question. Questions on the other hand allow the person being coached to think through the actual challenges they face and steer the conversation in the direction they need it to go. When we provide an answer, we are saying that we fully understand the other person and exactly where they are in relation to their problem, something that is impossible because we can never perfectly know another person’s challenges.

 

Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler suggest that human conversation is a way for us to signal and display our knowledge and our mental toolkit. The real value in a conversation should come from the listening side, where we take in lots of new information for almost no real cost. But in reality, we all try to talk as much as possible in conversations (for the most part) and we want what we say to be interesting and important. When this creeps into coaching, then the coaching interaction is shifted where the main goal is not to help the other person but to show off. This is why our own answers are so damaging in coaching. We are assuming we understand exactly what issue the other person faces and pushing our assumption and recommendation onto them even if they did not ask for it. The worst part is that we may be answering the completely wrong question or providing advice that doesn’t actually fit the person or their situation out of a selfish desire to be impressive.

 

Questions allow the individual to expand on their issue and better organize their thoughts. They can address the specific areas where they have challenges, and questions can guide them through the thinking process. It is hard to get used to asking questions more than providing answers, but in the long term, you allow the other person to find the right answer for themselves and their situation, and you allow them to grow and be a more self-aware individual.

Changing Our Speaking and Advice Giving Habit

Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit is all about changing the ways we relate to others by changing how we give advice to, listen to, and generally speak with those around us. Most of the time, as Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler explain in their book The Elephant in the Brain, we are in a hurry to share what we know, give advice, and speak up. Bungay Stanier suggests that what we should be doing, if we truly want to change our coaching habit to be more effective and helpful for those around us, is spend more time listening and more time asking questions rather than giving advice and speaking. Hanson and Simler suggest that our urge to be helpful by speaking and giving advice is our brain’s way to show how wise, connected, and valuable we are, but the problem as Bungay Stanier would argue, is that this gets in the way of actually developing another person and helping someone else grow.

 

To make a change in our speaking habit, first we must understand what we want to change and we must focus on the why behind our change. Once we have built the self-awareness to recognize that we need to change, we need to understand what is driving the habit that we are working to get away from. This is why I introduced Hanson and Simler’s book above. If the habit we want to change is speaking too much and not asking enough questions, we need to understand that when we are coaching or helping another, we are driving to give advice in part to demonstrate how smart we are and how vast our experiences are. We are driven in other words, to not help the other but to boast about ourselves. Understanding this small part helps us know what we actually want to change and what is driving the original habit.

 

Bungay Stanier references another book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and writes, “if you don’t know what triggers the old behavior, you’ll never change it because you’ll already be doing it before you know it.” The self-awareness necessary in changing habits requires us to first see what needs to change, second to identify the ‘why’ behind our desired change, and third to become aware of the small things that trigger our habit. If we know that having our phone near our bed leads to us being more likely to check Facebook first thing in the morning, then we can remove that trigger by placing the phone in another room and finding a new alarm. Ultimately we can be more likely to succeed in changing our habit of checking Facebook as soon as we wake up. Similarly, Bungay Stanier would agree, knowing that we provide advice to make ourselves look valuable to society helps us see the mental triggers that encourage us to share bad advice rather than to listen and ask helpful questions. Ultimately, to change our habit we need to further expand self-awareness to recognize not just the change we want to make and the reason we want to make a change, but to also recognize the large and small things that drive us into our old habits. Addressing these triggers and structuring our life in a way to avoid them can help us be more successful in changing habits for the better.

Habitual

At the beginning of his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier says that we could all be better coaches by asking more questions and giving less advice. From those one-on-one meetings, to chatting with a co-worker about a tough relationship situation, and even to dealing with a toddler or teenager, having a habit of asking questions rather than giving advice would make us a better coach and conversational sounding board. However, our natural inclination as humans in a conversation is to give advice. Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler in The Elephant in the Brain suggest that we jump into advice giving because we are eager to show how much we know, demonstrating our skills, wisdom, and talents to gain prestige in other peoples eyes. What Bungay Stanier demonstrates in his book is that our natural reaction is counter productive, at least if we actually want to be helpful for another person and aid their growth.

 

Bungay Stanier accepts that changing away from our default advice giving mode is difficult, particularly because we are creatures of habit. He writes “…A Duke University study says that at least 45 percent of our waking behavior is habitual. Although we’d like to think we’re in charge, it turns out that we’re not so much controlling how we act with our conscious mind as we are being driven by our subconscious or unconscious mind. It’s amazing; also, it’s a little disturbing.”

 

I wrote recently about my love-hate relationship with routines. I love the habits that routines build and the productivity and time saving quality of a good routine. At the same time, a consistent routine seems to rob me of my mental decision-making powers, and time seems to pass in a way where I am a passive viewer and not an active driver of my life. The habitual aspects of our days don’t seem like they could add up to 45% of our time, but I do not doubt it to be true. Any time I have tried to make a serious change in my life, I have been confronted with the power of habits that become baked into my daily routine. Leaving work and driving home directly, rather than to the gym, can be as much of an unconscious habit as much as it can be a conscious decision. Checking my phone can easily become automatic, and something I don’t even realize I have done until I notice my hand slip my phone back in my pocket.

 

I don’t think there is a need to abandon all habits and try to force ourselves against any particular habit. But I do think there is a need to be aware of our habits so we recognize when we are making decisions and when we are following impulses and acting without really thinking about what we are doing. Much of Bungay Stanier’s book is about realizing the times when we act impulsively in conversation and start offering advice that we have not truly thought through. He encourages us to change our conversation behavior to ask more questions so that we, and our conversation partner, can think more deeply and find better answers to our problems. This can’t be done if we are not aware of what we are saying and simply acting habitually in our conversations and discussions. Self-awareness is a step toward addressing a habit, by allowing us to realize the opportunity for making a choice versus acting out of habit.

 

This brings me back to the ideas of Hanson and Simler. If we better understand where our desire to give advice comes from, and we understand how evolution has shaped human beings to behave, we can begin to push back and try to be more productive versions of ourselves. I find that I can address a habit more effectively if I understand what aspects of my biology may be driving it. Accepting that our advice is meant to make us look good and not meant to help the other person makes our advice look less sexy, and makes it easier for us to be critical of the advice we are giving and more willing to let the other person do the talking and thinking.

Asking More Questions

Michael Bungay Stanier starts one of the chapters in his book The Coaching Habit with a quote from Jonas Salk, “What people think of as the moment of discovery is really the discovery of the question.”  This quote is fitting because Bungay Stanier’s premise in The Coaching Habit is that we too often focus on giving orders, directing people, telling others what should be done, and giving advice. Bungay Stanier turns the role of the coach around and suggests that coaches should let other do the talking and advice giving. The job of the coach, in his view, is to get the individual speaking and to constantly ask questions to help the other person in a process of self-discovery.

 

Asking more questions does not translate into constantly asking why or how come. It is about listening to the individual and getting them to describe their challenges more completely and to help them visualize improved opportunities and strategies for success. The individual you are working with is the expert in their life, even if they don’t know it. You, no matter how well you know the other person, are not truly an expert in their life and any advice or direction that you provide will necessarily be short sighted.

 

I recently read Robin Hanson’s The Elephant In The Brain in which he argues that much of human behavior is guided by motivations and agendas that we keep secret, even to our selves. Our behaviors are shaped by goals and desires that we don’t necessarily want to share with others because they are self-serving and potentially break with social norms. If we assume that everyone is acting based on self-interest and hidden motivations (at least part of the time), then we have to assume that as coaches we don’t always know or receive the actual answer that describes someone’s behavior. If we are coaching and working with someone, we can ask questions that get them to think about their hidden agendas and better understand and acknowledge what is happening internally. It would be defeating to try to force and individual to state their hidden motive, so we should not question it too relentlessly, but we should help them acknowledge it in their own mind.

 

Ultimately, asking questions helps you and the other person become more introspective. Giving advice does not help the other person because it is advice and direction coming from your limited perspective. A better approach is to ask questions that help expand the scope of consideration and perception for the other person, helping them find the answer themselves and helping them become more self-aware.