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.

Whats the Real Challenge

Yesterday I wrote about how easy it can be to solve the wrong problem. When we go to meetings, chat with someone during a lunch break, or are working in a group on a project, it can become very easy to start complaining about whatever thing happens to be annoying us at that moment. Whatever issue we just had to deal with can be a bit overwhelming and can come to dominate our thoughts. However, the issue we just dealt with may not actually be the big thing at the heart of our problems. We might be annoyed by the way a particular form is being completed by another person or by a team’s inability to come together to finalize a draft of a new project, but the real challenge may be something deeper and more significant. If we don’t access that deeper level, then we are not actually doing anything that will help us or our organization improve when we complain at a surface level about some annoyance.

In his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier has a recommendation for us to get to this deeper level. Throughout his entire book he encourages us to be better listeners and to ask the right questions to get our conversations moving in the right direction. His advice to get to the big issue is to ask, “What’s the real challenge here for you?” Whether we ask this to ourselves or to someone we are coaching, the result is a more deep consideration of the situation that is leading to frustration or bad outcomes. Bungay Stanier describes the question this way, “This is the question that will help slow down the rush to action, so you spend time solving the real problem, not just the first problem.”

Bungay Stanier explains that we will always have multiple problems to deal with, but that not all problems are created equal. Some will be more pressing then others and some will stem from larger more structural problems. Asking what the real challenge is can help develop thoughts on the larger issues at the core. Adding the “for you” part of the question dials in on the specific details that are in the individual’s (or your own) control, as opposed to details that are too vague and general to be something we can address directly. It also helps the question be more personal and aim toward individual growth and opportunity.

The Coaching Habit helps us get beyond simple venting and complaining to have more constructive and thoughtful discussions. Learning to listen and understanding how questions can help shape the direction of our conversations is crucial for successful coaching and even for successful introspection. Understanding our real challenge and then helping others dial in on their real challenges can drive new growth and productivity.

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.

Defined By Focus

Marcus Aurelius and stoic philosophy have had a huge impact on my life. I came to stoicism through Colin Wright and Ryan Holiday, whose books Considerations and The Obstacle is the Way greatly changed my perspectives and the ways that I think about who I am, how the world works, and what is good or bad. Aurelius two thousand years ago and Wright and Holiday today demonstrate over and over in their writing that there is nothing more important in our lives than our focus and attention. How self-aware we are, how focused we are on things that truly matter, and the perspectives we adopt shape how we understand and view the world, and in turn determine how we react to the world. I see this same concept carried through lots of the media that I consume, especially in writing about success, happiness, and fulfillment. Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit is one of the latest places where I have come across the ideas of focus and attention.

 

Bungay Stanier looks at the power of questions in coaching interactions, specifically the question, “What’s on your mind?” He explains that this question is so powerful because it reveals to both the coach and the individual where the individual’s focus and attention is. A lot of times we are not quite consciously aware of the things we spend our time focusing on and thinking about, and when we are asked this question, our focus is turned inward to the things that have been taking our mental energy, even if we are not verbally honest with our coach. He continues, “one of the fundamental truths that neuroscience has laid bare: we are what we give our attention to. If we’re mindful about our focus, so much the better. But if we’re unwittingly distracted or preoccupied, we pay a price.” The things we focus on are the things that define us and make us who we are.

 

Do we see a large bank account, a big home, a flashy car, and lots of vacations as the definition of success? Is our mental energy spent thinking about how we can obtain and achieve these things? Do we focus on our thoughts and reactions to events and people around us to cultivate the person we want to be? Do we direct our attention to politics and try to better justify our position and our tribe relative to the opposing side? Whatever it is that we focus on will define our actions and our behaviors. Drawing this out and thinking through it will help us to be able to ask ourselves whether we like where our brain is and what we are doing. If we find that we do not like the person we are becoming or that we are spending all our time and effort straining toward something that ultimately does not help us grow and make the world better, then we should step back and try to refocus on the things that matter most.

 

As a coach, the best thing we can do is help the other person become more self-aware and attentive to the things that are on their mind and taking their mental energy. We can help paint a picture of success, growth, and achievement that takes away the pressures and expectations placed on that person by other people such as family, high school cohorts, or even other people in the work place. Coaches can help people refocus their mind after expanding on self-awareness and guide them to think more thoroughly and completely about the things that have been subconsciously eating away at them. By cracking into the mind we offer a chance for real change and growth through awareness and refocusing.

Behaviors and Ways of Working – The Keys to Unlocking Growth

I am not currently in a leadership or management position with the company I work for, but I still took away a great deal from Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit. I have always had a bit of a coaching mindset and the book taught me a lot about how to be a better coach, which is helpful even though I am not currently in a coaching position. I learned a lot about how I can better support my coaches and mentors in my current role, and I believe that will translate well into future opportunities and relationships. Reading his book from the standpoint of someone being coached was helpful to see how to also position myself to set up powerful and positive coaching.

 

One of the big difference between an effective coach and someone who simply manages people and projects is that the coach is focused on the development and growth of the individuals they work with rather than just on making sure work is getting done. Focusing on growth and development means looking at individuals, their performance, and what opportunities they have to improve their work and lives. Bungay Stanier describes it like this,

 

“Here you’re looking at patterns of behavior and ways of working that you’d like to change. This area is most likely where coaching-for-development conversations will emerge. They are personal and challenging, and they provide a place where people’s self-knowledge an potential can grow and flourish. And at the moment, these conversations are not nearly common enough in organizations.”

 

Being receptive to coaching requires good self-awareness and self-knowledge. If an individual does not see themselves honestly and does not have a true vision of themselves, with both their strengths and opportunities for improvement, they will never be able to grow in a way that will reach their true potential. Coaches can help bring this out by focusing on real patterns and looking for opportunities to change and address those patterns. We all know how hard patterns and behavior can be to change, and coaches can provide the impetus for change by identifying the environmental and internal changes that can help usher in those changes. This is a process of developing greater awareness and self-knowledge with the person we are coaching and connecting that back to the larger picture of organizational success or personal growth. This ties in with ideas of management by objectives (MBO) where each goal or action that an individual takes is tied in with the larger goals of the department and company overall.

 

As an individual, I have been able to harness self-awareness to focus on the patterns and areas where I have wanted to change and build new habits or skills. Working with a manger and understanding these conversations allows me to be someone that my manager can practice these conversations with. I can help my manager better see and understand the problems and patterns that I experience as a result of the tools we use and the environment we are in, and we can discuss ways to overcome the resulting obstacles that I face. The strategies developed for me can then influence the conversations and approaches used with other people down the line. It all starts with self-awareness and honestly addressing patterns of behavior and ways of working, whether you are the coach or the one being coached, and then addressing the changes that can be made to help the individual make the adjustments that will lead to the changes that will benefit themselves and the organization.

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.

Change for Others

Michael Bungay Stanier gives his readers some advice for making the changes in their lives in his book The Coaching Habit. His first piece of advice is to become self-aware of what you want to change, and the second piece of advice is to understand exactly why you want to make that change. When thinking about a change that you want to make, it is helpful to think through the benefits and to turn the change into something positive that you are doing for other people. Simply making a change because it will benefit yourself may not bring you the mental impetus to move forward with the challenges of actually changing your behavior.

 

Bungay Stanier describes one of his takeaways from Leo Babauta’s book Zen Habits, “He talks about making a vow that’s connected to serving others …think less about what your habit can do for you, and more about how this new habit will help a person or people you care about.”

 

This is a powerful strategy for making important changes in our life and becoming the person that we want to be. Making a change just for ourselves is hard, because we can tell ourselves lots of lies that justify and excuse our behaviors. However, if our reason for change is connected to helping someone else, improving our life to further improve another person’s life, or is rooted in improving the world experience of another person, then we have another layer of motivation for break our old habit.

 

I believe this strategy is powerful because it gets us thinking about the kind of person we want to be and the behaviors of people who are like the person we want to be. If we tell ourselves we are trying to live more healthy lives to set better examples for our family and to be able to participate with our kids in athletic activities or live longer with our family, then we can start to think about the traits that a healthy person may adopt. We tell ourselves we want to be healthy and that healthy people don’t eat donuts at work every day. The sametemptation exists, but now we envision ourselves fitting in with the healthy group that does not eat donuts, and we compound that with our accountability to our family to be healthy for them.