The Mind Observing the Mind

I am not a scientist in the sense that I don’t work at a laboratory, I don’t publish academic papers, and I am not going out into a field to make observation about the nature of the world to experiment with and report back on. But I do love science. I listen to a handful of science podcasts and I like to approach the world from a scientific point of view. This has lead me to look at objects and observers and to be aware of the relationship between an object and the observer recording the object. Scientists try to be as objective as possible, independent of the thing they are studying, but this is not always possible. When it comes to the human mind, and the observations we make about our thoughts, we must accept that we cannot split the mind from our thoughts and our emotions, even though we can observe both.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh writes about this in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness. He uses a metaphor of a guard standing at a gate, observing everyone who enters and leaves to describe the typical vision we have for our mind. Hanh explains that this is a limited view of the mind because we are both the guard and the people going through the gate. The mind cannot truly be separated from the thoughts and emotions going through it.

 

He describes the importance of this by writing, “We are both the mind and the observer of the mind. Therefore, chasing away or dwelling on any thought isn’t the important thing. The important thing is to be aware of thought. This observation is not an objectification of the mind: it does not establish distinction between subject and object. … Mind can only observe itself. This observation isn’t an observation of some object outside and independent of the observer.”

 

Our observations of the mind can change the mind as much as cake, a traffic accident, or the birth of a child can. We only have our thoughts inside our mind, but we don’t exactly control every thought, emotion, and feeling. Being unaware of our thoughts leads us to being whipped around as in a hurricane, but trying to be too controlling of our mind drives us mad and frustrates us at our inability to shut down the thoughts and emotions we don’t wish to have. Recognizing the reality of the mind as being one with its thoughts helps us see that our best option is simply to observe and accept the thoughts and emotions that run through our mind so we can choose to be more constructive with how we react to thoughts and structure the environment in which our mind operates.

How to Practice Mindfulness

“Keep your attention focused on the work, be alert and ready to handle ably and intelligently any situation which may arise – this is mindfulness.”

 

The sentence above is how Thich Nhat Hanh describes mindfulness. Anything that we do, can be done either absentmindedly, or with mindfulness. We can drink coffee, wash dishes, walk to the mailbox, and write reports at work with full intention and focus, or we can do them on autopilot, never truly focusing on what we are doing. Bringing mindfulness to whatever it is we are doing, whether it is something small and boring like drinking coffee or whether it is something important and nuanced, like open heart surgery, helps us be our best in that moment and helps us truly experience our lives. When the world seems to be going by to quickly, when we are anxious and nervous about what may come in the future, and when we are worked up over news and events from across the world, we lose a sense of who we are and what it means to be us in our own lives. Mindfulness, a focus on the moment and a complete alertness with regard to the task or action in front of us, helps us be more peaceful and more grounded in the present moment.

 

In my own life it is has been easy to be caught up in national politics, fearful of missing out on fun and exciting opportunities, and depressed by the tedious and repetitive nature of my daily routine. I have often been caught up in the story I tell myself about who I am, about what everything around me means, and about what I need to do in order to be successful and well respected. These pressures, stories, and the battle for my attention leaves me in a place where any individual action seems meaningless and where days and weeks rush past me in a blur that I barely remember.

 

Practicing mindfulness is a way to combat these problems. Mindfulness itself does not slow the world down or make what I am doing at any given moment more meaningful or important. What it does, is help me understand where my conscious thought is spending its time. Am I truly focused on where I am right now, or am I letting my mind run in a million directions a million miles away from this place? For me, mindfulness has never been a complete control over my mind, but a recognition of what my mind is doing at any given moment, so that I can take actions to help move my mind back to more meaningful places.

 

Hanh continues, “A calm heart and self-control are necessary if one is to obtain good results. … If we are not in control of our selves but instead let our impatience or anger interfere, then our work is no longer of any value.” We may not have full control over our mind, but mindfulness does help us be more cognizant of our thinking and patterns of thought so that we can begin to shape new habits of thinking to be more intentional and direct with how we use the only thing we have, our mind in the present moment.

Coaching is About Curiosity

One of the final paragraphs from Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit  reads, “But the real secret sauce here is building a habit of curiosity. The change of behavior that’s going to serve you most powerfully is simply this: a little less advice, a little more curiosity. Find your own questions, find your own voice. And above all, build your own coaching habit.”

 

The crux of Bungay Stanier’s thoughts on coaching is that being a good coach requires asking questions in a process of discovery as opposed to providing answers in the form of advice giving. Contrary to the typical American version of coaches or the sports movie version of coaches, an effective coach doesn’t just bark orders and doesn’t just automatically give everyone answers, advice, and life lessons. True coaches, in real life, help individuals find answers themselves.

 

When we think about coaches, we often imagine someone who has years of experience, who has been in every situation, and who can decipher exactly what needs to be done at any moment. This imagined coach, however, does not exist. No matter how long someone has been coaching and no matter how insightful they are, no one can truly understand the pressures, challenges, and specifics of the situations and needs of another person. By focusing on asking questions, the coach discovers what is happening and what the other person needs. The individual being coached gets more help from questions than advice because the questions drive them to think more deeply about themselves, other people, and the where they are at in life. Questions can shift their perspective, encourage deeper thought, and lead to discoveries that advice cannot produce.

 

For almost all of us, we do less listening than we do speaking. When another person is talking, we spend a lot of our free brain space trying to anticipate where the conversation is going so that we can have a perfect response. Knowing this about ourselves can help us understand why advice simply doesn’t land. The other person, while we are giving them advice, is thinking ahead of where our advice is going. Asking a question instead of giving advice gets the other person talking and thinking through what they are saying and describing. It allows them to put pieces together in a constructive form of discovery in a way that advice simply doesn’t.

 

Ultimately, by remembering that coaching is a form of discovery, we enter our coaching opportunities willing to be more flexible, and willing to be more responsive to the needs of the person we are coaching. Rather than walking into the coaching opportunity feeling pressured to have brilliant insights and to give the other person some magnificent piece of advice, we can enter the opportunity knowing that we can both co-discover a solution that is not yet apparent. This takes a lot of pressure off of both the coach and the person being coached.

Getting Team Members to Take Action

I don’t find myself in a lot of direct coaching situations today, but nevertheless, Michael Bungay Stanier’s book, The Coaching Habit, has been helpful for understanding coaching relationships and knowing how to be truly effective not just as a coach, but also as someone receiving coaching. One recommendation that Bungay Stanier has in his book is for coaches to ask more questions relative to the advice they give. As a person working on a small team and as a spouse, this is something I have always been challenged by. As an employee who knows that he doesn’t quite know everything (as much as I sometimes do feel that I do), recognizing that the questions people ask me are great chances for us both to develop greater understanding is important. For the person being coached, questions are always a little terrifying. Answers from above are easy, but questions mean you have to really know your stuff and be prepared to provide a meaningful response.

 

Bungay Stanier recommends that coaches use questions to get the other person thinking and to truly get to the most important issues for a given employee. From the outside we can look at someone’s problems and assume that we know what is going on for them, but we can never truly get inside their head. Asking more questions relative to giving advice is one way to better understand what someone is dealing with. One way to get more questions into your coaching conversation is to give the person you are working with a chance to answer both your questions and also their own questions before you chime in.

 

Bungay Stanier recommends the following approach as a coach when someone asks you a question, “Say, ‘That’s a great question. I’ve got some ideas, which I’ll share with you. But before I do, what are your first thoughts?'”

 

This strategy provides an insight into the thoughts and approaches of the other person. It reveals their general approach to a given situation and helps you understand where their thinking breaks down. The response gives you a chance to give examples and to focus on what the other person is actually looking at and thinking about, whereas giving advice without this question just shows what you think about a problem without understanding it from the point of view of who you are working with. You won’t be able to address the person’s questions if you don’t know how they are understanding and interpreting the situation they are in. Asking what their thoughts are and what their approach would be in a given situation reveals how you can be the most effective as a coach.

 

As an employee, I try to remember this and bring this into my own 1-on-1’s with my manger. I know that I can shed light into my thought process and outline what approaches to problems and situations seem reasonable to me. Rather than expecting an answer from my manager, I can better explain my challenges and how I have thought about approaching a situation to elicit better guidance. It is not easy on either side, as the coach or the team member, but it is necessary to actually drive improvement for both of us and our team.

Unsure

In my last post, I wrote about how the brain handles danger. When we sense danger, we become less creative, more prone to seeing the world as black and white, and we don’t engage our conscious brain as thoroughly as we should. Our brains evolved this way in small groups over thousands of years because it helped us survive in a dangerous and unpredictable world. Today, however, technology and society have changed the human experience and the danger we face is no longer the same. But nevertheless, our brain still holds on to its evolved danger response.

 

In The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier explains that we are biased toward danger thinking. Our brain approaches new situations with our danger sensors turned up. As Bungay Stanier writes, “In other words, if you’re not sure about a situation, you’ll default to reading it as unsafe. And start backing away.”

 

As in the last post, I don’t want to focus for what this means for ourselves directly. I would rather look at how recognizing this should change the way we with those whom we work with, live with, and encounter on a daily basis. In any given situation that is slightly unfamiliar, we are going to default to danger thinking. By focusing on others and understanding the danger that everyone has evolved to feel when taking new steps and taking risks, we can work to better support them and help create an environment that is less dangerous.

 

Within companies, our efforts to boost our egos and dominate a space to be the smartest, most capable, and most important member of the organization cause other people to feel danger. We increase the threat that they may feel and as a consequence, people begin backing away and stop thinking creatively. If instead, we focus on the best outcomes for the team and the company, and we try to minimize the danger and risk that other people experience, we can get more conscious and courageous thinking from the people around us, and ultimately we can have a better and more diverse organization that thinks in new and innovate ways. We can still create environments where competition helps push people to be their best and put forward their best ideas, but the space in which they take risks and put themselves forward needs to be safe to allow diverse views and opinions to be discussed and experimented with. Ultimately, we must take some ownership ourselves for the danger responses in other people, we cannot simply criticize another for feeling threatened and backing away. After all, our brains evolved for this to be our default. To be strong leaders and coaches, we must understand how the brain works and reacts to the world, and we must do our part daily to reduce the danger and threat that others feel and that we push out into the world.

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.

Coaching Tactically and Coaching Strategically

I work for a tech start-up in the heath care space and within our company (at least in our office which is lead by a couple of former Microsoft ninjas) two key buzz words are tactical and strategic. I was not sure exactly what these words meant and how they were used in business until I had a very specific meeting with our site director who was at one point my manager for roughly 6 months. I was in a one-on-one meeting explaining some challenges that I was facing in my role. Every day I was reacting to problems that bubbled up and needed my immediate attention, and I was not quite doing anything that would get ahead of those individual problems and solve the long term issues that created these acute problems. My boss at that point described the difference of thinking tactically versus strategically.

 

The daily grind and the individual problems that scream for our attention create the tactical work. The long term planning and insightful problem solving that stops those problems is the strategic work. The tactical is important and takes a certain set of skills, but the strategic is the differentiator — what separates the average companies from the excellent companies, what makes the top employees stand out from those who show up each day and punch a clock. What I was learning in that one-on-one was the difference between the two types of thinking. Now, when I look back at that coaching session, I also  see two different coaching styles at work.

 

In his book The Coaching Habit author Michael Bungay Stanier makes a distinction between two types of coaching: coaching for performance and coaching for development. He describes the two styles and approaches in the following way, “Coaching for performance is about addressing and fixing a specific problem or challenge. It’s putting out the fire, or building up the fire, or banking the fire. It’s everyday stuff, and it’s important and necessary.” In this quick quote he is describing tactical coaching. How can you help an employee, colleague, or friend navigate the individual challenges that are popping up in front of them and how can they get through those obstacles? Bungay Stanier continues, “Coaching for development is about turning the focus from the issue to the person dealing with the issue, the person who’s managing the fire. This conversation is more rare and significantly more powerful.”

 

The second quote is about coaching strategically, helping the individual see not just how to overcome one challenge, but how to adapt and change what they are doing, the process they work with, and how they are approaching obstacles to make them better in the long run. It is a focus on the individual and their growth as opposed to a focus on a problem and how to address that problem. Thinking strategically requires awareness and understanding of common threads between problems and issues, and that is what you are trying to build in the other person. You are working with them to find the areas of growth for them that will connect the dots in their own life and story, and you are working with them to shift their perspective to solve long term problems and not immediate issues. This is what my boss was doing with me when he explained the difference between thinking tactically in my daily work and angling myself and my operations to be more strategic.