When someone is better at something than we are, we have a choice: we can find excuses, or we can find learning. I’ve experienced this for myself and I’ve also seen it in countless coaching sessions with others.
I was reminded of this last winter when I was out skiing one of my favorite cross-country ski runs. It is an expert run and there is one stretch where it relentlessly climbs: it is a grind. To make it more difficult, in the middle of all this climbing, occasionally there are some steep stretches that will leave your legs burning and your lungs pumping. Not many people even ski this run and it’s rare that someone passes me.
On this day, however, I could see a couple in the distance behind me and it was clear that they were going faster than I was. I tried to go faster, and I worked as hard as I knew how to work. I was drenched in sweat and they were still gaining on me. Even more frustrating, it didn’t even look like they were working that hard. Then they got closer. To add insult to injury I could see that they were a good twenty years older than I am. (I later learned that they were in their mid-70s.) I kept pushing, but I had to stop in order to catch my breath and as I stood there watching them approach, conceding to the reality that they were going to pass me, I thought, “Well, the least I can do is watch them to see what they are doing that is better than what I’m doing.” And I did.
It was the best thing I could have done because I noticed something about their technique that I was able to use to get better and faster. I’m guessing that they can still ski faster than I can, but, after altering my technique a bit, I am substantially faster and more efficient in my skiing (meaning that I don’t have to stop and pant to get my breath!).
As I reflected on that experience, I thought of how my first reaction, if I was being completely honest with myself, was that I probably wanted to find some good reason why they were faster and more efficient. For example, maybe they just had better skis than I did? (To be clear, I would have been delusional to think that was the reason!) That line of thought led me to think about how I often see this show up in coaching.
In coaching it looks like this: I’m coaching someone who is a decent performer, but not the top performer and they volunteer that the reason that others outperform them is because “the manager just likes them better,” “they just have better accounts than I do,” “their territory is easier,” or any other of a myriad of reasons. This rationalization can hold us stuck.
Even if it’s all true, so what? Instead of giving away our control to external factors that may or may not be real, how can we instead take back that control and challenge ourselves to learn something new that might move us forward? It’s a lot more hopeful and productive than sitting back and waiting for something to change for us. For example, using the example above, if we’ve been assigned a tough territory, it won’t get any easier on its own.
I will never forget a conversation that I had with someone who had really stagnated, and he was adamant that it was just because others had better territories than he did. I said to him, “Maybe you’re right. Let’s say that the other territories are better. Now what? What do you still control?” And then through the conversation I asked him questions like:
- What makes those territories better?
- How did they get that way?
- Were they always better?
- What possible work went into cultivating them?
At the end of our session, he had a list of ideas that he wanted to try in his territory. As he stood up to leave, he said, “You know, maybe there is something that I can do after all.” That’s the key: the intersection of hope and action.
When I’m coaching someone, part of what I’m trying to do is to help them see where they have more choice and more control than they thought. When we recognize where we have choice and control, we begin to open up new opportunities and possibilities.