When it comes to influencing a change in behavior, you want to activate people’s creative minds instead of their survival or analytical mechanisms. You don’t start by telling them what they did wrong. When you ask people to review what happened in a situation, they usually know what didn’t work. People tend to be their harshest critics. Ask them to assess their behavior first. They might then ask for help on how to change. Even then, you want to explore their ideas before offering your own.
The middle brain houses long-term memory. Tapping into people’s prior knowledge to strategize a new way forward arouses both a positive sense of responsibility and courage. If improvement conversations started with a coaching approach instead of feedback, they would activate creativity instead of provoking defensiveness.
A reflective inquiry–based conversationfocused on how people think facilitates insight-based learning. Creative thoughts emerge as people pull out and connect bits of stored information in a new way to answer a provocative question. When their thoughts, beliefs, and emotional reactions are held up in reflection, they are prompted to examine their thinking. As their reasoning and justifications begin to unravel, their brain quickly reorders bits of information to make more sense. They have an insight that feels like an aha moment. Their perception changes. They gain a new awareness of themselves and the world around them. Insight-based learning develops people’s minds and confidence.
Using reflective statements and questions in a way that prompts people to examine what they are thinking incites creative breakthroughs. You are cracking the ego walls that protect how they see themselves and what they believe should happen in the world around them. For a moment, they will stare at you as their brains go offline to make sense of what is being altered in their stories and definitions. The first glimpse at this new truth could cause an emotional reaction before the insight is clear enough for them to articulate. If you help them solidify the new awareness by asking what they are now seeing or learning, you fortify the shift.
Consider a time you felt stuck sorting out a work relationship that had soured. The sudden, new solution to the problem probably didn’t come to you as you hovered over your desk ruminating over past conversations. The insight that showed you a new way to approach the situation likely came as a result of a statement made or question posed by someone else.
When someone you trust challenges your reasoning and asks you a question that breaks through your protective frame, your brain is forced to reorder data in your long-term memory. For a moment, the breakdown feels awkward. In the midst of this discomfort, your brain is most open to learning. A new, broader perspective forms. You may feel a range of emotions from sad to outright angry for not seeing the truth before. You might feel vulnerable, embarrassed, and even scared. Often, my clients laugh at what they see—after they gasp.
Coaching that uses a reflective inquiry approach improves both outcomes and satisfaction. People want two-way conversations that pull out their ideas and open their eyes to greater possibilities, not one-way directives focused on what they did wrong.
Sometimes, a course correction is vital. But if the smart people you are coaching know what to do but aren’t doing it, the conversation should focus on what is stopping them from applying what they know, not on giving feedback and advice.