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Posted January 16, 2020 by John Spence

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This is a problem that I have struggled with my entire life.  I’m the guy that always has to top the other person’s story. I can’t help myself, while the other person is talking all I’m think about is which cool story can I pull out that will impress them.  Or, I cut them off and tell them what to do to solve the problem they are talking about. I have gotten much better at controlling this urge over the past few years, but recently I have made major improvements.

After about a 10 year hiatus, I have started doing executive coaching again and have really worked on sharpening my questioning and listening skills.  I understand clearly that my role as a coach is not to be a “sage on the stage,” but to be a “guide on the side.” It is challenging to change the habit of telling to asking.  It can be frustrating not to interrupt when you feel like you know exactly how to fix the problem. With so many distractions it is difficult to stay focused on the other person.  Being quiet when you’re used to talking is really hard. So how did I turn things around? Here are a few of the tools I have been using.

Before you say anything ask yourself a few of these questions.

  • Is what I want to say going to add any real value to this conversation?
  • Do I want to be right or do I want to be happy?
  • Is it my job to fix this problem or help the other person work through it on their own?
  • Do they really want my advice or just to be heard?
  • What question can I ask to improve this discussion?
  • I wonder what makes them think/feel that way?
  • What outcome are they looking for?
  • What outcome do I want from the situation?
  • What do I want for my relationship with this person?
  • Is what I’m doing right now going to get the outcome/relationship I want from this situation?

I also understand that to have an effective conversation I must make the other person the center of my universe for the time we are together.  No cell phone, no laptop, reduce all distractions and make that discussion the single most important thing right now. When my mind wanders off thinking about what I want to say once they stop talking, bring it back to them, stay focused on what they are saying, that is the goal.  

Basically, I think it comes down to three key things.

  • Be curious
  • Ask great questions
  • Be an intense listener

Lastly, I remember that I don’t have the right answer. For most situations, there is no exact right answer, I simply have an opinion.  My opinion might be well reasoned, deeply thoughtful, and based on years of experience, but it is still just my opinion. Once I realized this everything changed.  I went from being somewhat aggressive in expressing my point of view and highly defensive when someone challenged it, to being open and interested in other people’s ideas and excited to see if we can come up with an elegant solution together.  It is a lot less stress and a lot more fun when I stopped trying to win the conversational competition.

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