Creating Space for Others to Think

On the impact of effective coaching conversations at work

Andrea Mignolo
Words Make Worlds


Photo by Beth Jnr on Unsplash

For a long time the maxim “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions,” ruled the world of organizational leadership. While a quick search for the phrase reveals it has fallen out of favor in most management circles, within organizations the ethos seems alive and well. To a degree this makes sense — most executives I know have progressed up the leadership ladder by assessing big picture challenges and opportunities, coming up with solutions, and getting things done. Once you are senior enough this just becomes a part of your job. The thinking that got you there comes along too, creating a positive feedback loop that further entrenches the approach.

According to Adam Grant, asking people to only bring solutions means 1) people will never speak up about the hardest problems, and 2) when they do have a solution they will push for their approach above all others, resulting in a culture of advocacy rather than inquiry. The detriment here is that a lot of organizational energy goes to positioning, optics, and politics as each leader vies to be the one whose solution gets implemented. What if that energy could be funneled to collaboratively understanding the most pressing and complex problems facing an organization, both internally and externally?

Imagine each person in an organization as a node of awareness. A single node cannot comprehend the wholeness of any complex problem or situation, in the same way six blind men cannot comprehend the wholeness of an elephant. Which means it is also unlikely that any solution an individual comes up with will be appropriate to the problem at hand, in part because the problem has not been adequately sensed on a larger scale. A manager or executive might have a wider view of the problem, but it is still incomplete in various ways.

I suspect this is why coaching skills are becoming increasingly important for organizations and executives, as a way of increasing awareness in rapidly changing and unpredictable conditions. A coaching approach builds this awareness by creating space for others to think, where deeper questions can be voiced and explored. In this regard, coaching conversations can essentially be thought of as learning conversations, places of pause where new meaning is made. Conversations that support an increased capacity for individuals and teams to sit with uncertainty, to deeply and thoroughly consider an issue, to reflect on their own contributions to the issue, and to use curiosity as a launchpad for innovation.

Coaching conversations are qualitatively different than other types of conversations leaders have and are not meant to be a replacement. When utilizing a coaching-style approach, a leader must learn to let go of the reins and rely on genuine curiosity and not-knowing to guide the work. This isn’t a passive approach by any stretch of the imagination, but the activeness of coaching is focused on the person and the awareness they are bringing to the issue, not on the issue itself (this is a subtle but important shift). By staying firmly rooted in reality with an optimistic view of the future and asking open and honest questions, the leader as coach creates space for the person they are working with to reflect, make meaning, see new possibilities, and take effective action.

And while coaching conversations are solutions-oriented, solutions are undefined at the outset. When two people come together to explore an issue with a commitment to curiosity and learning, they first build the strength of their relational connection. This connection enables deeper ways of seeing and listening that can regulate the nervous system, create a sense of safety, and increase creativity. The solutions that emerge in this space are of a higher caliber than solutions that come from stress and fear, which is precisely what the “bring me a solution” mindset invokes. According to Sabina Nawaz, this approach can “cause employees to shut down in fear, breeds a culture of intimidation, and prevents some problems from surfacing until they’re full-blown crises.”

So hopefully you are on board with the idea that creating space for others to think is a good thing. That something beneficial happens both personally and organizationally when one person is supported by another in building awareness, creating meaning, and finding new ways forward without someone else, like their manager, doing it for them.

And yet! This can feel really uncomfortable for leaders, especially leaders who believe they already know the answer and want to help. Why not alleviate the problem by sharing what we know and have learned through experience?

Because helping, it turns out, isn’t really all that helpful. In Helping, Fixing, and Serving, Rachel Remen points to the inherent power imbalance in helping:

Helping is based on inequality, it’s not a relationship between equals. When you help, you use your own strength to help someone with less strength. It’s a one up, one down relationship, and people feel this inequality. When we help, we may inadvertently take away more than we give, diminishing the person’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem.

This is an important nuance to pull out — the idea that a coaching approach is one that gives, that increases a person’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem. This is the quiet foundation of effective coaching and why it is so important to create space for people to think and find their own path forward. With this seed of change in place, all the other benefits of coaching conversations become magnified.

We each have our own capacity to sense into the challenges in front of us and figure out how to move through them. Sometimes we need another set of eyes and ears to see and listen for patterns that live in our blind spots, but once these patterns are made visible we can utilize our inherent creativity to find novel solutions to problems. And when we are the ones who do the meaning making, when we are the ones generating new possibilities, when we are the ones choosing what actions to take, then our self-worth, self-esteem, and personal power begins to grow. And the next time we face a challenge we have the memory of our innate resourcefulness in finding our way through. This scales to the team and organizational level as well, where collective memories play an outsized role in a system’s ability to support or block its own capacity to navigate challenges and change.

When these kind of conversations are happening across an entire organization, everything loops back to increase resourcefulness and creativity. As we collectively deepen our awareness, calm our nervous systems, and increase our creative capacity, our ability to work with uncertainty and overcome obstacles becomes stronger.

And it all starts with creating space for others to think.