Adjusting Your Interaction Style

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

In a dynamic environment a team needs to be continually learning. A team that isn’t learning well risks making ill-informed choices, waiting to fail.

Take time to look at how and what your team is learning and help them focus on the right things. Adjust your style to support, amplify and adapt to the growth of your team.

Learning in a team environment

Whilst learning happens naturally whilst doing, it’s worth asking: what's your team learning and is the team learning well? With this information you choose to can engage with the team and help them with their skill acquisition and knowledge sharing.

There’s a simple participation model of skill learning I like to use: 'See one, Share one, Lead one' (adapted from the medical school learning model). Key for me is it’s hands-on nature and how it helps to generate conversations through questions, guidance and feedback. Conversations engage people in learning. Either as an expert or a facilitator, your conversations have a huge effect on the learning that happens.
However, there’s a Goldilocks principle at work. Get the language right and you’ll have great engagement. Get it wrong and you’ll get impatience, temper or confusion. The challenge of your interactions is to ask or to tell; Pull or Push. Deciding how much to direct and how much to let them discover for themselves is tricky, but worth it. It allows understanding, practice, feedback and consolidation.

Selecting a conversation style to suit

There’s a spectrum of choices we can make when talking with learning in mind. They range from a directive Sergeant Major style manner to a Zen approach to renewal and learning: focusing on the learning opportunity.

'Being directive' is solving people’s problems for them. It allows people to gain context and basic learning. Training and shadowing for example. ‘Growing understanding’ guides someone towards selecting their own 'good enough' solution. You act as a safety net and support for the learning.

'Push' is ideal for a situation that needs tight risk management and control or when working with a group of beginners. This can help focus on initial learning, progression, giving structure. Whereas a skilled team would feel stifled and need the freedom to advance and become autonomous learners.

The ‘Pull’ style sacrifices direction and control for personal growth - helping to reflect and structure learning without owning it. It’s often where coaches get the most value. It’s challenging though, to not push your own ideas, and to avoid confusion and circular conversations.

Mentoring sits somewhat in the middle. As a mentor you are both bringing your understanding and conversational skills to bear on the situation by offering advice and asking probing questions. But your skin isn't in the game, in the end it’s for the mentee to decide.

Working in these different ways requires different skills. The more instructive/directive side needs knowledge of the job or domain to guide and get trust. In the 'Pull' space, you'd be asking questions of the person, so using rich reflection skills and awareness to avoid slipping into instructional ways.

Listening, receiving and tuning

Knowing the group and thinking about the situation often presents a good choice of approach, but you can’t always get it right. The way to discover if your chosen method is working is by listening and watching. Are they responding how you expected? Are they engaged? Are they bored or frustrated? This active adaption allows you to dive in with the start of an approach and allow early interactions with the group tell you how you need to adjust.

There is much more to listening than hearing someone’s words, far more than can be covered in a few paragraphs here. What’s important is that you listen without prejudice and you look beyond the words that are used.

Most groups will communicate and tell you what they want, but it might not be in a communication style that suits you or the moment. Be accurate in what you send, but generous in what you receive. Listen to them and treat each person’s communication as data that will help to guide the group no matter how they send it. Separate out the emotion from the data and act on each without letting the emotion effect yourself. Use both to help guide you and to direct the group towards solutions.

When working this way, it’s still important to manage boundaries and safety. A little friction isn’t a problem - but be aware of the emotional needs of the whole group. Asking them what they know and feel is a great first step for any session.

The ladder of the Coaching Spectrum

This process works in the small and in the large. As well as facilitating for a group, it can apply to a longer term engagement, or finding your place with an individual you are working with.

Next we’ll look further into the details of the spectrum of coaching styles and how it can be used in growing independence and capability.

That was the fourth part of a series on Leading and Guiding Groups. Previously I wrote about how a leader has choices to make to build self-reliance and ownership as well as managing safety and performance.

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