For the past several years my wife, Kathleen Scott, has contributed dozens of articles to the San Antonio Express-News travel and lifestyle sections. She has also been working on the third draft of a mystery novel. I think it’s remarkable that she made a successful transition from commercial banker to writer. The skills involved in each are totally different. How many people have done that? Since I have a Ph.D. in English and make a living writing nonfiction, from time to time I serve as a kind of live-in editor and writing coach. In the past, whenever she asked for my input, I’d listen to her concerns or read a passage and then give her my recommendations.
The other day, I decided to take a different approach. She brought up a difficulty she’d been having with her writing routine, and I wondered what would happen if I encouraged her to think it through for herself. It went something like this.
Kathleen – “I’m spending way too much time selecting photographs for my articles. When I research a piece, I take hundreds of pictures. I have to upload them all, sort out the bad ones, name the good ones, organize them and find the best ones for the article. It takes hours and I don’t get that much for an article.”
I immediately thought of a couple things she could do to reduce that task. But instead of suggesting them, I asked: “How important is it to you to cut back on the time you spend?”
Kathleen – “I’ve got to do something about it. I spend so much time on it I could make more money flipping hamburgers.”
“Have you got any ideas?”
Kathleen – “Well, I probably take too many pictures.”
“Could you cut back and still deliver good pictures?”
Kathleen – “I take multiple pictures of everything because I’m afraid I won’t have everything I need for the article.”
“Do you need to take that many pictures to get some good ones?”
Kathleen – “Probably not. I know from experience that I’ll always get enough good pictures for the piece. They only use three or four of them. I take a lot because I might want to use them for other articles later.”
“Is that working for you?”
Kathleen – “In retrospect, I may never use them. I probably should just do a good job covering the important things for the piece.”
“How would you do that?”
Kathleen – “I do a good job planning my articles. I think I’ll meet with my editor to get a better feel for what she likes and doesn’t like.”
“Do you think that would work?”
Kathleen – “Yeah, I think so. Hey, you’re really good at this…”
Cool. I didn’t have to give advice (which I hate), and she worked out her own solution. This approach to coaching is different for me.
I picked it up in an excellent book called Quiet Leadership (2006), by David Rock. It’s one of the most useful books on leadership that I’ve read in a long time. He begins by talking about how the brain learns, which endeared me to him immediately.
His core premise:
Our job…should be to help people make their own connections. Instead of this, much of our energy goes into trying to do the thinking for people, and then seeing if our ideas stick….If we are to help other people think, we might develop a whole new set of skills–such as the ability to create the physical and mental space for people to want to think, the ability to help others simplify their thinking, the ability to notice certain qualities in people’s thinking, the ability to help others make their own connections.
Parents: This is an amazingly effective approach to take with teens. You’re way smarter and more experienced than any teenager, but instead of offering them your own thoughts, stimulate them to think for themselves.
The thinking part of their brain is developing, but this process will end after adolescence. So right now is a critical time for them to acquire the skills for thinking for themselves. But it takes practice. You can help by listening well, resisting the impulse to give advice, and then asking the kind of questions that will get teens to exercise their prefrontal cortex.
Helping your child develop vital thinking skills is perhaps the best way to prepare them for leaving the nest. My new book: How Your Teen Can Grow a Smarter Brain.
You can grow the bond with your child through better listening. Download the FREE ebook, Listening to Understand.