Coach's Corner

A selection from frequently–asked questions

Dear Coach,

I report to a Vice President in our organization and generally I’m happy with the relationship. He’s a strong personality and has firm ideas about things and so there’s rarely any question on where he stands on issues.

My problem is that I don’t feel comfortable about sharing opinions or exploring ideas. When I ask for his input he’s very black and white and even dismissive. He states his position and then instantly closes down.

I think he has a lot to teach me and I want to learn, but I can’t get him to engage in any kind of dialogue. He’ll give me his position and then decline to discuss options – it’s ‘take it or leave it!’  How do I encourage him to open up and share his wisdom?

Response

I’m likely going to surprise you on this by saying that the problem may not be what you think it is.

One of the most important lessons in life that I’ve learned is that people are who they are and others, including me, do not have the right to change them. The same qualities and attributes that can endear others to us can also get up our nose. In short we each come as a package and others may need to accept us for who we are – idiosyncrasies, quirks, warts and all!

This is an important point because whereas there are issues and options you can discuss with your boss you are encouraged to focus on yourself and your expectations first.  Your basic intention is the primary concern; if it is your intent to change your boss you will probably fail and may even lose ground in your relationship. When we attempt to control others we inevitably lose effective influence over them.

Alternatively, if your intentions are to increase awareness and share different viewpoints, then you will need to accept his freedom to accept or ignore them. If you can, you will not only present a different image but you’ll be more likely to increase your influence over him. We should respect the integrity of others while making changes where we know we have a reasonable chance of success – within ourselves.

That said – you can, and perhaps should approach your boss because there’s so much at stake here. You need to learn and grow and he needs to transfer his inherent wisdom onto you and others. This is the hierarchical obligation which has endured since businesses first became a reality in our society.

Your first step is to focus your intention; what is it you want to achieve?

From the description you’ve given it sounds as though there’s a pattern of behaviors you’d like to adjust or extend. You are seeking expanded options for the future, not redress of the past, so it’s vital that you plan the conversation for a time when there’s no specific event or issue to complicate matters. When particular issues are at stake the discussion will center on resolving, perhaps rationalizing these rather than dealing with the larger problem.

Also you need to influence future behaviors as opposed to evaluating past performance, and that’s a totally different conversation. Your focus needs to be forward, open, constructive and flexible, in fact it could demonstrate the kind of dialogue that you’d like to be having when exploring ideas or sharing opinions. Choose your time well so that the discussion can move freely and not be deflected or distracted by specifics.

Next you will want to prepare your boss for the conversation; do not drop it on him suddenly if there’s a chance he’ll close down; you could ‘tease’ him into the exchange rather than impose it. You clearly respect him, and you’d like a broader base in your relationship that he’s ready to share with you so make this plain.

Your initial approach might be, "I’d welcome the opportunity to explore some ways that we could broaden our relationship. I value and respect all you do for me and I’d enjoy and benefit from extending it. I admire many things about you and I’m keen to learn all you can share with me.

There are some things presently that are not working as well for me as I’d like. I’d like to share these with you to see if there’s a way we could communicate better on these developmental issues. Would that be alright with you?”

You will be more successful if your boss feels safe and one of the best ways to ensure this is to be absolutely sincere in your request for his permission. If he is uncomfortable for any reason, he will want to feel he is in control of the intervention before you take him forward. A direct request to proceed, and at a time and circumstance of his choosing, will work well in this area.

Finally, you need to be prepared with examples and also an awareness of possible consequences. Prepare your side of the conversation by listing all the benefits for him, the organization and yourself. Anticipate likely objections – I’m too busy. . ; I’m not the best person. . ; This isn’t my role. . ; There are other priorities. . : etc; think of suitable responses – I can be very patient. . ; You are important to me. . ; I see it as a shared responsibility. . ; I will be sensitive to other demands. . ; etc so that you’re not caught ‘flat-footed’.

Differentiate between the roles of Mentor and Coach – the former will assist you with issues of What you might do on issues, while the latter are involved with helping you with the more time consuming How things could be done. Your boss may be very comfortable with the mentor role but less so with a full coaching responsibility.

If it would help, consider sharing your points with your boss in writing so that he has time and space to reflect on his responses. The whole conversation doesn’t have to be resolved in a single sitting and often a break to consider and consolidate is valuable. Take your time.

If your boss does not rise to the opportunity, be ready to continue as you are now; this is the ultimate test of your intention – to change him or to accommodate his uniqueness. You still have to live with him and you can’t afford to surrender your ability to influence him no matter how thin this might be.

I hope this helps.