Blog Post: Make More Mistakes

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Matthew Emmons was just one shot away from winning his second Olympic Gold medal. It was a mere 50-meters away, a shot he has hit over and over again in the past 9 years of biathlon competitions. He lined up the shot, pulled the trigger, hit the center of the target. With that shot he went from first to eighth. No Gold medal.

The problem, you see, is he hit a bullseye in the wrong target. That would be a miss. But in an attitude of true resilience, this was his response:

“Crap happens, I’ll live to shoot another day.”

I guarantee you, Emmons will never again not check his target number before he pulls the trigger.

All of us have heard it said – and most have actually even said – we learn best from our mistakes, not our success. We might think this and actually believe this but we definitely don’t like this. And few bosses would tell their employees, “What I want you to do today is go and make lots of mistakes! Go get ‘em!”

Stanislas Dehaene’s book How We Learn explores the neuroscience behind learning.  He identifies what he calls the 4 Pillars of Learning:

  • Attention – the ability to focus on the right, relevant information
  • Active Engagement – not being passive but rather being engaged, curious and creating testable hypotheses
  • Error Feedback – embracing and leveraging the truth that making mistakes is the most natural way to learn
  • Consolidation – moving learning from effort-full to effortless by moving learning into habitual thinking and doing

All four of these pillars are important to coaching with excellence and impact. Let’s look more closely at the pillar of Error Feedback.

If you’ve taken a CAM 500 level course you have most likely heard someone say, “The brain is a pattern-matching machine.” What that means is your brain creates mental models of how the world works based upon past experiences. Then it scans the world to reinforce that mental model. Except when it encounters information, emotion or experience that doesn’t match the mental model, it is forced to change the model. That “change” is called learning!

Here is an example: I coach a lot of leaders. A critical shift for leadership growth is moving from leading others to leading leaders. Leading others is about how much you can do for those you lead. That is a mental model. Leading leaders is about how much you can do through your leaders. When you lead others, your leadership capacity is your personal mental, emotional and physical capacity. When you lead leaders, your capacity is how much you can multiply your impact through raising up and equipping multiple leaders.

For leaders of others the mental model is “I am rewarded for how much I do. The more I do, the more valuable and indispensable I am.” Except this leader invariably hits a personal and organizational growth barrier. They ultimately begin to “make mistakes” that leave them feeling frustrated and stuck. The mental model is failing! Learning can happen! Coaching can be powerful!

The key word to remember is Surprise. When something happens that doesn’t fit the mental-model the brain has created, the brain experiences surprise. The greater the disparity, the greater the surprise. The bigger the “mistake”, the greater the surprise and the greater the potential for learning.

Coaching “Mistakes”

Here are ways you can help your clients experience greater growth through “mistakes.”

#1 – Create an environment of trust. This is a fundamental ICF Core Competency. It is risky to make mistakes and our culture largely tells us it is not acceptable. Create the sacred space where the client can be confident they will not be judged, reprimanded or condemned for making a mistake.

#2 – Encourage creativity. Remember, the brain is trying to and wants to make sure everything fits the pattern, is congruent with the mental model. Growth happens when that model is stretched and adjusted. Instead of asking the question, “So, what’s the logical thing to do?”, ask some of these questions: “What would be some illogical things to do?” “What would you do if you took the road less traveled?” “What would be a high risk/high reward course of action?” “How would the person least like you see this situation? What can you learn from them?”

#3 – Don’t be predictable. Did you know your client’s brain is actually predicting the question you’re going to ask next? So, if you have a familiar pattern to your coaching that your client is used to, their brain is less engaged. You will awaken deeper thinking and more engagement if you have an element of unpredictability in your questions and your flow. If you “surprise” the brain you prime it for learning. Warning: Don’t go crazy with this! Extremes don’t accomplish anything except confusion.

#4 – Notice and challenge your client’s mental models. A lot of things contribute to our mental models – personality, training, education, experiences, trauma, etc. A great coach notices, is curious about and appropriately challenges patterns of thinking, feeling and behavior. Oh, and a great coach does the same for themself because the coach has mental models that can get them stuck too!

#5 – Listen to Bob Ross. Bob Ross has taught thousands of people to release their inner painter and slap some paint on some canvas. Here is one of his most famous quotes: “We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents.” The beauty of the quote is this – a mistake is not the end, it is a beginning. From the perspective of neuroscience, it is the essential beginning of learning. From the coaching perspective, it is the opportunity for new awareness.

If you want to help your clients grow, help them make mistakes. Help them see things so differently, engage in experiences outside of their normal patterns and create actions that will not be “safe” but could be transformational in creating “Aha!” moments of growth. That is some great coaching.

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