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During a recent conference, I gave a short workshop on using a coaching style of leadership. We started by talking about the importance of a helping mindset. We talked about using powerful questions. The challenge for most people in my workshops is to refrain from offering solutions.

As leaders, we are trained to be fixers. We are constantly on the lookout for problems, and we then come up with ways to solve those problems. When we are using a coaching style of leadership, we help people figure out how to solve the problem themselves.

Before the group started coaching each other, I said, “It is not your job to solve the coachees’ problems. Your job is to ask them questions that will help them figure it out for themselves.” The purpose of coaching is to raise a person’s awareness around a challenge. The coach helps the coachee to get unstuck by helping them to see the big picture and possible paths to take.

For example, if I’m having trouble getting to work on time regularly, you could coach me on that. You might have several hypotheses about why I am late and several solutions in your head. It’s crucial that you keep them in your head and not let them spill out all over me.

There are a few reasons for this. First, if I use your solution and it doesn’t work, it’s your failure, not mine. Second, I have very little ownership and motivation if I’m just doing what you tell me to do. Third, you are giving me a solution that would work for you, but it probably won’t work for me. I am the expert in my own life and, hence, the only person who can come up with a great answer to my challenge.

Not telling others what to do has always been a challenge for me. My mother said that, as a little girl, I was bossy. During my coach training, I spent a great deal of time and energy learning to ask powerful questions instead of listing things that a person should try.

During coaching, and in life, people don’t really want to be told what to do. They want to be listened to, truly heard, and understood. When I am tempted to throw my two cents’ worth at someone, I have a phrase that I repeat to myself: “Not my circus, not my elephants.” It means that whatever situation a person is in, it’s not my responsibility to fix it. We are each the ringmaster in our own circus.

I did not share my personal reminder phrase about the circus at the workshop, but I did make a point of telling the group that they were not responsible for solving the problems of the people that they coach. One young woman told me after the workshop that learning that one thing had made the entire conference worthwhile.

She shared that she often took on other people’s problems, relieving them of the burden of solving them at all. The new perspective was freeing for her and placed the responsibility for facing and overcoming challenges where it belonged – with the owner of the situation. We are not doing anyone a favor by taking on and solving their challenges.

When we take on other people’s problems, we are telling them that we don’t think that they can do it on their own. We minimize their creativity and determinedness. We also steal the opportunity to build resilience. Every challenge we overcome makes us more confident to face the next. Although it can feel callous, we are helping more by supporting people in overcoming their challenges rather than jumping in and doing it for them.

If you are tempted to send someone your remarkable solution to his or her challenge, remember that you are only responsible for your own circus and your own elephants.

For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 Leadership Challenges at KathyStoddardTorrey.com.

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If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at KSTorrey@tapferconsulting.com.