Taking People to the Next Level

Grace comes in when your need to be right is less important than the other’s need to progress.

Like a parent guiding her child, a coach training his player, or a master mentoring her student, it is not unusual for a knowledge or wisdom gap to exist between two people when they interact. What is unusual in these interactions is the grace with which the teacher teaches. Well-trained, talented coaches and teachers understand the damage caused by the “arrogant-know-it-all” and they are aware of how fragile the egos of their students are. These people understand and live for the fulfillment that comes with helping others. They have studied hard and have learned how to use and share their perspectives effectively and wisely. Most of them have mastered the subtle art of building self-confidence in others. To these folks, people applaud and seek their wisdom.

But most of us were not born or trained that way and there can be many times where we might find ourselves in the one-up position of knowing much more than the person with whom we are interacting. In these situations, it’s important to recognize that offering advice is not about our need to share and teach nor to be right.  The grace in teaching is the ability to guide your students in a way that will allow them to learn and accept your advice. Showing off your talent or boasting about your own accomplishments serves only to turn others off, shut them down, and even hurt their feelings.

In formal coaching, mentoring, and teaching you are supposed to help and to guide; that is the reason you are there. But what about in daily situations when a peer asks you for your thoughts on a tough situation, or when your children want to learn a sport, or when a colleague asks you to help with a big project?

This is where grace comes in, where your desire to be right is less important than the others’ need to progress. This is where “taking others to the next level” comes in handy. Some may call it “baby steps,” others may refer to it as “giving people what they can absorb.” Both are correct in defining the concept of “taking people to the next level.” When coaching others, I find myself teaching this concept a lot, especially when people are confronted with difficult employees.

When you are trying to influence people (i.e. train them) on a 1-10 scale and they are at level 4 and you want them to be at level 8 or 9, the best place you can initially take him to is level 5. Later on you can take them to level 6 or 7 and, eventually, they will be a level 8 or 9, but remember to go one step at a time. If a person is at level 4 and you try to move them directly to level 8, skipping all the levels in between, you will only serve to shut them down. Your students may pay attention and nod in agreement with you because what you are teaching makes perfect sense, but they may not be able to absorb all the information you are giving them. After all, you can see the whole picture with your mastery and they are not even half way there.

In my experience, when you dump the entirety of your knowledge on people and overwhelm them with how-to’s, tricks, or advice, you are making the knowledge gap between the two of you apparent, which will frustrate them, shut them down, and create tremendous stress for them during the teaching process. In much simpler terms, if you offer someone the recipe for eggs benedict when all he wanted was to learn how to boil eggs, do you think he will be able to successfully make eggs benedict? Yet, this is what folks do over and over again.

Many years ago, I went skiing with Tom, a work buddy. Tom was a great skier. He had traveled the world on exotic ski trips and knew a great deal about skiing in different conditions and how to get out of tough spots. Tom was gutsy and masterful. He liked to ski on long, steep, hard runs. I am a quiet skier. I only ski where I am comfortable and do not ski in areas where I feel I could easily die due to a risk of me crashing into a huge rock face, or catching an edge and sliding over a steep cliff.  Tom and I had skied together many times in the past and we both felt comfortable skiing with each other.

On one specific occasion, when we both had brought our children skiing with us. Our day started out fantastic, and then, Tom pushed for a little adventure. “Let’s ski this, shoot down to that chair, up that chair to the face runs over there, and then make our way to that other  mountain across the way where they will just be opening the chair so we can catch some untracked snow”.

This would have been a great plan if it was just Tom and I – both expert skiers, both fully aware of the challenge, both completely in charge of our cardio capacity, and both totally knowledgeable about hydration, steep slopes, and various snow conditions. It was also almost lunchtime; the sun was just about directly overhead. Of course, we had planned to ski through lunch to get to the empty slopes and beat the crowds. We also were carrying food for just that purpose. In other words, we were well prepared because we were both masters at this sport.

Our kids, on the other hand, were not ready. They were all good skiers but they could handle nothing more than a fraction of Tom’s plan. Even though Tom was convinced that he and I could guide the kids, I knew better. I watched the kids’ little faces showing signs of being overwhelmed as Tom started pushing them on how much fun his adventure would be. I spoke up but was quickly shot down. I did not hold my ground.

After the first steep slope, everyone was exhilarated and I suggested we take a short stop for water and maybe even a quick snack. “No,” Tom said, headstrong in his desire to reach his goal, “we have to get there just when they open.” and he pushed on. I gave in. During the next run, everything started to break down. My son, Cody, had fallen and was losing his confidence fast. Tom’s daughter had fallen too and suggested that we take a break. However, at Tom’s insistence, we plowed on. Soon after, my other son, Parker, fell and injured his knee. It was twisted pretty badly, but at this point, the only way to get out was to finish the plan. Then Tom’s daughter fell again. All of the kids were tired, cranky, hungry and starting to show signs of mild dehydration. None of us had any serious injuries, but the ski trip went down the misery slope from there.

The lesson I learned from this experience, of course, was to be firmer and to stand up for what I believed. Tom’s lesson, inappropriately so, was that our kids weren’t that great at skiing. However, the real lesson that I want to pass onto you is that to truly help others, you must accept whatever level they’re starting at  and  just slowly and gradually take them higher, one level at a time.

When you, as the expert or the more knowledgeable, push too far because something feels easy and fun, you may get a stress reaction from those you are trying to help. That stress reaction may seem like a dysfunction to you, especially when they just walk away from the conversation, shut down, or get angry. However, these reactions are simply a coping mechanism. That stress reaction will end in disaster for the unprepared and may even drive a wedge between you and them, causing your relationship with them to end. On the other hand, if you patiently take these people to the next level, you will build leaders for your team and have friends for life.

This holds true for any situation where you need to influence others. In the late 1990s, I was elected the president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Entrepreneur Organization. I was fortunate to be able to handpick my own board to help me get the organization off the ground. I had a grand vision for what this organization could grow to be in a few years. My goal, however, was not to take the organization right to my desired outcome state, but rather to get it off the ground successfully and to put together a leadership team that would not only support my years as president, but also succeed at scaling this organization for a bigger future. To that end, I focused on choosing leaders for the future. I looked at my carefully selected board members and was confident that within a few years, this group of people would have the potential to really rule the organization in a powerful and benevolent way. However, because I “hired” on potential, some board members didn’t have the necessary skills to run the organization just yet. As their leader, I realized I just needed to take the team to the next level, one person and one level at a time.

I remember wanting an amazing organizational communication system, including regular newsletters and e-mails that informed chapter members of news and upcoming events. I wanted the communication system to include mechanisms which would allow us to hear and respond to feedback from the members, and to disseminate information through announcements that both captured current events and forwarded messages of change. This communication system also needed sound bites that represented our values so that our team and members could use them when making tough decisions. In conjunction with the communication system, I wanted to use communication and leadership techniques to create a positive and productive culture. The problem was, not only did my communication director know very little about organizational communication, he wasn’t even aware that such a powerful communication plan could be created.

My communication director was a great guy, but in regard to organizational communication skill and knowledge, he was at a level 3 on a 1-10 scale, and my vision required someone who was at level 10. When I found out that he didn’t have the necessary skill set, I thought long and hard about doing his job for him, hiring an expert for him, and even replacing him. In the end, the best thing for me to do was to take him from level 3 to level 4, and then level 5. I spent the year slowly helping him put a plan together and at our first year-end, we sent the first e-mail newsletter out to our members. It was a big milestone for both my communication director and the chapter.

Yes, at the time, I could have gotten better and faster results by paying for help or doing it myself. However, my communication director is now a trained, happy, and highly supportive leader for the organization. He may never become an expert in organizational communication, but he can now help in a variety of different ways. Due to the fact that he was patiently guided forward, one level at a time, he didn’t shut down or quit the board. Even now, he speaks with great love and appreciation for the organization, and he always looks fondly upon the year he was recruited because that is when someone actually believed in him.

For more than 20 years, I have worked closely with executives on a daily basis, teaching them about their teams and the human condition at work. There is no doubt these executives are among the brightest people out there. They are experts in many areas, like operations, finance, marketing, sales, etc., but when confronted with a difficult employee, most of them are clueless. I could have given them twenty different theories about what was actually going on in their employees’ heads and why, but that wouldn’t have helped them. Instead, I helped them to analyze what level each executive was at and take them to their next level. Instead of overwhelming them and telling them all my analysis and research all at once, I helped them reframe the problem in a simpler and clearer manner, and then offered them a way to successfully take the next step to, say, level 5 from level 4.

The most challenging part in taking people to the next level is that sometimes, what works at level 6 or 7, may contradict the methods in level 5 as new learning supersedes at higher levels. One must always practice restrain from offering level 10 when he knows that only level 5 will work for now. People are often not ready to absorb all of the knowledge that comes from mastery. When they are ready, however, feel free to offer them the learning and techniques from level 6, 7 and so on.

The next time somebody asks you for help or advice, pause for a moment before responding. Instead of giving him a mountain of advice that could potentially overwhelm, ask questions instead. Don’t ask him if he understands. (He will probably say he does understand which won’t help you.) Ask questions and listen carefully to his answers. His reaction and responses will tell you what one thing he is missing, or the exact thing that is keeping him from moving to the next level. Once you find out what the missing part is, confirm it by asking another question, and then give him just what he needs to move on. Keep yourself from overwhelming him with information he doesn’t need.  He will appreciate your help and mentorship.