Appraisal season was upon us. I sat down with Denise, the star on my team, to talk about her performance in the year that was, as well as her aspirations for career growth in the coming year.
“I think I’m going to learn Python and SQL,” she said.
“That’s good!” I replied. “These are useful skills indeed.”
“What are good ways to learn these? Are there any books or courses that you would recommend?”
As the supportive manager that I was, I instinctively reacted to help, giving her some recommendations and sending her on her way. Fast forward three months, and I sat down with her to see how she was coming along.
“I’d followed the courses for a few weeks. But I’ve put it on hold now,” she confessed. “I don’t know how I could make use of it.”
I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed to hear that — not because it surprised me (it didn’t), but rather because I should have seen it coming but failed to do so.
One afternoon, one of my team members, Zach, came to my desk, flustered.
“I spent half an hour on the phone with a client,” he lamented. “I gave them everything they wanted, but they were still unhappy.”
“They asked me a bunch of questions about resolving an issue in their recent service request. So, I went through the entire case in detail, examined the issue, explained our procedures, and answered every question they had. They still insisted I wasn’t helpful, and eventually they just gave up pressing and left the call.”
“Well ... should I be concerned about that account?”
“I don’t think they would have been satisfied with anything we told them anyway.”
I wasn’t convinced Zach had gotten the whole story, and his client’s attitude over the phone had obscured it even more. “Hang on a second,” I told Zach. “Call them back, and ask them what they want to achieve, and what they intend to do with whatever we give them.”
Solving the Mystery
People don’t always ask you for what they really want. Both Denise’s and Zach’s stories serve as reminders of a fact of life: The first questions people ask you rarely reveal their true intentions.
When Denise asked me for recommendations on how to learn Python and SQL, her ultimate goal wasn’t just to learn Python and SQL. That was merely a means to an end, which I had neglected to ask her about.
Likewise, when Zach answered questions, he wasn’t thinking about the true end results that the client wanted.
Most of us have been trained to give straight, direct answers to questions that are posed to us. After all, giving answers was how we managed to get through our schooling, right? There’s a difference between giving answers to questions in school and in real life, though. The ultimate intention for all questions at school is to measure that you have acquired enough knowledge and the skills necessary to pass a class. Straight, direct questions and answers make it easy for teachers and examiners to determine whether or not you have done so. The ulterior motives for all questions in real life are much more varied, however.
Take the question “Why do we eat?” as an example. The answer may seem obvious at first glance: “Because we are hungry.” But the obvious answer is not the only possible answer. Here are a few other reasons why we might eat:
Because we are celebrating.
Because we are keeping our friends company.
Because we are trying to win an eating contest.
Because we are trying not to offend the cook.
Because we are trying not to waste food.
You see, eating does not always have to do with hunger. Likewise, learning computer languages may not have anything to do with computing, nor does resolving a service request always clearly relate to the case itself.
Of course, you can also find more than one way to resolve these issues. You can have a night about town to celebrate, host a game night to keep your friends company, donate food to charity to reduce waste, and so on. None of these goals require you to eat. Instead, eating is just one of the many options. Though the only way to win an eating contest is gobbling up as much food in as little time as possible.
Don’t Jump to Conclusions
So, we’ve established that people’s first questions don’t always reveal their true motives, that giving direct answers does not address those motives, and that there are multiple ways to achieve a single goal in most cases. Let’s get back to the core issue of resolving a support question satisfactorily. Here’s my recommendation: Don’t jump to answering right away. Try a coaching approach instead.
Although I do recommend everyone try a life coaching program at least once, I don’t mean that you need to hire a professional coach for all of your staff, and certainly not for all of your customers, just to answer a few questions. That would be costly and inefficient. As a team manager or a customer relationship manager, however, you can adapt the GROW model — a model popularized by Sir John Whitmore in Coaching for Performance and used by most professional coaches — to improve your support skills.
The GROW Model
- Way Forward
Start With the Goal
The GROW model starts with identifying the subject’s goal. They often don’t explicitly state this information in the question in the first place, so you’ll have to do some digging to figure out what is truly at stake. You can employ different ways to get your subject to talk about their goal — though bluntly asking “tell me what your goal is” might lead to hesitation and awkward silence.
What was on your mind when you told me you (wanted to learn Python and SQL)?
What are your biggest challenges you have in (learning Python and SQL)?
What problems do these challenges cause?
What would be the ideal outcome for you (after learning Python and SQL)?
What would achieving this outcome get for you?
What may surprise you as you go down the list of questions is that the goal is that the subject often reveals their goal is an emotional need barely related to the initial behavior they asked you about. Ideally, the goal is something positive (otherwise it’s merely a problem posing as some sort of anti-goal). It should also be something that is under the subject’s control.
In Denise’s case, she didn’t actually care so much about learning Python and SQL. She actually wanted a promotion so she could make a few extra bucks and breathe a bit more easily as she was thinking about starting a family soon. In her mind, being able to efficiently automate her work would demonstrate that she was worthy of said promotion, allowing her to get that raise and giving her a sense of comfort as she planned to settle down. Learning Python and SQL was merely one way to achieve those ends.
In Zach’s case, it turned out his client was merely passing down case questions from their demanding boss, and all they really wanted was to get their boss off their backs so they could get on with other tasks. Their boss just wanted to coerce a result from us to make himself look good. Neither of them needed nor wanted a detailed explanation. Zach could have spared himself a lot of trouble if he had found this out in the first place.
So, once you determine the goal, you’ve marked a destination on a blank sheet of paper. Now it’s time to figure out how to get there.
Move to a Reality Check
The next step of the GROW model is assessing reality — more precisely, you need to identify the gap between the subject’s goal and the reality, as well as any obstacles along the way. Without figuring out where the subject’s starting point is, the amount of work they need to do, and what the obstacles are, the rest of your discussion will not be very fruitful.
Since the support question stems from a desire for improvement, talking about reality will inevitably involve discussing something a little uncomfortable:
What is happening now?
What is it about the current situation that you don’t like?
What have you done or not done about it?
What is getting in the way?
If time permits, this is also a good point to figure out the internal and external factors, as well as the individual and collective factors, that might influence the options for action down the line. At the very least, you should identify where the subject is and what the gap is between that place and their goal.
Denise was unaware that her quiet and reserved personality not only kept her away from the spotlight, but also from the shortlist for promotion. She erroneously believed that she needed to do her existing job even more efficiently, despite already being the star performer on the team. She hadn’t considered the reality that the next role would require her to show confidence in addressing external clients or guiding internal colleagues alike and to act as a trusted expert who could share insightful observations with the rest of the industry. These were a vastly different set of skills from the more process-based, detail-oriented research skills she already excelled at. She had spent little of her energy working developing new skills, however. As a result, adding Python and SQL to her skill set probably wouldn’t prepare her for the role she wanted.
As for Zach’s clients, the reality was that they were stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, we had procedures to follow to provide consistent service to all our customers; on the other hand, their boss was relentless in getting them to pressure us to bend the rules. If only Zach could somehow deliver his client from this impossible position, they would be beyond thrilled.
Once this step is done, you should now have two points on the map: the goal and the reality. Ideally, in exploring the internal, external, individual and collective factors, you have the landscape between the two points mapped out as well.
Explore Available Options
The third step in the GROW model is figuring out your options, which involves figuring out the possible paths to bridge the goal and the reality. At this point, your approach will differ depending on whether you are talking to staff members or to clients.
With a staff member, you may be at liberty to be more open-ended with your line of questions:
What are the most obvious options?
What are some of the alternatives?
What would you do if you had no obstacles?
What can you do to get around or remove the obstacles?
What have you done in the past that worked for you?
What would someone smarter than you do?
What would your role model do?
What would a rival do?
What would be the craziest thing to do?
What do you think I would tell you to do?
As we’ve seen above, there are often many different ways to achieve a goal. We aren’t aiming at taking all those different ways at once. Our job here is to find out as many possible ways as we can, weigh the pros and cons, and pick one that is the most suitable to move forward.
Once Denise identified the real gap between her reality and her goal of getting a promotion, her options became much clearer. She needed to develop new, soft skills beyond the Python and SQL techniques she assumed she would need. Most of the feasible options for doing so required her to delegate some of her research work to her colleagues so she had time to practice being in front of people and asking for feedback afterwards.
As for an external client, you can’t exactly go on a time-consuming exploration with them. This means you will come up with different ways to bridge the gap between their goal and reality yourself and weigh the pros and cons of each. Having considered the ideal end goal for the client, as well as what’s possible for you, it shouldn’t be hard to pick two or three options whose pros and cons would seem at least palatable to the client.
Zach’s clients wanted their boss to get off their back, while their boss wanted some unattainable results from us. I suggested to Zach to list out, in very concise bullet points, two or three alternative solutions, along with a brief pro and con rundown for each. “Make it so that your client can easily copy-and-paste the bullet points to their boss,” I said, “so they don’t have to spend half an hour relaying that explanation you gave on the phone and misrepresenting our stance along the way.”
Right now, your map should contain not only the two points — goal and reality — but also several routes connecting those two points — the options.
Embark on a Way Forward
Whitmore refers to the last part of the GROW model as will, though it is also known by other names such as wrap up or way forward. Regardless of the name, this step refers to movement from the current reality towards the goal.
At this point, you should be confirming the actions you or your subject will take, the time frame of those actions, any support system they will have, as well as how the results can be measured. Get it down on paper using the SMART model — the important thing here is that your subject should be able to hold themselves accountable for the actions taken. If the way forward they have chosen doesn’t work out, don’t fret: You have mapped out other options already.
To her credit, Denise took the initiative to organize an event to speak in front of clients, and reported the results of the event internally, which the commercial team was able to use subsequently. This project greatly raised her profile within the company, allowing her to eventually move up the ranks. As far as I know, she still hasn’t really learned enough Python or SQL to automate her work, but I’m sure she delegates that now too.
After sending out the follow-up email, Zach’s clients, as expected, came back with their preferred alternative solution, and then stayed relatively quiet for a few weeks afterwards. The next time Zach spoke to them on the phone, however, they sounded much more at ease with him. Zach had won them over.
Coaching Solves Problems
To be clear, what we’ve discussed isn’t “real” coaching, but rather adapting a well-practiced coaching model to resolve support issues. Of course, the GROW model cannot resolve all support issues either; there are always other ways of mediation.
But the next time someone asks you, “How can I do so-and-so?” stop and ask them what their underlying motivations are, and what they intend to do with your answer. You may find that a perfect opportunity to have a more valuable conversation, leading to a much more satisfying outcome, has just revealed itself.
(The names and exact details in the anecdotes are fictional, but the circumstances are based on real-life experience.)