The Advantage of a “Thinking Partner”

By Shelley

“The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.”

Bertrand Russell

Everyone is NOT an Expert

The title Leader catapults you into the role of seemingly being an expert which comes with potential challenges, while a Coach is often seen as the EXPERT to leaders.

A Coach is NOT your EXPERT, but your thinking partner advantage

As coaches, we create a trusting, listening and thinking space for leaders like yourself to tap into your own superpowers of self-awareness and innovation. Coaches accept that the capabilities of leaders can often exceed their own in many cases, so suspending the role of expert is key. What creates a powerful thinking partnership between leaders and coaches begins with trusting the process, while seeking client issue clarity in the safe, yet challenging space of exploration. It is essential that as coaches, we develop deep listening skills that allow us to clarify what is truly the pivotal issue that could be preventing you from achieving greatness as an entrepreneur or business leader. The issue you present is often NOT the issue. Together, we go to our imaginary sandbox and trust that we will find that one “plaything” that we can explore at a deeper level, knowing we are coming closer to adding true value if we just allow the issue to arise as needed. No one is right, no one is wrong. Together we are curious.

Einstein is quoted as having said that if he had one hour to save the world, he would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.

If both partners need to stop being experts, then how is a solution developed?

Meet Jill (the Managing Director of a small Financial Planning firm) who received a distressing call from Jack, a well-established financial planner who has been Jill’s expected successor for the last 6 months. Jack anxiously admitted to Jill that he was unhappy and was having second thoughts about moving into management. Jill, blindsided, was eager to find a solution before further discussions with Jack.

The most challenging interactions leaders face are when something isn’t going right and they are left wondering, “what just happened?”

Without self-awareness, the foundation of Emotional Intelligence, Jill may easily be triggered by Jack’s unexpected news, resulting in an “amygdala hijack.” Daniel Goleman coined this term based on the work of neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux. Jack’s unexpected feedback could send emotional information directly from Jill’s thalamus to her amygdala without engaging her neocortex (thinking brain) or higher brain regions. The result is a strong, emotional response that precedes rational thought.

Why would this happen?

In primitive times, this type of immediate emotional response served a purpose. Imagine collecting food for your family when a sabretooth tiger suddenly charges. Your brain wastes no time in rational thinking. The amygdala hijack creates a ‘flight or fight’ response and you survive to tell the story. Today, Jill needed seven seconds of pause, thus stopping the amygdala hijack. This gives Jill the needed space to “think” and respond to Jack after speaking with his coach.

Jill called wanting a solution now!

This unexpected shock left Jill craving insight, wisdom, and the hope that someone would tell her what to do. At the beginning of our coaching session together, I heard Jill’s frustration when she sighed on the other end of the phone. Therefore, I did not start with “here’s my expert opinion” advice. There are times when I am brainstorming or when I believe that by revealing my own experiences, the clients learning experience will be enriched. I have decided to discern these moments and ask permission first to share a story of my own. It is important not to take away from Jill’s learning. Unlike advice, coaching and a thinking partnership often creates a relationship where we model empathy. Both the coach and coachee start releasing a hormone called oxytocin, a trust hormone, and the chemical basis for the golden rule, “if you treat me nice, my brain will generally make oxytocin and I’ll be motivated to treat you nice.” This trust lays the groundwork to great leadership and a resilient culture. Trust engages us cognitively and emotionally, “just like musicians, who easily play together to make beautiful music.”

In today’s society, the explosion of the digital age has led to anyone becoming an ‘expert’. It is as if the need for an instant solution has taken over the discipline and the joy of learning. With that being said, how does one go about growing their leadership capacity and truly learning to grow and master leadership? Research has shown that unless Jill and Jack feel supported to explore their own thinking through personalized insight and increased self-awareness, they will not have the resiliency to flourish. According to Rock, David, & Schwartz, Jeffrey (2006) in the Neuroscience of Leadership, when we have an “Aha” moment, this new thought illuminates us to think, behave, or ultimately act differently, if we choose to.

… The brain releases a rush of neurotransmitters like adrenaline. This phenomenon provides a scientific basis for some of the practices of leadership coaching. Rather than lecturing and providing solutions, effective coaches ask pertinent questions and support their clients to work out solutions on their own. During the “aha”, findings suggests that at this moment of insight, a complex set of new brain connections are being created. These connections have the potential to enhance our mental resources and overcome the brain’s resistance to change and we learn and grow! To achieve this result, given the brain’s limited working memory, we need to make a deliberate effort to hard-wire, and this requires repeated attention.”

When the phone rings and Jill is looking for answers, my role is to create the space and opportunity to help Jill build her own strength and resiliency by exploring her own thinking.

As Jill processes her situation, she is building a growth and leadership mindset. Carol Dweck presents two different mindsets—fixed and growth. An ‘aha” will only come from Jill exploring, failing, learning and continuing to attempt to grow her competencies. We learn as we go and by having a thinking partner in leadership, it provides us the space for vulnerability, brainstorming and to investigate what it means to fail yet persevere. The growth mindset is the belief that you can cultivate and improve upon your abilities through practice and effort. Someone with a fixed mindset believes these abilities are predetermined and largely unchangeable.

This is amazing news for us leaders. If we belief we can handle our leadership challenges, grow from our adversities and discipline ourselves to learn, then we have a shot at becoming the resilient, adaptable leaders that are needed today. We may even achieve mastery, humility and even redefine the word ‘expert’.

I hold Jill and all my other clients fully capable that they are on their own unique road to leadership mastery. Our “thinking partnership” is now Jill’s leadership advantage as she models the way with Jack based on her own insights and aha’s. I am super curious, in your mind, what makes an expert? Could we redefine this word, knowing that we are capable of constant growth? What does this mean to your leadership journey in work and life?

Here is a great video if you want to explore the ‘growth mindset’ in greater detail.

The 4 Steps to a Greater Growth Mindset

Shelley Cox, Principle of is a Professional Accredited (PCC) Executive Career and Leadership Coach. Shelley solves leadership overwhelm by providing her innovate signature program and movement called CALM Power™ with other leadership coaching services. Her passion is to build stamina and resiliency, helping emerging leaders, managers and entrepreneurs to emerge strong with an authentic leadership message.