Experimenting with my bad habits

When I first became a coach it was great. I really enjoyed coaching and people told me that they found me really helpful.

But I noticed that, while I was able to help people solve problems and gain “aha” moments, I seemed to be having the same conversations again and again. People seemed to be great at tackling an issue, but like a heart attack victim, they seemed to go back to their old ways after the problem was solved or the stressful situation had passed.

So I started teaching people new skills and they seemed to grasp things quickly. I tell really good stories and I can lecture people for hours on topics as obscure as the relationship between status and “perch height” on grass in grasshopper society.

OK that is a bluff, but people seemed quick to pick up skills and then just as quick to forget them.

Perhaps, I thought, I am a great coach but people are stupid. Unfortunately (or I suppose fortunately) I found out that this was not really a great mindset for a coach to have. There is something about being arrogant and lacking empathy that limits the effectiveness of coaching. Perhaps someone should write a book about coaching that tells people to be humble and empathetic when coaching 🙂

Anyway, I found that people are actually good at making a change. It is sustaining change that seems really hard. People revert to old behaviours quite easily.

This is a shame because in every organisation I have worked with, we have needed to change how we operate for a while before the overall ecosystem starts to shift. Part of coaching is, I believe, sustaining the confidence to keep trying when the rest of the organisation completely fails to shift.

But then I read three books that caused me to “refactor” my thinking, one book on habits and two on coaching. I also remembered one famous comic strip that I used to have on my desk, back when I had one. I often remember that comic strip when involved in personal change.

  • Atomic habits, by James Clear. This book set me going on a quest to make some minor changes to my life, that have since stuck and led me to make more minor changes. But don’t read it or you might realise that you do not even need a coach to help you make changes in your life.
  • The Coaching Habit, by Michael Bungay Stanier, which is possibly my favourite go-to guide on coaching. It contains a great script for changing habits (your own as much as your client’s).
  • Presence Based Coaching, by Doug Silsbee, which contained a great experiment for identifying habits that you want to change. The only annoying part about this book is that it really stresses the importance of growing yourself if you want to help others.
  • The excellent “Calvin and Hobbes” comic – this time covering the advantage of ignorance over awareness.

Anyway, combining a small amount or learning from the three books, I started to experiment on seeing if I could improve my own habits a little. The approach is quite simple, but it does take some time.

The first step is curiousity

The first step is to wonder if you have any bad habits. Putting aside the notion that ignorance is bliss, you need to either seek feedback or pay attention to yourself for a little while.

Apparently helping others starts with nurturing your own growth and nurturing your own growth starts with awareness … and awareness starts with taking time out to observe yourself in action.

But don’t panic – paying attention to yourself does not require that you literally look in the mirror for hours, nor that you meditate deeply on your unique inner light and its place in an existentially hollow world. I just mean that you should replay meetings and conversations in your own head to ask yourself if there is anything you notice.

I noticed too many things:

  • I talk confidently on all topics, even when others know more
  • I ask people their name and then forget it instantly, then become too embarrassed to ask again
  • I listen to people but then validate their views rather than being truly curious
  • And so much more …

But the trick here is to pick only one thing, which if you change it, will make life a tiny bit better, rather than trying to change the whole world at once. James Clear, in Atomic Habits, argues very persuasively that as long as you can make things even 1% better, again and again, then you will build a lot of momentum.

So I picked something that I should already be good at. Pausing before I talk.

The second step is observation

Now that I have an improvement to make I can simply change my habits and life is good. Occasionally that works, but not this time.

Instead, Silsbee recommends that you identify times when you might display a bad habit and then review whether it happened. This will help you work out if your habit is sometimes good or if you are not really nailing the right thing.

Here is, roughly, what he suggests. I did this and it was surprisingly powerful.

Describe the behaviour: I will observe my tendency to interrupt people or start talking before I have had a chance to really absorb what they said last.

Structure (when will I observe this)):

  • When I meet with clients or participate in meetings. Specifically for meetings and discussions over 3 days a X client site
  • Duration – I will do this for 3 days (note that you should really do it for a week or two)
  • Frequency – I will review this after each coaching session and scoping discussion
  • How will I review it – I will ask the three questions below, stolen straight from the book

My questions:

  • When, during the session, did I interrupt or jump in too soon?
  • What drove that? (Was it just habit, nervousness, impatience … ? What happened just before I did it that might be a cue?)
  • What did I do and what was the impact?
  • What alternatives were there? (I guess just listening – but there might be others).

No change needed, no reporting to others and you are free to feel overpowering guilt or just giggle at how funny it is that you did this yet again. The choice is yours, but keep reflecting for 5 minutes after each “situation” that you observe. One or two a day is more than enough to find patterns and oppotunities.

Next you have to decide to change things

I noticed that I do have a tendency to interrupt, which did not surprise me too much, although I do it more than I might have realised.

However, I also noticed another tendency – I am often very “generous” with sharing my own examples of everything. So when my client says “we tried a Kanban wall with index cards,” I respond “Oh yeah – I have done index cards on a wall too – there was this one time where we must have had 15 cards …”

Hmmm … it seems that I have a lot of experience to share and a great willingness to do so. But maybe I should learn a complimentary skill called shutting up. One way to do this is to use the letters in the word WAIT to remind myself to shut up (when talking – ask yourself “Why am I talking? – WAIT”).

But Stanier has a better approach. He has suggests writing down a simple reminder to catch and correct yourself.

I now use his wording and I now write it down in my journal. This probably sounds a bit lame, but I keep a todo list each day and now I have have a reminder next to it that is my current “not-to-do list.”

The “not to do” list is either my habit to avoid or my watch-list to highlight what I will pay attention to.

The simple approach is to complete this “habit story” for yourself:

  • When (thing happens)
  • Instead of (my annoying habit)
  • I will (do this instead)

It is amazing how often I catch myself when I remember this. For example, my message was:

  • When someone shares something with me
  • Instead of agreeing with them (validating them) or telling them my own related story
  • I will ask one “non-leading) question to explore their view
  • (then I can rabbit on as much as I like)

Surprisingly it is working well, even though it is a pretty simple hack.

In summary

All you need to do is

  • Become curious and then pick something to experiment, that is not a radical massive change
  • Write down an “experiment.” – Ie when you will observe yourself and what questions you will reflect on. This can be kept as a watch list, as shown below. Observe this and reflect on it for a week. You might notice that you change your behaviour as a result, or that you are totally out of control, but relax and keep reflecting either way. If you have been doing this for quite some time, fixing it now or in a week is fine
  • Write a not-to-do reminder and try it out for a week.

Here is my template, which you don’t really need. Try it yourself if you like.


4 thoughts on “Experimenting with my bad habits

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