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When Teaching, Don’t Forget to Learn

As I’m writing this, I’m preparing to say goodbye to 21 leaders graduating from a year-long immersion leadership program. We’ve traveled together, celebrated together, learned together and laughed a lot together over the past 12 months. I’m going to miss each and every one of them.

What I’ll miss most of all is the shared learning. As the program architect and facilitator, I get to do my fair share of teaching, mentoring and coaching. I enjoy those activities and the outcomes of seeing people develop as leaders. For many teachers and trainers, this might be sufficiently satisfying.

For me, though, those are secondarily satisfying. I do love the feeling of making a difference but, selfishly, there’s something I love even more about doing this kind of work. What I so enjoy (and got plenty of opportunity to do with this group!) is learning from others. As they learn, they grow. As they grow, I watch and learn from them. It’s a full circle where the learning cycles over and over again.

In this cycle of learning, at least in an intensive leadership development program, powerful discoveries are made when people stretch themselves to think differently. During that struggle, as they’re grappling with new perspectives and figuring out how to calibrate what’s new with what they already know, that’s where those of us in teaching/mentoring/coaching mode can learn the most, too. But it’s an opportunity that is often unrecognized or ignored.

Sometimes, we miss the opportunity because we don’t value it. We shift from learning for a living to imparting what we know for a living. Somehow, we forget that what we know and are able to share is finite and wholly inadequate long-term.

Taking a broad approach to learn and teach simultaneously is something that many teachers/trainers/ coaches simply don’t do. Instead, we box ourselves into an either/or role, an us/them mentality. It’s as if there are absolutes – teacher/pupil, trainer/trainee, coach/coachee. That’s why we miss out.

I realized the absurdity of this paradigm much later in life than I’d like to admit. I shudder to think how much learning I’ve missed since I first made the transition, formally and by title, from being a learner to being a trainer/coach. At that time (and for way too long), my full focus was on delivering a learning experience. I was oblivious to the teaching being done by the people I was training and coaching.

Here’s an example, from this leadership group I’ve been working with for the past year. Midway through the program, I was conducting a small group webinar. The topic was developing your own personal leadership philosophy (PLP).  As simple as that may sound, it can be a daunting exercise. I presented the rationale for writing and sharing a PLP and provided several examples.

Then the real teaching began. Webinar participants asked how, why and what if questions that really made me think. Rather than giving pat answers to their questions and then moving on, I wrote down each question. I asked follow-up questions to better understand the thoughts behind the questions. At the end of the 60-minute workshop, I studied the questions asked and weighed the motivations and perspectives behind each question. I learned so much in that reflection that I completely retooled the webinar for the group AND I rewrote my own PLP.

In every question someone asks you, there is an opportunity to learn something more. As a subject-matter expert and mentor, you may already know the technical answer. As a coach, you may be able to extract the answer from the question-asker. As a trainer or teacher, you may have the “right” answer. Give that answer. But don’t stop there! This is the starting point for deeper learning, not the ending point. If “asked & answered” causes you to move on, you may be moving too fast to seize the learning opportunity that’s right there for you.

Here are 3 little words that work like magic to unleash more learning. “Tell me more” will yield insights you never expected, information you didn’t know you needed and ideas you’d otherwise lose forever.  When you go into your training/coaching encounters with a desire to learn, you will learn. Everyone else around you will also become more open to learning.

Graphic Showing C2L LogoAs a leader, it’s imperative to understand why and how to show ever person that you care about them. Learn more about how you can CONNECT2Lead. And be sure to subscribe to the CONNECT2Lead Blog for weekly tips and techniques on leading with a people first approach.