The New Skill I Learned and the Old Habit I’m Trying to Unlearn

Shobana Vetrivel   |   March 9, 2021 

Sometime last year, in the middle of the pandemic, when everyone was learning new skills and discovering hidden talents, I signed up for a short coaching skills course. (Not sports, of course, I do not play any sports and the only time I would run is if I saw a snake!) Over the last few years, I’ve been curious about the whole area of life coaching and when a friend, a certified coach, organised a training online, I signed up without any hesitation.

I knew it would help me in working with people and leadership and ministry in general, but I realised it hit more closer to home and heart than I had bargained for. Here are three takeaways from my coaching course experience -

1. Advice can kill.

I love giving advice. When someone comes to me with an issue or a problem they’re facing, I jump right in and think of all the possible options available and all the things they could do. If it’s something I’ve personally experienced or dealt with, then with even more eagerness I am happy to share my thoughts and some wise words (at least I think they are wise words).

There are times when even without being asked, I freely offer advice and suggestions. In fact, I saw a Dilbert cartoon where he tells his therapist “I have uncontrollable urges to show people better ways to do things” and I pinned and posted that cartoon on social media and discovered that there are many more like me!

Giving advice makes me feel like I’m helping, but more often than not advice kills growth. It has the potential to produce stagnation where flourishing is possible. Advice tends to elevate me to a higher platform, where I come to the person or the situation as an expert. But in my experience, and as we discussed together in the course, most of the time people don’t even listen or act on the advice we so freely offer.

The truth we miss in our advice-giving mode is that the people we do life with at work, home, school or church are created in God’s image and are brimming with creativity, potential, skills, talents and insights.  They have a better understanding of the challenges, problems, and roadblocks they face. Rather than advice, they need someone to listen in and draw out their unique strengths and potential to move forward and grow.

Michael Bungay Stanier talks about the advice monster that lurks in us and I realised how much of a monster it is in my own life. The problem is not giving advice (which can be quite helpful sometimes) but that it’s typically the first response and doesn’t usually address the real issue.

“There are reasons why your ideas are often not that great. To start with, you don’t have the full picture. You’ve got a few facts, a delightful collection of baggage, a robust serving of opinion, and an ocean of assumption. You think you understand what’s happening. Your brain is designed to find patterns and make connections that reassure you that you know what’s going on. Trust me, you don’t. What you’ve got is one part truth and about six parts conjecture.” Michael Bungay Stanier

When we jump to give advice, we usually haven’t paid attention to what’s going on and we miss the opportunity to truly listen.

2. Listening brings life.

One of the homework exercises of the course was to listen to two people during the week for ten minutes. I consider myself a good listener and thought this would be a piece of cake! Being in lockdown meant that the two people had to be my family members. I already receive complaints from my sister that I don’t listen when I’m on my phone, so this turned out to be a real challenge.

James tells us to “be quick to hear, slow to speak” (James. 1:19). Proverbs defines a foolish person as one who “takes no pleasure in understanding but only in expressing his opinion” (Prov. 18:2) and one who "gives an answer before he hears” (Prov. 18:13).

Most of the time I listen to respond. This means I listen with an agenda, instead of listening to understand and empathise. The biggest learning for me was that listening is a way of loving someone. When we listen with our complete attention, paying heed to what is said and not said, giving space for silence, and being truly present with our whole selves – we are loving others.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer says this about the value of listening,

“The first service one owes to others in the community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them… Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by him who is himself the great listener and whose work they should share.”

3. Curiosity does not kill.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it is a great skill when it comes to working with people.  This is not a curiosity to feed gossip but a curiosity that keeps us connected and concerned when we are tempted to distraction or distance. According to Michael Bungay Stanier. we escape the advice monster when we stay curious longer.

We stay curious by asking questions. One of the biggest skills a coach brings to the table is asking empowering questions that provide space for reflection and moves people forward towards achieving their goals.

Questions that draw out emotions, perceptions, struggles, barriers, concerns, and beliefs. Questions that elicit possible options, responses, actions and ways to move forward. Questions that brainstorm on resources, support and accountability that's available. Questions like “What’s the real challenge for you here?”, “How are you feeling about this?”, “What options do you have?”, "What does God's Word say about this?", "What support would help you move forward?" and this simple question “What else?”

When God pursues people, He comes close with curiosity and asks questions. In the Garden, God asks Adam and Eve “Where are you?”, “What is this that you have done?” He asks Hagar, “Where have you come from and where are you going?” He asks Elijah, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” and so on. Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus asked questions that probed, revealed and transformed people.

In my short experience of being coached and coaching, I realised the value of having space to process and reflect on the areas we struggle with and the areas where we want to grow by asking powerful questions. In our quick-fix world, we lack the space to reflect and come up with our own ways to move forward. Instead, we rush to ask for advice and are quick to offer solutions. What a gift it is to be able to love and serve one another in this way, reflecting the heart and character of the God who hears, listens and pursues us with curiosity.



Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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Shobana Vetrivel

Shobana Vetrivel enjoys the hustle and bustle of city life and the adventure of living in New Delhi. She has an educational background in social development and theology and has worked in both development and ministry settings. She currently works with Delhi School of Theology and is pursuing a PhD in Practical Theology. Books, travelling, theology, coffee and deep conversations are a few of her favourite things.  

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10 comments on “The New Skill I Learned and the Old Habit I’m Trying to Unlearn”

  1. Great post Shobana. Thanks for the take-aways. Now let me give you some advice . . . :-/ Don't stop writing.

  2. Great work, Shobi!! I enjoyed reading your article. I am praying that I will remember the three things that I took away from your writing when I interact with others.

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