Yes-pertise

In my work I end up reading, viewing, and even talking to quite a lot of experts in their field, which is both cool and critical to my own learning and growth. And in this process, letters-1-yes-1188348-1599x1066I’ve started noticing a quality I respond to in the experts I admire the most. I’m calling it yes-pertise, the ability to be both a kick-ass expert on their topic and to bring a sort of humility and wonder to their writing, teaching and sharing.

Dang, I love this, and here’s why: it honors us both. People who have spent a lot of time figuring stuff out, studying, thinking, researching, writing, etc. deserve our respect. Becoming an expert in one’s field isn’t an easy path. It generally requires huge amounts of discipline, creativity, perseverance, and passion. YAY! And of course no one person (or group) knows it all, and the wisest among us understand this as well. Someone with true yes-pertise is a “yes” to the contributions, insights, and ponderings of others, whatever their age, degree or experience. Even a seven-year-old might have a helpful insight or question, even a neophyte in a profession or practice might intuitively grasp something that has eluded a seasoned expert.

What we’ve learned from improv

Yes-pertise is a way of being open to the contributions of others without losing one’s own knowing. It has some roots in the idea from improvisational comedy that anything offered by a fellow actor is met with a “yes, and….” because a “but” or a negation will kill the scene:

Actor One: What a lovely day at the beach!

Actor Two: This isn’t a beach, we’re on the subway and there’s a tuba player over there.  

Actor One: No, we’re at the freaking beach and I am going to make a sand castle! (Thunk goes the scene.)

OR

Actor One: What a lovely day at the beach!

Actor Two: Yes, and look at that big tuba player over there, I wonder what he’s doing? 

Actor One: Well I brought my piccolo, but I’m worried it might get sandy. (A million places this could go….)

In the case of what I am calling yes-pertise, it has a similar impact–with expertise alone it can be a closed loop for the expert’s own knowledge, but those who share with yes-pertise tend to create open, ever expanding conversation in which everyone learns–and often are inspired.

Why does yes-pertise matter? 

The expertise part of someone with yes-pertise is critical to our being able to trust what they are saying. When someone brings forth their wisdom with confidence and clarity and we get a sense the depth of knowledge they are accessing, we tend to believe they are someone worth listening to and we pay attention.

The yes part of yes-pertise builds an even deeper trust. When someone is able to admit what they don’t know and/or be permeable to others’ contributions, it tells us that they understand they (like every human) have limits and are ultimately more interested in understanding than promotion of their own ego. This tends to create a feeling of being fellow explorers on the journey of knowledge rather than passive consumers of a set of information.

The older academic model was based on hierarchy and domination. Even the language: you have to “defend” your thesis or your point. What do we defend against? Attack. Is my single (or perhaps a team) effort good enough, or is someone else smarter, will they prove me wrong? In this model, the delight comes often comes from refutation of previous work, being at the top of the heap by pushing someone else down. (NOTE: not all academics are like this, many exhibit true yes-pertise, for example, vulnerability research and teacher Brene Brown and Mindsight author Dan Siegel.)

The idea of yes-pertise calls us to seek understanding together. If we are experts, to hold strong in what we know but at the same time be very open to what we don’t and what others might bring. And where we aren’t experts, I think yes-pertise calls us to offer what we see from our own perspective and experience, trusting that life and our very humanness has granted us a place at the table of wisdom.

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The AHA Moment in Coaching

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As coaches, we are ultimately concerned with what we (perhaps somewhat arrogantly) call transformation. I have seen newer coaches struggling to create that “aha” moment of truth and realization for their clients on every single call (and feeling they have somehow failed if it doesn’t happen). In other words, that perfect question or interaction which produces transformation, after which the client will never be the same. (Okay coach, transform this client: GO.)

Oh if it were only all so easy. But human development is a rich, complex, and—most importantly—in coaching, a co-creative process. And it’s impossible to say how many sessions that will take. Sorry HR, I can’t promise any sort of tangible results ever, much less in the six half-hour sessions you are willing to pay for.

And so I want to tell you two fairly typical stories of coaching.

The Two Million Dollar “Aha” Moment

I once had a client who worked as a commodities trader. For a variety of reasons, he came into coaching feeling disconnected from his job and colleagues. He was a high producer, but something was missing in terms of his engagement. After two or three sessions, he had a true “aha” that he was being somewhat adolescent in his response to being passed over for what he thought was an in-the-bag promotion. And, more importantly, that this was by no means the way to move ahead. So he swallowed his pride, went to his boss and asked what it would take to get the promotion with (in his words) “calm curiosity.” Turns out that this question was the missing piece – he had been perceived as not taking his own development seriously. More importantly, he realized he didn’t want to be a bratty teenager at work, so he dug in, found things to be interested in again, and within a few months got the promotion.

He told me three interesting things on our final call – one, that by the time he got the promotion, it mattered less than he had assumed it would, and two, that he was proud of himself again. Then I asked him about what he thought the return on investment of coaching had been for him. He estimated his increased engagement meant probably half a cent more profit on a bushel of the commodity he was trading. For this company, that added up to at least two million dollars a year.

The Long Slow Process of Becoming

I had another client, much earlier in my coaching career (in fact, I think I was still getting my certification). Honestly, most of the time I felt I was stumbling around in the dark. We had wonderful conversations about purpose and values, and there perhaps were mini “ahas” but not the big life-changing payoff my coaching ego was desperately hoping for. After about 10 sessions, the coaching sort of drifted to a halt. I always thought I had failed.

However, we stayed in touch via friends, the occasional lunch, and later, Facebook, and after a while I saw she had enrolled in law school. She became even more active in her community than she was previously and there was tremendous leadership and wisdom displayed in her Facebook posts about community issues. It was clear she was up to something. A year or two ago, she was elected to City Council in her large city.

I honestly have NO idea whether the coaching played a role or not – she was always someone who was going to make a huge difference in the world. I think I was probably a small part of her process, which needed time to unfold.

The Role of Co-Creation

I’ve been a coach for 17 years now, and I can promise you that most experienced coaches have versions of both stories. Of course we love to tell the first one, and in my case, to be honest, I was a more experienced coach at that time. I am sure there was a boldness to my coaching that was not yet acquired with my earlier client, which definitely had an impact. But even today, I notice some clients fly with very little from me, having big “ahas!” on almost every call, and using these to move into productive action in their lives.

But some clients seem to be on a slower path of self-discovery. For the second group, they may have an “aha!” and then lose it the minute we hang up, going back to old habits. Even though there are ways to use structures and support for this group, it is often a much more gradual process. But generally, what I have seen here is that at some point it clicks. We’ve been around that mulberry bush enough times that something happens—from a brain standpoint, I think it is neuroplasticity. There are now enough neural connections on the new path (from talking about it, trying baby steps, failing, feeling the pain of the old way that is not serving, etc.) that it (finally) becomes a viable choice for the client.

What does this take? It vastly depends. In the first case, my client had been in a process of self-exploration even before coaching. I came in to a field that was tilled and ready for planting. In the second case, my client was just beginning to explore some feelings of wanting to have a bigger impact in the world. I was part of tilling that field, but it needed more before it was ready to plant.

Wherever we meet people on their path, and whatever impact we have as coaches, healers, etc., I hold it all as aspects of transformation, whether it seems so at the time or not. And this is a messy, unpredictable, unquantifiable and ultimately gloriously human process.