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Paving the road to hell with good intentions

At the group sessions I’ve been running this week on communication and presenting, I’ve heard participants make remarks like “Can you speak up more?” or “Stop moving around so much” or “Just relax and be yourself” to the more nervous among them who are giving a demo of their style.

On the surface these comments seem to be helpful and well intentioned but I’ve noticed that they often make the presenter more uncomfortable and the performance less confident and accomplished as a result.

As a trainer and coach, I’m fascinated by the unwanted and unhelpful assumptions I make when trying to help people to learn, so I’ve been thinking about what’s flawed about this sort of “advice giving”.

The inclination to tell someone how to do something is based very strongly in our formal education and teaching methodology. The assumption is “If you have the intellectual understanding of how to do something, then your body will react accordingly”. These commands come from the mind of one person (the teacher) to the body of another (the student) make them very difficult to interpret and integrate.

Here’s why:

First of all, the trouble is with the direction and authority of this kind of command. You may have noticed that in most situations we’re not very good at being told what to do unless we have given permission to the teacher based on trust and respect. Therefore someone else telling us how to do it can cause some resistance in us. This applies to many aspects of learning but especially physical skills. As children we learnt as much in the first five years of our lives as we will in the whole of the rest of our lives. And until adults starting trying to tell us how to do it, we were very good at experiential learning. For example, parents don’t tell kids how to walk by saying things like “Shift your weight forward while moving your feet in an alternate fashion”. Children learn how to walk by watching and experiencing for themselves. Even if we could conceptually understand “balance”, its almost impossible to translate this easily into muscle knowledge.

Secondly, the command nature of telling someone what to do and how to do it breeds self-doubt. This is because the advice falls outside the person’s current capability. It’s easier for the instructor to see what the student is doing wrong and comment upon it than it is for the student. This leads to doubt as the student is asked to do something outside of his or her natural learning and it can reinforce their “I can’t do it” self image.

Learning is about raising the individual’s awareness. If you can draw the individuals’ attention to what is happening – what they can see, feel, or hear – then they have the opportunity to learn from experience and build self-trust. This brings about a natural state of learning and curiosity which is enjoyable and free from doubt and frustration. Here are a few examples of translating commands into awareness raisers:

Instruction:
Open your mouth more when you’re presenting.

Raising awareness:
While you are speaking notice how far you are opening your mouth, without trying to open it further.

Instruction:
Project your voice to the back of the room

Raising awareness:
During the next minute, pay attention to how much your diaphragm is working to punch out the air through your mouth.

Instruction:
You have to look at people while you’re talking

Raising awareness:
Count how many words you say while maintaining eye contact with the audience.

Instruction:
Stop moving your feet.

Raising awareness:
Talk to this group of people about anything you like, and simply notice when your weight shifts from one foot to the other.

Instruction:
Relax your nerves

Raising awareness:
Pay attention to how deeply you’re breathing when you first start speaking.

The difference is that the instruction will either be followed or not and will either result in success or failure. The awareness route, on the other hand, asks only that the student pays conscious attention to what is happening. In other words, no right, no wrong and the body learns because it is free to focus on what feels good and what works.

2 responses to “Paving the road to hell with good intentions

    1. Thanks Helen, it’s amazing how much we give verbal instructions and in fact they can often decrease performance. Glad you got something out of this blog.

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