Tomás, the founder and CEO of a small software company, was talking with John, his coach.
“I’m concerned that I’m not moving forward,” Tomás said dejectedly. “I keep running into the same problems, with the same people, over and over again. Problems I thought I had solved. How can I successfully run this company when I can’t learn these simple lessons?”
Tomás slumped his head on the table and sighed.
“That sounds uncomfortable,” John replied. “And, the position you’re in looks pretty uncomfortable too.”
“I am uncomfortable,” Tomás agreed. “Why can’t I learn these lessons?”
Don’t focus on your stumbles
“Tell me about one of these lessons you feel you aren’t learning,” John suggested.
“I’m working hard to talk with people in the ways they absorb information,” Tomás started. “I remind myself of their methods before I speak with them. When I don’t know their methods, I ask them.”
“And how are people responding?” John asked.
“People seem to understand me faster and more completely. Several have noticed what I’m doing and thanked me,” Tomás answered.
“That’s great,” John congratulated. “Are you doing this in every part of your life, or only at work?”
“Every part of my life,” Tomás said. “It’s made an enormous difference with my wife and kids. It’s even more noticeable there than at work, I sometimes think.”
“I’m happy to hear that,” John cheered.
“And yet, I keep not doing this. Even with people with whom I usually do it well. One great conversation, and then in the next, I stumble.”
“That’s pretty common with most people, as they learn,” John commented.
Even if you seem to be stumbling everywhere
“I know,” Tomás affirmed. He sat up a little, head no longer on the table. “Still—just when I think I’m getting it, blam-o—I fall on my face.”
“Is there anything different when this happens?” John inquired.
Tomás thought about this. “Well, yes. There are differences. For example, I’m generally successful at this with my vice presidents in our one-on-ones now. However, I tend to stumble when I talk with more than one at a time. And, I struggle in our staff meetings.”
“Ok,” John said. “That’s one example. How about another?”
“Well.” Tomás reflected for a moment. “With my family. I do this great with my kids. Almost every conversation with them, I put my thoughts into their ways of absorbing information. With my wife, though, I have a tough time. I just can’t figure out how to say things in her frame of reference.”
“You brought this up in one of our first sessions,” John said. “You have made a lot of progress since then.”
“And yet, it’s still so hard,” Tomás said frustratedly.
“That’s tough,” John said understandingly. “The one person you most want to be clear with.”
“Exactly,” Tomás said. “And it’s the same with a few of my friends. We have dinner together every month. So, I’ve had lots of opportunities to experiment with this. And, I still puzzle them with my words regularly. It’s become a running joke,” Tomás finished ruefully.
Instead, focus on the change you are making
“I have good news for you,” John said. “Every one of these situations is different.”
“They are?” Tomás inquired.
“They are,” John confirmed.
“But they seem to all be the same. Every staff meeting is just like every other staff meeting. Every family conversation is just like every other family conversation. Every dinner with friends is just like every other dinner with friends.”
“I know they can all feel like the same situation,” John agreed. “However, they can never be exactly the same.”
“In detail, no, of course not,” Tomás said. “But, broad strokes, they really are.”
“There’s one important difference you’re missing,” John pointed out. “You.”
“Me?” Tomás asked.
“You,” John confirmed. “In every case, you have practiced speaking in their way of absorbing information a little more. You have integrated everything you have learned a little more. You have adjusted your approach a little more.”
Tomás considered this.
“So, what you’re saying is that I’ve been treating learning as a straight line. But, instead, it’s a spiral,” Tomás posited. He sat up a little straighter.
“Tell me more,” John requested.
“I am always moving forward,” Tomás explained. “I know that, deep down. I learn something at work, and with my family, and with my friends, and even with random strangers. That’s like different quadrants of a circle.”
John nodded his head. “Ok, I’m with you so far,” he said.
“But, it’s not a circle,” Tomás continued. “Since I’m always gaining experience from all these tiny experiments, I can never retread the same path. My experience shifts that path a little bit every time. So, the circle becomes a spiral.”
“That’s exactly it,” John affirmed.
Be comfortable with stumbling through your spiral
Tomás was now lounging comfortably in his chair.
“You look a lot more comfortable now,” John noted. “How are you feeling?”
“I feel a lot more comfortable now,” Tomás confirmed. “Now I know I’m not running into the same problems over and over. Each one is at least a little different every time. And, now I know I am learning these lessons.”
“You are,” John agreed.
“I’m going to talk about this tonight with my wife,” Tomás said. “This metaphor of a spiral puts my efforts with her in a new perspective. It’ll give us a new way to talk about it.”
“That sounds great,” John said. “Might it help with your dinner friends as well?”
“Probably?” Tomás said slowly. “I need to consider how to do that.”
“Now, though, I’m going to spiral my way back to my office,” Tomás said with a chuckle. “Thanks so much!”
“You are very welcome,” John said in return.