Oh, I do beg your pardon. I never use an expression like that to people. I apologize for using it (apparently) to you. I do use it, but only to myself, never to others. I’m a mentor-coach and so people are asking me for advice all the time. I try to stop doing so when I think I am giving them too much advice. Older people like me have lots of experience and we are keen to pass it on – but we know we can’t pass it on if we just talk at people. People don’t take in much of what you tell them. They take in everything they discover for themselves.
Socrates was probably the first person to make it clear that teaching was not as good as learning. He studied the philosophy of knowledge four centuries BC. In the process he learnt that transferring knowledge was a complex business. Unlike firing a rifle, knowledge transfer requires significant participation from the receiver and, generally, the greater the receiver’s input the better the knowledge is transferred.
I knew someone like Socrates, although I’m not that old. He was a farm hand in Dorset, England in 1949. He was called ‘Old Charl’, because there was a younger Charlie in the team, too. I thought Old Charl was quite old but I expect he was only fifty five or thereabouts. We worked together and he, and his fellow farmhands, taught me massive lessons it might have taken me a lifetime to learn otherwise. The ones I remember mostly were the territoriality of man, the beauty of nature, the joy of hard physical work, the pleasure of perfection in what you do, the concept of reciprocity, the kindness of the poor. An education in itself.
Old Charl and his colleagues asked me questions, not to catch me out but to let me find the answers for myself. Perhaps that’s why they made such a permanent impression on me. Their lasting calm and their enduring kindness were a sort of holiness greater than any you can find in a church. They made as big an impression on a young man as anything else I did for learning. They never said ‘Shut up’, never needed bad language to make a point. They were the point.
So when someone with a raft of experience wants to mentor-coach a younger person she or he must put up two notices in front of them. One, in big, red letters must say SHUT UP and they must read and apply once every three minutes when they are dealing with a client / mentee / protege. It reminds them that about 10% of what they’re saying is actually received. When their client is talking s/he is receiving 100%. It is certainly a paradox and there is one situation when it reaches its climax – when you are being interviewed for a job.
Those who simply answer the questions put to them by their interviewer(s) will lose the job to the person who asks intelligent questions of their interviewers. Because the purpose of the interview is to find out if the applicant is going to make a substantial contribution to the organisation s/he is joining. They can only establish that if the applicant engages with them, Engagement is asking questions. Good questions, mind, not stupid time-wasting questions.
So a good mentor-coach encourages his clients to seek from him or her the knowledge and wisdom they need. When they ask the right questions the words flow, sometimes so much that the notice has to be read. What about when they ask the wrong questions? Then their first lesson has to be in framing the right ones. And that requires you to think of the other person, not of yourself. When it is you who is learning, this is quite tricky, but attainable with practice.
Knowing the need for engagement is the first step. Which brings us to the second message to be stuck in front of you, alongside SHUT UP. Can you guess it?
SMILE, of course. Engagement with another is only sealed when we smile. Our smile is the one thing we have that is perfect.
And fortunately always remains so.