Removing Our Own Barriers

I read most of You Already Know How to Be Great by Alan Fine on a recent trip.

As I noted before I started the book, I find Fine’s premise intriguing, that we create so much extraneous and destructive cognitive load for ourselves through emotion, disorganized thinking, and metacognition that we hamper our own ability to solve messy real world problems. A “quiet mind,” according to David Rock, whom Fine cites, is better at solving problems than a stressed one.

My bias going into the book, though, was that there isn’t a magic formula for complex problem solving. That problem solving skill is domain-specific and tied chiefly to domain knowledge and experience. Intelligence, problem solving strategies, stress mitigation strategies, diet, sleep, and so forth matter, of course, all else being equal, but ultimately the ability to solve problems in a particular domain is dominated by one’s depth of knowledge and one’s previous experience in that domain.

Much of this worldview was formed in the late 90s when I had the opportunity to work with David Jonassen on a project. Probably the preeminent researcher on problem solving, Jonassen described to me how decades of research has shown that teaching generic problem solving models–those that ask people to first, say, consider the cause of the problem, have little real world impact.

Unfortunately, Fine’s GROW model, which is central to his book, fits squarely in this category of generic problem solving model. With little rigorous research beyond Fine’s own anecdotal experiences, it’s unclear to me that adopting and teaching this model in an organization would create significant long term change.

Where Fine does cite research, it gets him in trouble. For instance, one sidebar refers to something I had never heard of called neuro-linguistic programming, which is the theory that people’s communication styles fall into three types: visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. Fine asserts that you can use coaching language that aligns with someone’s style to have a bigger impact–for instance, if you perceive that someone is a visual communicator, using language like “I see” will be more memorable for them. I’ve seen research providing convincing evidence for stranger things, so maybe there is something there, but a quick dive into the Wikipedia suggest neuro-linguistic programming is often upheld as pseudoscience, calling all claims into question.

I met Fine at a conference recently. He’s charming: funny, thoughtful, sincere. I have no difficult believing that as a business coach, he’s absolutely effective. What he attributes to the GROW model, though, I think can be more simply explained by what happens when stressed people take a few moments to reflect on their problems in the presence of a sincere, active listener.

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