A Coaching Power Tool created by Steve Gardner
(Executive Coaching, UNITED STATES)
Don’t bother looking it up; I know learnability isn’t a real word . . . yet. But it is a real concept, one that is both pervasive and second best. And it could be your most insidious impediment to effectiveness as a coach. After applying this concept to your personal (and coaching) growth, consider its application in determining when clients are uncoachable. You may be able to help them recognize and overcome this significant barrier. Note: Coachable and teachable are not congruous concepts, but they are close enough to be interchangeable in most of the statements below that use the word “teachable.”
How Learnable Are You?
Virtually everyone learns. Some learn very quickly. You may be fortunate enough to be in the upper echelon of quick learners. As advantageous as this is—especially prior to adulthood—it can actually work against being teachable later in life. Being high on the learnable scale and low on the teachable scale is likely to result in deteriorating performance during what should be the peak of your career.
- Are you a quick study?
- Are you an independent learner?
- Can you quickly discern whether someone else has enough knowledge to teach you?
- Do you resist change when it is not your idea?
- Does your level of interest in a topic determine your willingness to sustain a high energy level to achieve proficiency in it?
If you answered yes to these questions, you could be at risk for high learnability and low teachability.
How Teachable Are You?
- Do you listen with full concentration and openness to others?
- Do you believe you can learn something from everyone?
- Do you readily accept the validity of others’ opinions without screening them for alignment with your current position or beliefs?
- Do you examine your own thinking process to identify and separate your assumptions from facts?
- Do you have a bias to believe the claims of trustworthy people until proven false?
If you answered yes to these questions, you are likely to be very teachable—particularly if your self-assessment is verified by others.
Teachability: Path to Wisdom and Maturity as a Coach
Successful maturation is the progression from simpleton—where we all start—to wisdom. Most people have the capacity to become wise, but few achieve it. The difference between those who do and those who don’t is mostly attitude, not aptitude. Although virtually all people learn, only some are easily teachable; the rest have self-imposed restrictions on their learning that put them at a disadvantage.
- Teachability is characterized by humility and trust: open to different viewpoints, unexpected input, direction, and correction.
- Learnability is characterized by pride and fear: independent, self-sufficient, defensive, and self-limiting.
Maturing physically is autonomic, requiring no conscious effort on our part. Maturing in every other way, however, is voluntary—neither mandatory nor automatic. Many people get stuck at some point on the maturity continuum and remain there—or near that point—for the rest of their lives. This unfortunate state is preventable by consciously developing and maintaining a teachable attitude as adults.
The Decline from Teachable to Learnable
“The young mind is pliable and imitates, but in more advanced states grows rigid and must be warmed and softened before it will receive a deep impression”—Joshua Renolds. We all begin with a young mind. At birth, we are like the simpleton, and we remain that way until we develop the capacity to be teachable.
- Unaware of pride
- Open/gullible/naïve; incapable of effective listening (can’t consider well)
- Lacks capacity to think critically; accepts or rejects without reason
- Believes without verifying
This diagram illustrates the maturation path from birth through adulthood. No segment of the large arrow is intended to imply a strict relationship to physical age. The Adolescent segment is labeled in a somewhat age-related way simply because it marks a typical transition from naturally teachable to something less than naturally teachable. The unlabeled segments represent the passage of time en route to wisdom for the teachable individual. Adulthood is not labeled, because achieving physical adulthood does not necessarily equate with either the pursuit or achievement of wisdom.
“Childlike” (in the diagram) is not “childish.” Being childlike is an important characteristic of a grower; being childish is a pejorative label for someone stuck in immaturity.
Most of us are relatively teachable for at least a few years in early life. Then somewhere in preadolescence—often around fifth or sixth grade—our paths begin to diverge. Between then and young adulthood, education and experience combine to move us in different directions, away from teachability.
What happens there? What deep beliefs are formed that need to be examined, challenged, and replaced to return us to the young mind (childlike, not childish or simpleton) state?
One major development is the growth of distrust. We are taught to fear and distrust things that could be harmful. Unfortunately, our underdeveloped state of discernment often distorts what is intended to be a prudent fear and distrust. When we apply fear and distrust indiscriminately, they become toxic. The columns below show how normal warnings to develop prudence can become unhealthy fear and distrust, moving us away from teachability toward learnability.
Relatively prudent fear and distrust:
- Don’t talk to strangers or get in their car.
- Don’t believe everything you hear/read.
- History is written by the victor (with a bias.)
- Show me. Prove it.
- Money talks; talk walks.
- If all your friends jump off a bridge…
- Everyone has an agenda.
Indiscriminate fear and distrust:
- Never trust anyone you don’t know.
- Don’t believe anything without proof.
- All accounts of history are unreliable.
- Never accept anything as true until proven…
- Money is the ultimate standard of value & truth.
- Independent thought is the highest standard.
- Everyone’s agenda is counterproductive to you.
The most extreme reaction to education and experience is to move in the direction of the proverbial scorning fool (shown in red below – moving away from wisdom). Such a person, although wise in his own eyes, can remain stuck in a lifetime of childish immaturity, never approaching his potential in either relationships or accomplishments.
- Stubbornly independent
- Proud of pride; pride beyond control
- Closed to new ideas; rejects input that conflicts with current opinion; listens poorly
- Does not think critically
- Rejects without verifying
Most people, however, do not go to the extreme of the scorning fool. Instead, they become merely learnable (shown in the graphic below as moving toward wisdom but with a hard stop later in life).
- Independent (not submissive)
- Uncontrolled pride (may be unaware of it)
- Limited openness creates barrier to growth; listens partially
- Limited critical thinking (uses a tight filter to reject ideas that conflict with an internal standard (assumptions, beliefs, experience)
- Verifies with bias to disbelieve
Although people with a learnable attitude advance toward wisdom, their independence and limited openness create a barrier that arrests their growth. Patterns that may have been successful earlier in life are incapable of taking them to advanced stages.
Because we are all a combination of being learnable and teachable, we recognize that this, too, is a continuum. The learnable/teachable category represents the part of the continuum where learnability and teachability are relatively balanced. This category advances beyond the merely learnable and includes those who are consciously regaining teachability (noted by the blue line’s ups and downs).
- Selectively submissive
- Pride under control
- Selectively open; listens better when motivated
- Inconsistent critical thinking
- Verification bias vacillates depending on surroundings (friends, etc.)
A fully teachable person gains wisdom throughout life at a rate likely to exceed those who are learnable/teachable—even those with greater capacity.
- Willingly submissive
- Open; listens well
- Relatively consistent critical thinking
- Verifies with bias to believe
What keeps us from being fully teachable? Once we appreciate its value and understand its characteristics, what obstacles threaten to impede our progress?
The Role of Self-deception
Most of us do not see ourselves as prideful, closed, poor listeners who make inferior decisions because of our independence and lack of critical thinking. Because we don’t intend to be any of these things, we fail to see (or we excuse) their presence in our behavior. But since we all exhibit these liabilities to some degree, we are self-deceived: we don’t know what we look like.
James (in the Bible) highlights this common malady: “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (James 1:23-24).
This self-deception may be rooted in a pattern of pursuing knowledge without practice as James suggests, or it may be rooted in a lack of submissive obedience or diligence. Many of your negative characteristics are blind spots to you even though they may be painfully obvious to others around you.
Unfortunately, your peers are unlikely to help the situation. Sometimes they lack the discernment to relate your symptoms to their root cause. Other times they don’t want to risk the discomfort of confronting you—even though their confrontation would be motivated by love and concern.
So how can you overcome self-deception and bring blind spots into focus? You need assistance from others. You need their eyes—their perspective on your behavior—to help you see the flaws in your self-interpretation. Getting this assistance is not always easy, however, because if you are normal, you probably often respond with defensiveness or a misguided counter attack. Humility is the key: humility to request the assistance of others and humility to respond to their assistance in a healthy way.
Resistance to Change
Resistance to change is another hallmark of those who are low on the teachability scale. All coaching is done for the purpose of producing change, change in knowledge, beliefs, or behaviors. When clients are unwilling to embrace change—regardless of how uncomfortable it may be in the moment—they fail to make progress in closing the gap between their present reality and their desired reality.
Sometimes their resistance is a lack of confidence. Sometimes it is a lack of desire or a weak desire that is overpowered by a competing commitment. Sometimes it is a lack of discipline. Sometimes it is a lack of vision—not enough clarity in the goal and the steps required to get there. Perhaps the most common is the fear of failure. Regardless of what underlies their resistance to change, the result is the same: they become uncoachable.
Need to Be “Right”
People who place a high value on being “right” are usually trying to protect an image. Believing that others value them only to the degree that they can maintain their “perfect” image, they deceive themselves into thinking that others accept their image as reality. Their need to maintain this image causes them to reject anything—including new information or a competing opinion—that they think will threaten it.
Unfortunately, this self-protective maneuver greatly increases their risk of being closed, which damages much more than just their image. Sometimes referred to as “know it alls,” they would never claim to know it all; they just want you and everyone else to believe they know more than you. This makes it difficult for them to be coachable.
Getting Beyond Resistance to Change and the Need to Be “Right”
How do you get beyond these barriers? By choosing to return to the “young mind,” the childlike state that is open to change and unconcerned with image management.
Jesus addressed the need in adults to return to a former, healthier attitude. “He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’” (Matthew 18:2-4).
Are you childlike, or have you become childish? Regardless of your age, one of these descriptors is appropriate. If the word “childlike” seems offensive to you, you may be closer to the childish state of learnability than you realize.
Can you identify people whom you disregard or to whom you listen half-heartedly because you have determined they have nothing substantial to offer you? Being fully teachable means recognizing that you can learn from anyone at any time—regardless of whether they have superior knowledge or employ your favorite learning style.
To go a step further, anyone to whom you do not listen is someone to whom you are not teachable. To listen is to submit your mind to the discipline of suspending disbelief. You can receive and fully accept someone’s message for the purpose of understanding it (and understanding the person) without regard to the truth or accuracy of the message. This is suspending disbelief until the appropriate time—after you’ve fully understood the message.
Two additional components of being fully coachable relate to endurance.
- Persistence: the quality of continuing steadily despite problems or difficulties.
- Resilience: the ability to recover quickly from setbacks.
Both of these are necessary to maintain full coachability and the most direct path to positive change.
As a coach, you will be confronted with clients all along the teachable/coachable versus learnable continuum. Fortunately, most people who voluntarily sign up for coaching recognize a need for change; that’s half the battle. Helping them become fully coachable is a valuable skill, as is discernment to know when to discontinue a coaching relationship because of uncoachability.