How I apply Indi Young’s problem space research approach in coaching my mentees

Understand your mentees deeper and go beyond ‘what went well’ and ‘what went wrong’.

Are we truly listening with empathy in our coaching? (Image by Elina on Blush)

When I first learnt about Indi Young’s Advanced Training Courses in Problem Space Research, I was intrigued by the course “Listening Deeply”. Surely, I do listen and don’t need help with that. In the past, some people have told me that I am a good listener, and friends come to me for advice when they are struggling with something. Even if I did need help with learning to listen, I was imagining a cringeworthy, team-building kind of activity where we’ll be made to feel good that we listened to each other just by being quiet and trying to see another person’s perspective. Yup, I have a bad habit of over-analysing!

So I was pleasantly surprised after signing up for Indi’s course in 2019 to learn that Listening Deeply was a skill — a well thought-out one that I can be trained in. In fact, it has become one of the most valuable skills in my work to date. I gave a talk about how listening deeply can transform you into a better designer, leader and researcher in December 2019 at Design Leadership KL.

What is this ‘magic’ of listening deeply, really?

In Indi’s own words:

Listening deeply is a powerful skill. Most people don’t realize they are listening at the surface, so the experience doesn’t seem to shift anything. — Indi Young

Before you think it’s still very mystical and unclear, here’s another one:

Listening is the foundation for inclusivity, new market opportunities, and powerful team efficiency … If a professional has the awareness to recognize then (that) they are reacting, judging, or being triggered, they can hit the mental pause button and decide what to do next. — Indi Young

How do we listen deeply, then?

In listening deeply, we look for three things in our conversations with people. More on this in #3 below. As part of the problem space research approach, these conversations are actually called ‘listening sessions’, not user interviews. I will be focusing on using ‘Listening Deeply’ in my mentoring work, as a new way of using this skill.

1. I identify the ways I already listen

When someone is talking, we are often occupied with thinking of what we want to say in response, which affects the way we listen. Adapted slides from Indi Young.

a. Thinking of what I want to say in response

Before I could listen deeply to my mentees, I need to start by being aware of the ways I listen. Very often, I find that due to the expectation of a mentor needing to provide some form of guidance to the mentees, I am occupied with thinking of what I want to say in response. Should I advise them to do this or that? But that hampers my listening and disengages me from going deeper in our conversation because I wasn’t really listening with empathy since I am distracted with all the cognition going in my mind.

b. Relationships affect the way we listen

When we are called for a meeting with our boss or manager, the way we listen would likely be different than the way we would listen to our fellow work colleagues. For example, you might be inclined to shut down mentally at the meeting when you assume (cognition happening before listening) your boss is going to go on and on about how the company is not doing well. On the other hand, you might let your guard down when talking to colleagues even in a formal meeting because you are comfortable in their presence. In such conversations, you may be more involved in listening deeper to what they are saying. I use the words ‘might’ because I know some people may be more comfortable with their bosses than their colleagues.

2. I discern surface conversations from depth

Photo by Damir Mijailovic from Pexels

Once I have identified the ways I already listen and be aware of not letting it affect my listening (it’s an ongoing journey!), I move on to discern surface conversations from depth.

Source: Indi Young

When I first saw this slide in Indi’s class, I was shocked to discover that most of my daily conversations are at a surface level. I thought that opinions would count as depth — but apparently not!

In listening deeply to my mentees, I am interested to draw out depth from our conversations — that is — their inner thinking, reactions, and guiding principles. The following are some examples of these three. It may start to sound technical here, but it really isn’t that difficult to get to depth! It is actually a really thrilling journey if you enjoy listening at depth.

a. Inner thinking/Reasoning: your thought process, why’s and wherefore’s, decision-making, and even indecision.*

Examples of inner thinking

b. Reactions: emotion or feeling that causes an action or decision or thought process.*

Examples of reactions

c. Guiding principles: rule, philosophy, or foundational instruction for making decisions.*

Examples of guiding principles

3. I get past the surface to depth

Photo by Rudolf Kirchner from Pexels

Now that I have discerned surface from depth in my conversations, how do I get to depth? Inevitably, most conversations began at a surface level, including the usual “How’s the weather?”. But it is possible to get to depth, with skill.

a. Here’s an example of a typical mentor/mentee conversation:

Mentor: How has the week been for you?

Mentee: It’s normal, I guess.

Mentor: Oh okay then. What went well and what went wrong for you?

Mentee: Generally most things went well… nothing major went wrong…

Mentor: That’s great! No major wrong is something good.

Mentee: ….

Notice that the mentee doesn’t get to depth in their conversation because:

i. The mentor already has an outline of what to expect from the conversation, which isn’t wrong, but should be flexible to allow for depth in the conversation.

ii. The mentor is contented that everything went well (cognition happening while listening) and “nothing major” went wrong. The mentor could have explored further on what the mentee meant by “nothing major” and go deeper.

iii. The mentee doesn’t have much to say once the mentor has already made the conclusion that “nothing going wrong” is good, so there’s nothing much to share further.

b. Here’s an ideal example of a conversation that tries to get from surface to depth:

Mentor: How has the week been for you?

Mentee: It’s normal, I guess.

Mentor: … you guess?

Mentee: Yeah… well… honestly, it hasn’t been easy.

Mentor: Hasn’t been easy?

Mentee: Well… I had a meeting with a stakeholder about our new project. He doesn’t seem to understand what’s important to the team. We’ve been running in circles with this new stakeholder.

Mentor: What’s important to the team…?

Mentee: He seems to play down everything the team has done, despite our best efforts to remain polite and kind towards him.

Mentor: How did you feel during that meeting?

Mentee: I feel unappreciated and my feedback on the project is not fully accepted. But now I feel like the stakeholder and I are at odds… It’s just going to be very hard to keep working with him.

Mentor: What are the things at odds …?

Here, the conversation hasn’t ended and is set to go even deeper because:

i. The mentor notices the emotion in “I guess” from the start, and dug deeper, reading between the lines.

ii. The mentor focuses on the reaction of the mentee during the meeting (a specific point in time) so that the thinking is at depth and not just the mentee’s generalisation and opinion

iii. The mentee still has much to say after this conversation because the mentor was developing empathy as the mentor listens to understand.

4. I review and comb my mentee’s journals for their reactions throughout the year

Photo by Vlada Karpovich from Pexels

Besides listening at depth, I also encourage my mentees to have a daily or weekly reflection of their work days. They can journal about anything in no particular format. Your mentee should have a close enough rapport with you to be able to write honestly even with an audience reading (you). Keep the information confidential between your mentee and you.

I have used their journals in two major ways. Firstly, their journals help me to keep track of their progress and struggles by days and weeks so I can mentor them effectively since our mentoring sessions are conducted remotely.

6. Then, I discover triggers, both good and bad, that they have experienced

An example of a journal entry

Following my previous point, the second way I use my mentees’ journal is this: at the end of the year, I comb through their journals to identify their reactions towards certain people or issues. I compile this in Google Sheets to cultivate the patterns by affinities as I learnt from Indi’s courses on Concepts and Summaries and Cultivating Patterns. You can do this on a quarterly basis too to see patterns, depending on how frequently your mentee writes. The results have been very insightful both to me and to my mentees, when we discover that they tend to react towards something or some people regularly.

7. I provide advice and guidance to overcome these triggers

Photo by slon_dot_pics from Pexels

Obviously, different mentees struggle with different things. Some may struggle with the same things but react to them differently. That is what I enjoy about listening deeply — I develop empathy towards each individual and learn to help them navigate their career in their own special way. One may be struggling with lack of trust from their leadership, while another may be struggling with not knowing how to motivate their teams.

I use a variety of approaches and methods in my mentoring. Applying problem space knowledge is a huge part of it. By noticing these regular triggers, I am able to help my mentees solve bigger root issues in their personal growth, rather than purely helping them with their day-to-day issues only.

*Source: Indi Young

By starting this series on Applying Problem Space Knowledge, I am excited to share the real impact of developing empathy at work whether in a problem space study, mentoring others, transforming work culture, and more. Already, it is changing the way I listen and relate to people.

Thanks to Indi Young for reviewing this story.



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