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Are You Too Smart? by Alva Brown

by | Alva Brown, In the Magazine

I’ve witnessed it time and time again a bright and sincere coach derailed by the very assets that were key to their success.

Aside from raw intellectual horsepower, these assets were the Winning Strategies we all employed to transport us from entry-level to A-Player.  While these nuggets of wisdom may not have been plucked from the works of Stephen Covey, they got us ahead.

Today we strive to be Trusted Advisors, the pinnacle of our profession. We help our clients navigate complex business (and sometimes personal) issues.  We call upon a lifetime of relevant experiences and package them for external consumption.  For many of us, this is where we begin to stumble.  This is where we unwittingly short-change the very people we aim to serve.  Instead of giving our clients the gift of self-discovery and the satisfaction that comes with solving a puzzle, we blurt out what we “know” to be the solution.  There it is, without warning, our strength has become our weakness.

Who could blame us?  Since childhood, we’ve been rewarded for demonstrating our mastery of a subject, for raising our hand before anyone else when we know the answer.  That’s what got us an “A” in Mrs. Graham’s math class, what got us that scholarship to Kantt Affordum University (Go Bears!), and what secured the very first promotion that changed our lifestyle.

Experienced coaches have seen a lot of “movies” with essentially the same plot, which compels us to unleash our inner-movie critic and instantly dissect its flaws.  We rush to judgment thereby demonstrating our immutable expertise. Unfortunately, our client has just begun telling us their story. Imagine saying to them “I know how your movie ends!  You can stop talking now.  Here’s what you need to do!” 

I’ll grant you this metaphor is a bit labored, but my point is crucial.  We must not allow our biases, informed as they may be, to prevent us from listening.  When we rush to judgment without a thorough exploration of what our clients are experiencing, we risk missing those critical plot twists that could enable the breakthrough conversations we relish.  Plus, it’s just plain impolite.

“A pioneer is a brave fellow, with the courage of his own curiosity.”

Hendrik Willem van Loon

I believe all great coaches exhibit a high degree of client-centered curiosity.  This is a by-product of their core desire to forge deep, lasting relationships.  To me, these folks resemble wilderness pioneers.  They would rather explore the unknown more than just brainstorm solutions.

For those of us who may have been derailed by our gifts.

Two remedies

First, become more of an explorer.  Be careful, though.  You need “permission” to go digging around your client’s sock drawer.  I found this out the hard way when, in my first meeting with a new client, I asked a very sensitive question about his finances.  Meeting over.  If I had invested more time and effort building credibility and trust with this person, the intent behind my question would have been clearer … and certainly better received.

My second suggestion is an epilogue to my first.  Simply put:  Ask versus Tell.  For example, instead of saying “You’re obviously feeling better!” ask “How are you feeling?”  Or instead of “What you need is a complete redesign,” try “Have you considered taking a different approach to this problem?”

Telling tends to shorten conversations while asking invites dialogue, which is far more likely to produce client-led breakthroughs.

Here I go inviting you to ask more questions, based entirely on my assumption that you’re a decent listener.  One day I’ll write an essay on what I call “Generous Listening,” a technique that improved nearly every facet of my life, my marriage included. 

Until I get pen to paper on that topic, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite acronyms: WAIT.  It stands for “Why-Am-I-Talking?” This is an ideal conversation helper for listening-impaired coaches, especially those who feel the need to obliterate every moment of silence in a conversation.  When your client is silent, maybe it’s because they’re thinking, which, after all, is our job.  Right?

Alva Brown

Alto Business Academy



 About Alva Brown

I’m helping business owners and executives blow growth-inhibiting plaque out of critical operating systems. My company, Alto Business Solutions, uses process blueprinting, optimization, and automation techniques to help our clients achieve the holy grail of business operations… Better, Faster, Cheaper. I’m leveraging over 25 years of successful business leadership to increase clients’ return on invested capital.

Process problems in a business show up as inconsistent service quality, simple tasks that take too long and generate too many mistakes, unhappy employees, and disappointing margin growth. If your organization is facing these or other operational challenges, contact me at to learn how I’ve created solutions that make businesses easier to grow and easier to sell.

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