Teaching an executive new tricks

How can you teach someone a new behavior when that experience is totally new?

That’s a question that many of us in coaching face when we are working with individuals with brains and talent in their discipline but have little appreciation of how to connect effectively with others. This situation becomes acute when that person is promoted to management, and he or she lacks an ability to demonstrate a human connection. They end up being perceived as cold and aloof – traits that do not engender followership.

My solution is to teach them some acting skills. Good actors are always inhabiting characters different from themselves. Think of someone playing a serial killer, or another playing a neurosurgeon, two career choices outside the realm of a working actor’s repertoire. Actors look to the script to find insights and from there take on the character by adding something from their own experience as well as much from their imagination. In other words, they act out the situation.

With acting in mind, coaches can ask the executive to imagine what it is like to greet people by name, engage in conversation, ask them about their work and so forth. In the beginning, it’s an act; they are going through the motions. With practice these exercises become second nature and executives perform them without forethought.

This practice echoes a rhetorical question raised by Paul Brown, Ph.D. in a webinar on the neuroscience of coaching: are mental processes physical? In a scientific sense, they are because they are random bursts of energy coursing through synapses? In an emotional sense, they can be considered as such because they provoke feeling. Looking at mental processes as physical entities makes me think we are all acting. Not dissembling, or seeking to deceive, but rather performing actions prompted by a thought.

Whether you subscribe to these theories or not, you can train yourself to adopt new behaviors that are initially foreign.

After all, we train ourselves in to perform physical acts from running to juggling, riding a bike to hitting a golf ball. The same can apply to behavior if first, we can imagine the actions necessary to reveal it.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.

John-Baldoni_avatarBy John Baldoni

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized executive coach and author of more than a dozen books, including MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership, Lead With Purpose, Leader’s Pocket Guide, Lead Your Boss, and Great Motivation Secrets of Great Leaders. He speaks throughout North America and Europe, and he has authored more than 600 leadership columns for a variety of online publications including CBS MoneyWatch, Harvard Business Review and Forbes. Follow Baldoni on Twitter @JohnBaldoni.

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