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Keep a bit of tension!

Let' face it. Most human beings are a bit lazy. Unless there's a bit of urgency or some tension, there are a million other things demanding our attention. If the most complex thing you did today was cross the street, you probably don't have a great sense of achievement.

Similarly, in coaching or in business, there has to be a bit of a challenge. Worthwhile things are hard. That's what makes them a little scarce and therefore worth the effort. So how do you bring tension into your conversations with others? Not too much, but enough to find the edge and to help bring out their best work?

John Blakey talked about bringing tension into coaching conversations at a one of my recent executive peer group meetings. He explained that you can raise tension by holding a simple silence, putting pressure on the other person to fill the space with their ideas, suggestions or response; equally you can ease tension by summarising, or empathising.

He talked about the Yerkes–Dodson law, which looks at the correlation between the level of arousal and the level of performance. In simple terms, if I set you a sales target which is way too easy, you won't start and you probably won't try. If I set you a target that is way too hard, you'll give up without starting because there's too much tension. You need just the right amount. An engineer once told me: "all machines need friction to work. Too much and they seize up; too little and everything just slips and spins."

As a leader who is in elegant control of a conversation, you can modulate the tension to optimise the sense of urgency, importance and commitment to what is being discussed. This is one way that you can bring out the best in people. Here are some great questions you can use:

  • What would you be doing if you were taking this more seriously?

  • Who are you waiting for, to give you permission?

  • What do you think is really going on here?

  • I think you’re still holding back on something. What might that be?

  • If you accept that there will never be a 'right time', what's the minimum that you need to be in-place?

  • What's the question that you don't want me to ask?

  • What's the elephant in the room?

How will you optimise the tension in your next conversation to get the best available outcome?

The next video in the series looks at how we discover and set goals in a coaching conversation.