An Interview With Chris Coffey (Part 1)

Feb 16

Chris Coffey has been successfully working with clients in the Fortune 100 for more than 30 years, and he doesn’t get paid unless there is a positive change in behavior that’s sustainable, recognized, and acknowledged by others.

His journey to becoming a noted executive coach, keynote speaker, and trainer was certainly far from the norm, as he started with law school and an acting career.

In 1980, Chris was hired to work for Dr. Paul Hersey at the Center for Leadership Studies, where he delivered Situational Leadership seminars to Fortune 50 companies. His stage and movie experience proved extremely useful in teaching and presenting, and he had finally found his calling. While at the Center for Leadership, Chris met Frank Wagner and Marshall Goldsmith, and by 1984, he was fully engaged in consulting as a member of the prestigious Keilty, Goldsmith & Boone firm, where he delivered the Excellent Manager Program and worked with Marshall and Frank in pioneering the use of 360-degree feedback.

Through the ensuing years, his life’s work became about focusing on “Helping Successful People Get Even Better.”

With the release of his insightful new book, “The New IQ,” Chris and his co-author David Lam share Chris’ methodology and some immediately useable techniques that can literally change your life and turn confrontational situations into truly productive outcomes. As David himself says in the student introduction to the book, “Chris’ methodology works. I thought it was amazing when I first started learning with Chris, and it just keeps getting better.”

I recently asked Chris to sit down with me to talk more about his new book and to share the foundational elements of Innovative Questions so that you too can learn how to become even more successful and have more productive conversations. I feel very fortunate to have met Chris and to be able to share with you Part One of our two-part conversation. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Susan Gilell-Stuy: I’d like to begin our conversation with what led to your writing The New IQ and what made this the right topic and the right time.

Christopher Coffey: I would say probably in the early 2000s, Marshall Goldsmith was really pushing me to write. And it was interesting, as my response was always, and forget your political persuasion, that Socrates, Jesus, and Buddha if you think of it from a world point of view, have certainly influenced and impacted our world. And I said to him as far as I know, none of them have written anything. And fortunately, Socrates had Plato and Aristotle, Jesus had Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and Paul went out and sold it, and Confucius has his students who captured everything. So I said so why don’t you write and just let me go teach? I said there are 2 ways you can do this: You can be the candle, or you can be the mirror that reflects it. So let me just be the mirror that reflects, and you write.

But then, over the years, people kept pushing me to do it. And the seminal moment came over lunch with a former student of mine named David Lam, who’s my co-author of the book. David would call me periodically, and we’d have lunch, and he’d have an issue he wanted to talk about, and he said to me, “You know, you ought to write a book,” and he was about the third person in a month who said that. And I said, “David, I’m not going to write a book. First of all, I’m too lazy, it’s hard work, and I’m not a writer. You know, I don’t want to put that much effort in.” And that was the end of the conversation. Then about two weeks later, I got an email with about twelve written pages, and he said, “You know, whenever I’m with you, I just capture things that you say,” and he said, “Why don’t we collaborate on this? And let me interview you, and you talk, and I’ll write, and you edit, and let’s see if we can come up with something.”

So I said we needed to come up with a theme. And the theme really was: student/teacher. It’s my process and my philosophy of how to do this, and he was the guy that execute. He doesn’t do what I do—he’s an IT guy—so it was an interesting collaboration. I think the stars just lined up.

SGS: The structure of the book is based on the idea of student/teacher with you in the role of teacher and David as a student. How does the theme of student/teacher fit with coach/client or leader/team member?

CC: I think David would always think of himself as a student of mine: he was the CIO at Stephen S Wise Temple at the time. And he’d run into problems with people and what have you. And I’d say it’s not much dissimilar than anyone who I worked with as a coach who’d say, “You know what, I want to write an article about having worked with you,” which is what they do at the end of a coaching engagement when they write their after-action review.

There are four questions: What’d you set out to do? What happened and why? What insights have you gotten? And what are you going to do to maximize this investment of time and money you put into working with me? And they write it.

And I find that to be the most rewarding part of my job when people call and say, “Let me tell you how my life’s been different because of something we discussed or my working with you.”

SGS: You have had unique and varied life experiences and careers that have contributed to the person/coach you are today. What I would like people reading this post to understand is: How they shaped your thinking, defined your core philosophy, and led to your passion for helping already successful leaders become even more successful?

CC: Well, I guess everything starts with the family. I was raised Irish Catholic. My mother ran the place. What my mother said went, and that was it. She would say, “You do this, and I’m going to tell your father.” Well, I wasn’t afraid of my father—it was my mother who I was afraid of. It was interesting when I got out of the little Catholic grammar school; the principal went to see my parents and said, “If you let him go to the local public high school, you’re quite likely to have a juvenile delinquent on your hands. He’s the class clown, and he could go in a positive direction or a negative direction. We’ve all certainly seen both of those.” So they suggested they get me down to a Jesuit prep school, which I didn’t particularly want to go to, but I did. I was an athlete, and it was a great school to be an athlete in.

Then I had a teacher senior year in prep school. His name was John McLaughlin, and some people knew him from the McLaughlin Group on television. He’s been around for years. He was my homeroom teacher senior year. And he said to me, “You’re going to be a teacher.” Everyone thought I was going to be an attorney. I was on the debating team. I did all of those things. I loved to argue. I loved to win debates. And when he said, “You’re going to be a teacher,” I thought he was crazy.

So I went on to college and majored in Philosophy and Marketing. Did the Navy. I was a typically lost soul of the 60s. Became a ski bum in Aspen. Started law school. And then became an actor and lived in New York. And I think the acting skill of learning to be a character, think like a character, what’s the behavior you want, who’s the protagonist, who’s the antagonist, all of those things. And then, in 1980, I met Paul Hersey at The Center for Leadership Studies. And I started to teach Situational Leadership and did stand-up leadership training for 20 years. That’s where I met Marshall Goldsmith and Frank Wagner. I taught at companies like IBM, McKinsey and Company, and Citibank. And that’s pretty much what led me to my philosophy of life. You’ve probably seen in some of my emails my sign-off, “Learn as if you’re going to live forever. Live as if you’re going to die tomorrow, and be happy now,” and they’re not hollow words for me. I try to live my life that way. I think I have a moral responsibility to my family to be happy and optimistic.

SGS: I know you’re an avid golfer and that you frequently use golf to illustrate concepts when you speak, teach and coach. Jack Nicklaus is often quoted as saying, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” How does practice as a leader develop the leader’s skills? What have you learned about life from golf?

CC: Well, I took up golf seriously at the age of 60. And I’ve become much better. I’d grown up as a caddie as a kid, but I never played at all. I was a basketball player then, so golf was really never something I got into until really late in life. So I went down to take a golf lesson because I like to get better at things, and everyone kept saying to me, “You’ve got potential, you’ve got potential.” And either you turn potential into skill and ability, or it becomes unrecognized potential.

I went down to the golf pro somebody recommended and hit a few balls, and he looked at me and said, “You’ve never had a lesson?” And I said, ”No, with pride,” and he said, “It shows.” And then he said to me: “How good of a golfer do you want to be?” And I thought, “Wow,” what a great question, and it’s one that I use all the time in my coaching, and then I said, “I want to be a single-digit handicap and be able to play to it, but I don’t have the time. I work full time; I have a family, lots of excuses like most people.”

Well, when you think about practice: repeated, focused, purposeful attention, perfect practice makes you as close to perfect as you’re going to get. All of us have little bits of time during the day that we just let slip away, and I made a commitment to see how good I could become. And I went from shooting bogey and double bogey golf to a seven handicap, and I’m a pretty good golfer, and I work at it. And now, this year, even after shoulder surgery, I want to get it down to a five handicap. I like to get better at things. That’s just my DNA. If I’m going to do something, I want to do it as well as I can.

So with anything, find good instruction—learn from that. Then practice. This is the mantra I tell leaders that I’m coaching.

I had one person who was a Chief Financial Officer, and he said to me, you know, “How good of a leader do I need to be?” And I said,“Only good enough for me to get paid from my point of view.” I coach and work with people for at least a year, and I don’t get paid until the end of the engagement, and that’s only if they improve, as seen by others. I’m sure we’ll get to that later on.

So I said to him, “Just good enough for you to get better, but that’s not the right question though,” I said, “The right question is how good of a leader do you want to be?” just like “How good of a golfer do you want to be?” or “How good of a skier do you want to be?” “How good of a parent do you want to be?” “How good of a collaborator do you want to be?” “Do you want to be seen as a good collaborator?” And these are questions that one person can’t answer for the other. You can ask questions, but you can’t answer them for people.

And I think too many coaches try to answer them for people, and I don’t do that. So with golf, I keep the clubs in the car, I’ll stop for 15 or 20 minutes, and I’ll practice different parts of the game. It’s just like communication: it’s the short game, inside 40 yards, chipping, putting. There are many, many aspects of golf, just as there are in communicating. And which ones are you good at? Which ones do you want to get better at? And if you do, how will that improve the overall skill? So the bottom line is repeated, purposeful, focused attention. And I tell people that it takes courage and discipline—discipline primarily and follow through.

SGS: Please share with the readers a little bit about how you began working with leaders, how your methodology and approach evolved, and when you found it most rewarding.

CC: Well, I’ve been doing this since 1980. In 1980 I got recruited—it was a seminal moment in my life—I was an actor in Los Angeles and doing OK. Quite frankly, I was a little bored. I’d moved out of New York. We had our first child in 1980. And then, I met Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard of Situational Leadership. And what’s changed when you project back that far is that companies just didn’t do leadership training very much back then. At the time, they were putting Paul Hersey on ¾” videotape. This was before VHS or Beta or any of that. And I taught Situational Leadership at IBM. Probably who better than an actor to bring this stuff to life? Hersey was the content guru with the videotapes. So I was hired to do that, as was Frank Wagner and Marshall Goldsmith and all the rest of us.

And over the next 20 years, it evolved. I started my own company in 1986 with a couple of other guys. And we basically taught Situational Leadership, The Excellent Manager, DNA teams, Influence Without Authority—all these different workshops—we were pioneers with 360-degree feedback. In fact, our company was the first one to put it online in 1991 with Silicon Graphics. So for the first 20 years, it was stand up, teaching, and giving people 360-degree feedback, helping them develop a plan, collecting them, and saying goodbye. I think the mistaken belief was, “If they understand, they will do.”

And then, around 2000, Marshall Goldsmith and I and Frank Wagner reconnected. Agilent was splitting off from Hewlett Packard, Jack Welch was leaving GE, and everyone knew that there were seven internal candidates for Jack Welch’s job at GE, and then a new word came into our lexicon called “bench strength.” GE was reputed to be three-deep at the top 300 spots, and so everybody started to think about bench strength and succession planning, and coaching really started to take off. Marshall Goldsmith got a contract with Agilent to coach 24 high-potential individuals. And he and I talked, and he said, “I would like you to take 4 of these people.” And I said, “Well, what am I going to do with them?” And he said, “We’ll make it up as we go.”

So it evolved into the Stakeholder Centered Coaching process like the one we do today. In a nutshell, it’s active involvement of stakeholders, and a measurement tool, which we call a mini-survey, after a leader picks a couple of key skills to work on: delegate, collaborate, hold people accountable, and focus on what’s most important. Whatever it is—based on feedback, interviews, or however you get to it. Engage stakeholders, and measure it. Frank, Marshall, and I are the three people that still do it. There may be some others. And, you know, we don’t get paid until the end, and we only get paid if there’s improvement seen by the stakeholders.

So I think the change is that companies have gone from “Let’s train everybody” to “Where are we going to get the biggest return for the money we invest?” The whole high potential movement came in, and one of the ways I describe what we do is, “How do we help shorten peoples’ learning curve?” And I love when somebody says, “Well, this will come with maturity, and maturity will come with time.” And my response to that is, “The only thing that comes from time is age—not wisdom.”

SGS: How do you view the role of the coach in the Stakeholder Centered Coaching process and coaching in general?

CC: So part of the job as a good coach and part of the reason for writing the book is “How do you shorten peoples’ learning curve?” I think too often with self-help books, which is probably the category mine would be put in; people dismiss them as just being common sense. I love when someone says, “I’ve heard that before.” Using golf again as an analogy, you can understand a golf swing. It’s not hard to understand—you can read Golf Magazine ad nauseam. But the ability to go out and execute a shot is a different story, so understanding doesn’t mean you have the ability—it just means you understand.

SGS: You’ve mentioned that the belief with respect to leadership development was: “If they know and believe, then they’ll do” and that you learned through experience more than understanding was required. Would you say that The Stakeholder Centered Coaching process and your new book The New IQ really give people the structure needed and practice needed to move beyond just understanding to really implement the behavioral changes needed to become more successful?

CC: I think so. I mean, that’s the feedback we get from people who do the two-day certification. They come out and say, “You’ve given me a new perspective.” I think too often, coaches make it about themselves. I have this degree—I have that. I have this credential—I have that. As an example, for one of my engagements, I did not get paid—I refused the money back in 2001. The reason was I thought I could get an adult to do something when that adult didn’t want to do it. You can get them to do it if you have the position power to make them do it for a period of time. But it won’t last. They won’t sustain it unless they see the value in it themselves.

SGS: I know that you and Marshall say that client selection is key relative to how much success you have as a coach. What is the most important element for you in choosing a client to work with or that a leader should look for when using your methods with a team member?

CC: If you’re not going to get paid until the end, and only if there’s an improvement, client selection is absolutely imperative. And that’s why on the front end, we make the effort to say, “You say you want to collaborate more effectively—what’s in it for you, and what’s the benefit?” The way I describe myself as a coach I say, “I help successful people have a positive change in behavior that’s sustainable, and that’s recognized and acknowledged by others.” And if you dissect that sentence, there is a lot in it. But they have to be able to articulate to me why they want to do this. Why do you want to lose weight? Why do you want to stop drinking? Why do you want to be a better collaborator? Why do you want to be a better decision-maker? Why do you want to be seen as someone that takes more appropriate risks?

They have to be able to viscerally feel it and articulate it to me before we move on. That’s how I judge their commitment to do it. Three words that I use to describe it: it takes courage, discipline, and humility. The courage to be able to say to a group of people, “As good as I am, I’d like to be more effective at fill-in-the-blank.” Collaborate. Delegate. Listen. Do you have self-control? Do you have self-discipline? I think the discipline to follow through is key to everything.

SGS: How important is long-term commitment on the part of the leader being coached and the leader implementing your strategies to the success of the process?

CC: It’s critical all the way through. I would make the case that the first 20 years of doing this, coming out of a workshop—let’s say you have 20 people in front of you. I would say probably 80% of those people have the commitment at that moment. They walk out of there saying, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to give it a try.” But then it wanes. I think everyone who joins a health club on January 1st with a New Year’s resolution is committed at the moment, or they wouldn’t have gone in and spent the money. How do you sustain it, though?

SGS: How do you help your clients maintain the momentum needed to move forward and sustain the changes they make? What can leaders learn about change from this that will help them more broadly?

CC: Well, part of our approach to working with an executive is that we work with them for a year; we don’t get paid for a year—we only get paid if they improve. So at the beginning, it’s easy: you interview, you come up with a whole bunch of stuff, you do the interview 360, they pick a couple of things, you get suggestions from the stakeholders, you build an action plan, you share the action plan with the stakeholders, and you say, “Hold them accountable to doing these things.”

There are three ways to be a coach. You can be a scorekeeper, a referee, or a real advisor. The scorekeeper just says monthly, you have to check in with the stakeholders, and ask if they’ve noticed a difference or if they have any suggestions moving forward. The referee may chastise somebody and say, “Look, you said you were going to do this, don’t blow smoke up my nose, are you committed to doing it?” And they call people on things that they said they were going to do that they don’t. And then ultimately, if you get to be an advisor or confidant to them, they really trust when you’re making suggestions on how to do things. And I know there’s a lot of coaching out there that says, “A coach never makes suggestions—you just help them discover it themselves.” But I have a different philosophy.

You ask a few questions. That’s what my book is all about. But ultimately, speed is the new currency of business, and if you can help people shorten their learning curve, you make suggestions. So I think part of the answer is, as a coach, it’s your job to keep people’s feet to the fire. And that’s part of what the Stakeholder Centered Coaching process teaches people what to do and how to do it. And it’s not time-consuming—that’s what executives love. I mean, we have 1500 coaches around the world doing this now.

SGS: I’d like you to tie the Stakeholder Centered Coaching methodology to the ideas and concepts in your book. I see these two as highly complementary. The book contains a lot of tips and nuggets that I thought complemented the program well and even deepened the process. How do you see the two going hand-in-hand and working together? How can a leader reading the book execute the strategies and tips?

CC: You know, Marshall had written What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, and he lists all those unrecognizable habits: adding too much value, passing judgment, making excuses. And then Triggers—I had the good fortune as Marshall was writing Triggers to get different chapters and what have you, and he really gets into talking about, “What are the things inside of us that lead to certain behaviors, and what are external triggers, stimulus, that get us to react certain ways?” And what I really thought about this book is, “How do we really take it down to the micro level to help people execute on all these?” So someone in an action plan may say, “Build consensus.” But that’s really a goal. An ideal final result is that people see you as somebody who can help build consensus and get people committed to move in a certain direction.

So what are questions you could ask to build consensus? Somebody may be talking about something, and you’re listening, and you don’t really agree. And so a question you might ask is, “Well, is that your opinion? Or do you have some empirical data to back that up?” Now if people think your intention of asking that is to belittle them, then that’s a problem. If people see you asking that question, you say, “Well, I don’t see it the way you do.” So all the way through the book, it’s about, “What’s a question you would ask, or a statement you would make, to create a safe space for both you and your conversational partner to come up with better decisions?” I think the book really gets down to the micro level. And I think in the back of it there are about 10 pages of questions. People often will say to me, “Well, these just a roll of your tongue,” and I say, “My ad-libbed lines are well rehearsed,” to quote a line from a Rod Stewart song. Everything I say, I’ve said a million times. Most of us don’t say anything really original. We’ve said it before. That’s not criticism—it’s just an observation.

So how do you get people to ask good questions? Someone says, “We’re going to need to be successful on this,” and I agree with you. Instead of starting with what you disagree with—what do you agree with? For instance, I may say some things, and I’d say to somebody, “Now, before you tell me what you disagree with, what is it that I just said that you agree with?” It totally changes the likely response you would’ve gotten from them, and you’re building off the positive versus the negative. And let me be clear: These are all learned skills for Chris Coffey. I wasn’t raised this way—I was raised as a debater to tell me, “Let me tell you where you’re wrong.” Or when somebody says, “I agree with you,” I say, “Well, of course, you know, you’re smart, and I’m smart, and I can tell you’re smart because you agree with me.” I mean, you can get into that mindset also. Or you can say, “You know, in listening to you, I agree with A, B, and C. You and I are in sync on that. But with D, I don’t see how D gets us from here to the desired result we said we wanted. What am I missing?” There’s the question. Then you toss it back to them to clarify.

Now the magic sauce in this, as I articulate in the book and in classes that I do, is you have to be open to changing your mind. And I will say that the level of individuals I work with, successful people, smart people, very often the most powerful person in the room—getting that individual to be open to changing their mind can be huge. And this is the way the whole book is laid out, to really get down to that micro level of behaviors. All we humans deal with three things: We think, we feel, and we behave. That’s it. Thinking can’t be seen. And you can’t see feelings—you can only see a behavior that’s been a result of a feeling. For example, you see somebody who’s really sad. What is it about their demeanor or what they’re saying, or their tone of voice that leads you to believe they’re sad?

SGS: Being open to changing the way you think about things is key to success in changing behavior. How do you determine if a leader is open to changing their mind? What should people look for in others that show them the other person is receptive to changing their mind? What might be the challenge they face in having this type of conversation?

CC: Depending on the person sitting in front of you, I might say to somebody, “When was the last time that you changed your mind?” Here’s an example everyone can understand, and this will certainly date what’s going on: We have Presidential Debates going on, and Donald Trump is leading on the Republican side. Staying out of politics and which way I lead is irrelevant here; the question I would ask Donald Trump: “You’ve been a very successful businessman, and you’ve made that point. You build golf courses. You build buildings. When is the last time somebody around you has gotten you to change your mind?” And see if he can come up with an answer. They asked Ben Carson yesterday on a talk show, “What would you do with this problem that’s just happened in Paris?” I don’t know what he said. I didn’t see it. I just knew that he was on, and he was going to be asked that question.

But I think the answer is he’s a neurosurgeon. I think anybody on that stage would say, “I would call on our military experts. They’re the subject matter experts on this. And if we want to win this war, if we’re going to declare ourselves a war with ISIS, you’re the subject matter experts, so talk to me. “What should we do?” Which is exactly what John Kennedy did for The Cuban Missile Crisis after the disaster of The Bay of Pigs the year before. So you have to know what you have subject matter expertise about. Surround yourself with smart people and listen to them. But also relate your decision.

Now so often, and back to corporate America, if you move up in corporate America, it’s because you’re good in the discipline you’re in. I’m working with two Senior Vice Presidents right now—one in IT and one in Systems Engineering—and the two different Presidents that they report to. In my interview with them, one of the Presidents said, “If they continue to do what they did as Vice Presidents, and they were extremely successful Vice Presidents, they will fail at the Senior VP level.” So I said tell me more. And he said, “They were the go-to in Technical, both in Engineering and IT. They’re brilliant. But now they have a seat at the big table. Both of them need to see the big picture more. They need to be able to discuss, debate, and present points of view about their field. They also have to have a broader understanding of the economics of it, the finances of it, and the marketing of it. There’s the big table.”

So back to What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, it tends to be the people skills. Do you have what it takes as you move up to be able to disagree without being disagreeable to ask those good questions? I was a single father for 10 years. I had my children half the time, and their mother had them half the time. My son, who was 8 at the time, would come in, and he’d start barking about something he wanted to do. And I’d let him get all the air out, and then I’d say, “Now Christopher, what do you think the likelihood of you getting what you want is, from me, with that approach? Is it high or low?” And he’d look at me and say, “Low.” So I’d say, “I suggest you walk back out that door, you think about what you want, you think about what’s important to me. What is it that I’m going to need to see in order for me to be willing to let you do what you want to do?” And he’d walk out and come back in, and it’d be amazing to see the difference in his approach. And then I’d ask questions, and I’d always look for one to say, “You know, I’m not quite clear on this. You’re going to need to give me a little bit more on this one.” And it’s fascinating watching an 8 or 9-year-old figure those things out.

Now the key is not just for me as a father of an 8 and 11-year-old at the time, for a Senior Vice President, when somebody’s coming in who’s saying, “I’m not sure this is the right way to go and let me tell you why,” how open are you to changing your mind? Do you really look for opportunities to defer to somebody else’s point of view? Because once you get a reputation of, “It’s his way, he’s thought it through, he’s smart,” well, why do I need to prepare to come to this meeting? The guy knows what he’s going to do. I have other things I can focus on. Yet if you know that that person’s going to say, “I agree with A and B. But I don’t see C the same way. Convince me. I’m open,” you’d come more prepared. There are the things to put focus on, what I put focus on in my coaching, and so much of the book is getting down to what are those questions. On a scale of 1 to 10, if you could wave a magic wand, what could you do differently? Shut up and listen. That’s what’s fun.

SGS: I know that argumentation is one of your areas of expertise, and you subtly talked about it and demonstrated how you practiced it in how you dealt with your children and senior leaders with whom you work. What strategies and concepts, and innovative questions will help the reader resolve disagreements more effectively? If you had to give them only one nugget, what would that be?

CC: Let’s save the one nugget until the end, and let me extrapolate out of that. Like I said, the first 20 years, I taught a lot of Situational Leadership and different workshops. As I got into coaching and really working with individuals, all of a sudden, you can take what you taught in a class, and now you have to help people execute it.

And what I really started to think about: What are new skills that I, Chris Coffey, want to get good at? Certainly, conflict management and conflict resolution. Conflict is inherent in human nature. You want to go to a steak restaurant, and your spouse wants to go to a fish restaurant, and there’s conflict. How do you resolve it? Now if you’re smart, you say, “Honey, wherever you want to go, it’s fine with me.”

SGS: A wise man.

CC: A wise man! So then it becomes: Do you want to debate it, or do you want to accommodate the other person? What is it that you want to do? There are different models out there. There’s the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Resolution: You accommodate, you collaborate, you compete, you avoid, and you compromise. They’re all different results, negotiating skills, decision-making skills, and argumentation skills.

What led me to argumentation is my whole background in debating. And I think, unfortunately it’s called argumentation because people see arguing as negative. Just think about parenting: “Don’t argue with your brother.” It’s a skill very often that’s not appreciated or seen positively. Now certainly my background, 8 years with Jesuits, you debated everything. And I started to say, “I really want to get good at this,” so I started reading different books and thinking about it.

And I really started to put together my thoughts on argumentation. If you think about it: It’s rhetoric, it’s logic, and it’s dialectic. Rhetoric shows concern for an audience. Logic shows a concern for the structure of reasoning and how you put together your thoughts together. Dialectic shows a concern for your questioning of knowledge through Q and A. How do you do it for yourself? How do you do it with others? It’s a whole big field of study. First of all, somebody makes a claim. The components of an argument: There’s a claim, there’s evidence, there’s inference, and there’s a warrant. A claim is a statement you want the listener to believe. Evidence is the grounds you have for making that claim. Inference is just a fancy word for how you’re connecting the dots. What’s the main proof-line from the evidence to the claim? And then the warrant is what gives you the license to make the inference and the claim in the first place. In other words: What makes you a subject matter expert on this?

In our legal system, that’s an expert witness. I’m going to bring in my expert witness, you’re going to bring in your expert witness, and we’re going to let an impartial jury decide which one of these two is really the expert. I teach people those concepts and the skills to execute them, and so when I’m working with somebody, they make a claim, and a question I might ask is, “Well, what evidence do you have to back that up?” Another question might be, “Well, is that your opinion?” Or is that based on some empirical data—some evidence that we could use to support it?” So my point in this is when you know different models—Situational Leadership, DNA of Teams, Conflict Resolution, Argumentation—it leads naturally to questions. You start to frame things that way. And you start to think, “What are the best compliments I get as a coach?” And, “You not only got me to change certain behaviors, but you got me thinking differently.” If you’re listening to somebody, they make a claim, and you think it’s just a fallacious, outrageous claim. What most of us tend to do in that situation is just argue and tell them where they’re wrong instead of asking questions.

The most powerful way to influence is by asking questions and not telling. That’s the whole Socratic approach. Back again to the political thing when we have to debate global warming: To what extent does man impact it? Is it really warming? The South Pole’s getting colder: all of that stuff. One side says, “It’s settled science.” And that’s just an oxymoron, to begin with—science is never settled. So if someone was going to make that statement to me, I’d say, “Settled science? The earth was flat 500 years ago. That was settled science. The earth was the center of the universe. That was settled science for a long time.” And then it wasn’t. By the very nature of making a claim like that—it’s settled science—I can take that apart in an instant because it’s a fallacious claim. But if you can see things through the eyes of a model, and you see things unfolding that way, it leads naturally to asking good questions.

So when people say, “Do you always just ask questions?”—Look, let’s say I were to reframe what somebody said, I can reframe back what they said, and then the question would be, “Is that accurate?” If they say, “Well, not quite,” then my question would be, “What would be, then? What did I miss?” But again, this all has to be done with integrity and the desire to help. I just can’t emphasize too strongly: This cannot be seen as, “I’m going to show you that I’m smarter than you are” or “I’m going to belittle you.” Instead, it truly has to come from, as I say in the book, a basis of integrity. You want to be a fair player. And you want to create the best possible outcome for all concerned. The conventional way to describe it is creating a win-win. And can you work toward that?

Going back to global warming, somebody says, “It’s absolutely man’s fault.” Then you have the other side that says, “Man doesn’t have anything to do with it.” If you’re arguing with either side of that… I’m going to quote Mark Twain here. He says, “Don’t argue with a fool because onlookers won’t be able to distinguish between the two of you.” And so I may say to somebody, the question might be, “It sounds to me like no matter what I say or with new evidence that gets presented, your mind is made up, and you’re not willing to change your mind. Is that an accurate assessment on my part?” How do you answer that question? And if they say, “Yes,” then the conversation’s over. But what I’ve learned to do is walk away from silly situations where you can’t possibly have an impact.

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