Are You Unteachable?
This past week I had the opportunity to coach two young men in their 20’s on the exact same issue. My advice to both was the same, the conversations lasted about the same amount of time, and each of them was dispatched with the knowledge that important decisions like the one before would significantly affect the rest of their lives. The first young man left with hope in his eyes and a plan of action. However, the other didn’t seem as though he listened to a single word I’d said. Over the past few days I’ve pondered what I did differently in these two sessions, since they clearly produced vastly different outcomes.
Did I approach the second young man in a different way? Was I not connecting with him? Did I miss signals that our coaching relationship had changed? What had made the same set of circumstances produce such drastically different results?
The answer came to me this morning, completely by coincidence, while I was stumbling around a dark kitchen attempting to feed our dogs. One was sitting calmly on their spot, awaiting his breakfast just like they’d been trained to do. The other was running around the house like my wife at a shoe sale.
To quote our granddaughter, “Hunk is nice, but Laddie is naughty.” That’s not exactly correct, but it certainly fit this morning. Hunk, the Fox Terrier, has learned every trick and command we’ve ever taught him. Laddie Boy, the Welsh Terrier, has been a little…well…stubborn. In truth, he’s borderline unteachable. He understands what we want from him, and knows what he’s supposed to do, but he just wants to go about things his own way. He doesn’t have the same teachable spirit that Hunk does.
In any case, my pre-coffee self was already agitated from having to rise before the alarm to trek outside through a cold drizzly rain to rescue our daughter’s Siberian from his perch at our bedroom window where he was apparently rehearsing for his “screen harp” recital. Trying to calm down a frantic terrier, ecstatic to see his feline friend had returned once again from his nightly wander, was absolutely not on my list of things to do just then.
Despite the dog and I having a well established relationship, my issuing clear instructions, followed up by direct corrections, and even the application of generous reward (in the way of breakfast) to the other dog, Laddie Boy was still was refusing to listen. However, his overzealous refusal to obey was the moment of clarity that explained my recent coaching fail. Both of these problems were due to the absence of a teachable spirit.
Much like our teddy-bear-ish Welsh Terrier, the second young man is smart, educated, motivated, and charming. He seemingly has everything going for him, but can’t seem to move ahead in his life. Our interactions over the past year have been largely positive, but an overarching theme has developed that leads me to believe he refuses to let others give him correction and advice. This has led to a stagnation in his professional life, a stunting of his personal development, and probably other complications that he’s not wanting to mention. In the coaching session last week, this young man admitted he had difficulty in his first year of college because, in his own words, he knew all there was to know, and no one could change his mind on anything. This was easy to believe, because most everybody who knows him describes him in the same words.
From what I’ve read, men are especially are prone to know-it-all-ism and the Male Answer Syndrome. Admittedly, even personal friends of mine will be quick tell you I’m certainly guilty of it from time to time. Having to prove you know more than anyone else is a sign of insecurity and usually stems from feeling as though you have to prove you’re qualified to hold the position you’re in or be among the company you hold. We all feel that occasionally, and that’s a post for another day.
However, there’s a wide difference between giving a glib answer you think is right, and not being able to take correction when you find out you’re wrong. Clearly, everyone is wrong sometimes. It’s rare to get through a day without giving some wrong answer or another. It’s what happens when the wrong answer is received that gives others a clue to your character. Do you receive the correction as valued input, or do you take it as a personal affront? Does finding out you were incorrect make you want to study up on the problem to find a new solution, or does it make you feel like slashing your boss’s tires?
Having an unteachable spirit requires the actual spurning of correction, or the constant rebuff of any information that counteracts what you already believe is true. While there is a time and place to argue opinions with other people, there must also be time for learning and growth. Taking correction is key to growth. More to the point, if you cannot take correction, you cannot grow. Your life will be stunted where exactly where it us now, and you’ll never grow up.
If you’re Paris Hilton, that’ll probably work out. For everyone else, it’s going to hurt. It’s going to hurt you, the people who depend on you, and the people who love you. It’s going to cripple your relationships, damage your professional growth, and obliterate your ability to be the person you were created to be.
If all of this sound too familiar, don’t despair. There’s always a way to change your spirit, even though it won’t be easy.
- Realize that you can’t possibly be an expert on everything. If you were, you wouldn’t need any of the rest of us. You’d be Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Sam Walton, and Mark Zuckerberg all wrapped up into one.
- Remember that correction is a chance for you to grow. Since we’ve established that you don’t already know everything, realize that every person on the planet has different areas of expertise than you, and they’re bound to have more knowledge than you do about something. Listen to them with an open heart, and understand that you have something to learn from quite literally everybody else you come in contact with.
- The person giving you correction isn’t doing it to to be a jerk. A few of them might come off that way, but if you’re hearing it from someone you have an existing relationship with, please realize they’re giving you correction because they want to see you grow and improve. Even if it’s your boss, your father, or your wife and they’re giving you correction suitable for the hard-of-hearing. That is just a signal that you should really be paying attention.
And now for some gratuitous pictures of other unteachable moments.