Learn By Mentoring Others: Lessons From The Tokyo Olympics

As events unfolded in Tokyo these past few weeks, we’ve had a chance to watch Olympians demonstrate a level of skill we mere mortals can only dream of attaining. Watching the frequent interviews with athletes, we hear about how they enter “the zone,” the mental space where their brain and body are on hyper-autopilot, intensely aware of what movement is needed next and able to deftly make that move at just the right moment. While few of us will ever shoot the tube on a surfboard or stick a landing as we fly off the parallel bars, we all have those moments at work when we are in our own zone – analyzing what’s needed next, and then executing flawlessly.

Often, it’s when we reach that level of performance that we’re asked to share our wisdom and talent with others to help them develop their skills. When your own skills are highly developed, you might find it difficult to articulate exactly what you are doing and why, but that’s the level of consciousness needed to help guide others. Teaching someone else the skills you now take for granted provides an excellent opportunity to not only hone those skills, but to improve them, as you become more conscious of what you do and why you do it. This holds true across professions. Here are a few suggestions for educating others and gaining from their wisdom along the way.

1. Slow down.

Dr. Ari Buckley, an attending radiologist at Washington U. in St. Louis, Missouri, has spent years reading mammograms and understanding the nuances in the shadows of the images. Experience and intuition guide her hand as she moves the ultrasound and takes a breast biopsy.

Dr. Buckley recounts her experiences training others in her field, “As I work with radiology residents and fellows, I need to slow down and help these new doctors focus on not just the physical steps of taking a biopsy, but on the entire patient experience. Obviously, patients are anxious about the procedure. Well, the residents are nervous as well. But if they convey that nervousness to the patient the whole procedure becomes more difficult for everyone. I’m very conscious of coaching the residents to demonstrate a sense of calm and competence. It’s the best way to show the patient empathy and to create a safe space for them. That means I need to slow down when I’m working with these newer doctors. I can’t take for granted that they’ll notice the subtlety and nuance around the steps I’m taking with patients.”

Chef Andrew Deuel of Jacksonville, Illinois trained in both the US and the Piemonte region in Italy. In more than two decades in kitchens such as Le Cirque in New York and Ristorante San Domenico in Bologna, he has crafted literally tens of thousands of meals.

Deuel says, “Many people think cooking is all about taste and smell. It actually involves all of your senses. As you’re stirring one pot and feeling the consistency of the sauce, you don’t even realize you’re listening to the sizzling sound coming from the nearby skillet to know when the chicken need to be turned.”

“When I train new chefs,” he says, “I feel myself becoming more conscious of the steps I’m taking. That awareness only happens if I pace myself differently, become more deliberate about each action and concentrate on the nuances of each movement.”

2. Explain even what seems “obvious.”

We all tend to take for granted much of how we do what we do. As a result, when we are teaching others, we tend to forget to explain important details that seem so obvious to us.

“I’m very conscious of showing new doctors how to engage a patient in small talk,” Dr. Buckley says. “I don’t leave it to chance that they’ll notice how many questions I ask the patient that have nothing to do with their health or the procedure. The new doctors are hyper-focused on executing the technical aspects, but part of my job is to help them understand how to connect better with the patients on a personal level, which makes the medical part of the interaction move more smoothly.”

“The subtlety comes all the way down into the language we use with patients,” she continued. “For instance, words like ‘shot’ and ‘needle’ create a negative physical reaction in patients. I teach new doctors to say ‘I’m going to give you some lidocaine’ rather than, ‘I’m going to give you a shot.’ I need to explain to the new doctors how that language choice is intentional, not just random.”

Chef Deuel builds on this idea, “Just having people watch you isn’t enough; you need to explain your actions to others. I literally tell people to pay attention to their senses – what they are seeing, hearing and feeling. To train someone to gain those instincts, you need to be conscious of those elements yourself. You need to break down not just the steps, but how you feel in the moment. It may sound odd, but the way we feel doing certain tasks is part of our muscle memory.”

In my own role as a communication skills coach, I work hard to help other professionals become deliberate about their word choice, their actions, the structure of their messaging and the way they tell their stories. That deliberateness is essential to each of us being our authentic selves when communicating.

3. Be open to learning… always.

If we’re careful about how we teach, and we watch the learners we’re guiding, we notice new ways to do the very tasks we’re teaching.

“Because I slow down when I’m coaching new doctors, I listen more attentively to how they interact with their patients,” Dr. Buckley noted. “I hear the questions they ask and the comments they make, even when just chatting casually with patients during a procedure. I’ve often thought, ‘That’s a great question to ask,’ and then added it to my list of questions so I can improve my own relationships with patients. It’s how you advance in your career; you never stop learning.”

Chef Deuel explains, “When my kitchen is busy and I have 30 orders going at the same time, I try to clearly vocalize the instructions that will make it easy for others to execute efficiently. Watching my procedures implemented by others is like having an out-of-body experience. That distance allows me to see opportunities to improve the way I do things.”

In my own work, watching and listening to colleagues guide others or teach a class has helped me hone my own delivery over the years. This allows me to see another perspective and helps me reflect on how I do what I do.

So, how can you get – and stay – at the top of your game? Whether you’re a radiologist, a chef, an Olympian, or a communication coach: slow down, get granular and deliberate about how you instruct others and be open to continuous development. The learning never ends.

Published on Forbes.com – See the article

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