The value of low-level instruction

April 12, 2014 by Joshua
in Education, Leadership

Between coaching, teaching, and seminars, I give a lot of exercises. People want to make big transitions and grow. Time and again, the biggest advances come from very low-level instruction—things like say these words in this order to this person, avoid using these words, or take only cold showers for a month. The lower the level of instruction, the higher the level of insight my clients and students get. That used to seem ironic to me until I got how experiential learning works (and lecturing doesn’t). If you lead or manage people, I’m sure you’ll see the relevance of keeping instruction low-level to your interactions with your reports.

If you start with low-level instruction, people know what to do, like learning to play scales on the way to learning to play music. Doing the simple things makes learning harder things easier, which you want. After you learn the simple things you can’t help but generalize for yourself. Ironically, someone telling you general things at the beginning doesn’t help you learn the general things. Doing the simple things does.

My first experience with such an exercise came from Marshall Goldsmith’s instruction to avoid starting responses to people with “no,” “but,” or “however.” The instruction seems too simple. If you just think about it you’ll conclude you probably respond with the words too much and try to limit them. But the exercise is to behave, not just to think. Low-level instruction makes adopting new behavior simple, which you need if you want big changes.

Doing it leads you to change your behavior, which leads you to realize what thoughts motivated the old behavior. The instruction’s simplicity makes the exercise simple, but success isn’t easy. I won’t try to describe what you learn through the experience since you can do it yourself, but you’ll appreciate it, though people in your life will appreciate it more.

Then I created my exercise not to use judgment words like “good,” “bad,” “right,” “wrong,” “evil,” “should,” and so on. Just as simple and low-level instructions and, again, just as educational. My meaningful connection exercise follows in the same way.

The folly of non-low-level instruction

Coaching means keeping current on business literature. A couple recent books I read reminded me of the inanity of the lack of low-level instruction. One book talked about the value of engaging employees, the other about creating meaning for them. The books gave no specific instruction on how to do these things, as if people knew how to create meaning and engagement but just didn’t feel like doing it.

They had no problem describing the folly of trying to motivate only by paying people. Well, maybe people lead through external incentives like pay because they know how to do it. It’s obvious. Creating meaning isn’t so obvious.

My geeky fact and knowledge-based education meant I knew how to create meaning and engagement less than most people. Telling me to create meaning in employees’ lives wouldn’t have helped me at all. That’s why the core of my practice is to understand people’s situations and give specific, low-level instruction they can follow simply. Their experience doing the exercises teaches them more than books describing what would happen if they did the exercise without doing it. That’s what experiential learning means. People who write books without it don’t seem to get that.

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