For Every Action, There Are Many Reactions

Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

Some believe that Albert Einstein extended this by stating that, “With every problem, there’s a solution; just a matter of taking action.”

How could this apply when coaching or helping others?

As a coach, I often ask questions and offer my observations. When I do, I’ve experienced four possible reactions to my efforts:

  1. The Black Hole
  2. The Open Mind
  3. The Pushback
  4. The Boomerang

The Black Hole Reaction

At one end of the reaction spectrum, there is no reaction. The person or people I’m working with will just look at me with a blank stare and silence. It’s as if my question or observation has been sucked into a black hole, never to be seen again. When this happens, it’s due to a number of possible reasons.

  1. I’ve triggered an area of discomfort or a raw nerve. Perhaps a sensitive or politically charged topic that is universally acknowledged but never discussed in the open. A topic that has been buried for a long time.
  2. I’ve failed to communicate effectively. Using words, language or concepts that the audience doesn’t understand. I’ve found that simplifying the language or elaborating by using specific examples will help here.
  3. The person or people are complacent with the status quo and not interested in what I have to share.

The Open Mind Reaction

At the other end of the reaction spectrum, my audience is all ears. The epitome of a growth mindset exhibiting curiosity and a willingness to learn and try new things. Usually precipitated by a trusting relationship developed over time. You would think this would be the desired reaction for any coach. But it’s not for me. I need to always be learning too, lest I fall into the trap of thinking I know it all and my audience falls into the trap of accepting everything I say without question.

In between the extremes of the reaction spectrum are two more common reactions.

The Pushback Reaction

I used to take it very personally when challenged. When my actions were met with equal if not greater opposing reactions. Whenever my questions were questioned or my observations met with counter observations, I would immediately get defensive and double down on pushing my points and agenda across. As if sharing them more forcefully and with more details would make a difference in the reactions. Instead, I’m trying to stop, listen and learn. Accepting that I could be wrong or have missed an important perspective. It’s not an easy transition and I still do fall back to my defensive ways. Hopefully, it’ll become second nature for me in time. I just need to remind myself the pushback I’m sensing is not about me being inadequate but rather my perspectives and data being insufficient and incomplete. I need to reframe the pushback as a good thing. It indicates active engagement and provides an opportunity for me to learn.

The Boomerang Reaction

I remember a colleague I used to work with who somehow managed to always come out of messy work situations none the worse for wear. No matter how clearly implicated he was in causing a problem, he would come out of it unscathed. We called him “The Teflon Man” since nothing bad would ever stick to him. The Boomerang reaction reminded me of The Teflon Man but it takes it to another level. Not only does what I share not stick with the audience, it ends up coming back to me to deal with. A recent example involved an observation that I shared with a senior manager questioning his assumption that all team members on his cross-functional Scrum team were dedicated. They weren’t which led to problems with engagement. I went on to share that this could potentially be due to a leadership alignment issue. That perhaps he had not done enough upfront to communicate his expectations to his fellow managers. Next thing I realize I’m being asked for progress on aligning his fellow managers! The bright side of this was the manager’s realization that his number one issue was leadership alignment or lack thereof. The darker side of this was how the issue came back to me to action and solve. I guess it’s baby steps when it comes to the boomerang reaction. Gradually shifting the reaction from acknowledgment to action to accountability and catching the boomerang.

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