One of my clients recently made a quantum leap in her thinking in under an hour. It was stunning.
That got me to thinking about what she did that enabled her to move so fast. You see, it had little to do with the issue (the content) she was dealing with, and everything to do with the way she went about addressing it (the process).
As I broke down each step of her process, I quickly realized that these steps are common to many of my most successful clients. In fact, they’re what you might call “the secrets of fast learners” – and the speed with which you are able to get through a problem, barrier or challenge is directly proportional to how quickly you do them. They are:
1. Get what you need.
2. Release emotional baggage.
3. Grasp the essence of the issue or lesson.
4. Integrate new information.
5. Apply it in real-time to a current situation.
6. Acknowledge your change.
7. Show gratitude for all the above.
In order to make each of these seven steps clear, let me first share a bit about my client’s situation so we can use it to illuminate how she applied each one.
The client, whom I’ll call Margaret, runs a pioneering small business she founded several years ago. She crossed my mind as I was driving home, prompting me to give her a call. The line was busy, so I hung up. Seconds later, my phone rang – it was Margaret. Turns out she’d been on a call with one of her team having a heated argument.
After a quick hello, Margaret immediately started telling me about it, her words tumbling fast from her mouth. Examples of how this person had a bad attitude and wasn’t doing a good job were punctuated by various self-recriminations. Margaret was clearly agitated, and each example of the staff person’s unwanted behavior only added to her upset.
After a bit, Margaret mentioned that the staff person had threatened to quit, to which I remarked what good fortune that was. Margaret stopped talking. A few seconds later she asked slowly, “Why is that good fortune?” I replied that it sounded like it was time to part ways, and it works out nicely when the person being let go offers to go instead. Margaret then explained that the person had said it in anger and would likely reconsider. I then asked her whose decision it was who worked for her. Again, quiet…and then, as if the answer slowly dawned on her, she said “mine.”
In that moment, Margaret shifted from complaining about the person’s behavior to realizing she had the opportunity to work on a core leadership issue: how to effectively manage a team - one of the key aspects of which is knowing when to let someone go.
The moment Margaret’s frame changed, she was able to see clearly that it was past time to let the person go. With this clarity, she began working through the issues of making it happen. Margaret walked into the future, imagining how she would inform the person, what the next few weeks would be like without the person’s help, and what potential consequences there might be.
The possible backlash is what got her. So, we surveyed Margaret’s concerns about the person’s ability to sabotage, and she soon saw these were fears more about her own insecurities. We worked a bit on those, and she decided that the possible negativity the person might stir up was trivial compared to the energy drain that resulted from keeping the person on the team.
About 30 minutes later, Margaret’s tone had returned to normal, her breath came easily, and she was laughing. She hung up to go take care of the matter.
The Fast Learner Steps
Now let’s look at each step Margaret used to enable her to shift from a resource-less state to a capable one, getting to the heart of the issue, in remarkable time.
1. Get what you need: fast learners don’t sit around stewing over things. Instead, they’re proactive about getting help in learning about it, solving it, or delegating it. They notice problems as opportunities for learning and then bring the learning in, by asking for it, manifesting it, noticing it when it shows up – no matter what form the learning takes.
Margaret knew that she wasn’t at her best on the call and immediately reached out for help; she brought the issue right out, right away.
2. Release emotional baggage: fast learners recognize when their own familiar patterns and stories bring only pain and suffering, and willingly let them go to open space for new experiences and the feeling of curiosity intrinsic to learning.
Margaret didn’t continue venting her emotions about the person and the call, which only caused her more discomfort, but instead noticed how this was a situation she was ready to change.
3. Grasp the essence of the issue or lesson: fast learners watch and listen for key information that helps them with their situation – these “nuggets” stand out for them because they ring true. When they get a nugget, they ask questions to further their understanding, knowing that the nugget holds the gold of new learning.
Margaret heard the words “good fortune” for what they were: a non sequitur to get her attention. She stopped telling her story about the employee to ask what they meant, and then continued to ask questions to get to the heart of her issue.
4. Integrate the new information: fast learners are open to new ways of thinking about something, to new language and metaphors, and begin to explore the new thinking, turning it in their minds using their own analogies and examples as the way to make it their own.
Margaret listened to the idea of the person quitting as good fortune and found the metaphor for herself: her opportunity to learn and to meet the challenge of taking charge of her team. This was indeed her good fortune since it is something she desires to master so she can grow her organization to match her vision.
5. Apply it in real time to a current situation: fast learners put new information into immediate practice in a real situation so that it becomes part of them as quickly as possible. They do this first by using their imagination to “see” how it will go, trying different approaches to find what’s best, and identifying any additional issues to address before acting. Then they act on the new learning, and from this, are able to validate it and internalize it.
Margaret explored the different ways she could let the person go, as well as the consequences of this action. She anticipated issues that could potentially cause her more problems in the future (risk management) and used that information to guide the development of her solution.
6. Acknowledge your change: fast learners acknowledge themselves for the learning accomplished, rather than giving all the credit to something or someone else and becoming dependent on that.
After we hung up, Margaret wrote the email accepting the team member’s resignation. She then wrote me an email reporting her action, including how she felt after doing it. I didn’t suggest this; Margaret did it for herself. Putting accomplishment in writing, especially to someone you have asked to hold you accountable, concretizes it and makes it yours.
7. Show gratitude for all of the above: fast learners are sincere in their gratitude for the ability to transform problems into learning so that it becomes an easy way of life that they can share with others. Gratitude makes a thing precious.
Margaret not only thanked me on our call, but also wrote a testimonial of what she’d learned and how, expressing her appreciation for the process that helped her move out of useless story and into enlivening learning and action. Again, putting this in writing serves to make the experience more real. She created her own diploma.
The Sum Up
This process, when mastered, results in quickly transforming a perceived problem into an opportunity for learning – out of which comes effective action. Think about it: how much time are you wasting getting to your own greatness by stumbling on one or more of the Fast Learner’s seven steps?
Remember, life will always (thank goodness) throw us curve balls, put up apparent barriers, and give us challenges. It’s our job to learn from them, and the faster we do so, the greater our capacity for learning and for achieving great things. The slower we learn, the more our life will feel like it’s stuck in a rut. And, as Ellen Glasgow so pithily wrote, the only difference between a rut and a grave is their dimensions.