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15 Ways to Break the Law of the Instrument

Hammer, 3D rendering isolated on white backgroundPsychologist Abraham Maslow once famously remarked: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” That’s known as The Law of the Instrument – and many of us have one or two well-worn instruments, tools, and approaches that we use to help our colleagues, friends and family solve problems.

I know this first-hand: A decade ago after I graduated from coaching school I realized that my version of The Law of the Instrument was, “When what you are is a coach, every problem looks coachable.” Since one of the most useful tools in the coaching toolkit is curiosity, I asked a lot of questions. I mean, a LOT of questions. It got to the point that I would ask my kids, “How was your day at school?” or “What would you like for dinner?” and would hear, in response, “Are you trying to coach me???”

Point taken. Even though Albert Einstein himself said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning,” the people around me said, “Please give your questioning a rest.”

Now, ten years and hundreds of clients later, I now have a wide range of instruments that I can use to be helpful, depending on whether someone wants direction, advice, support, empathy, instruction, problem-solving or yes, coaching. And it took a lot of work to cultivate a toolkit where I could feel equally comfortable pulling out any instrument and using it well.  But the most important development for me was not assuming that I knew what help my client, colleague, friend or kid wanted or needed, but offering them a robust list of helpful approaches from which they could choose. Chances are, you have one or two well-worn instruments that you use regularly (such as problem-solving or brainstorming) and it might be time for you to add some new ones to your toolkit.

You might like the feel of a new instrument in your hand – and you might be able to help the people you work, volunteer and live with might have a breakthrough that wouldn’t have been possible with the tools you’ve been using.

Ready to break the Law of the Instrument? Here is my list of 15 new ones to offer:

  1. Listen without judgment
  2. Ask open-ended questions
  3. Play “Devil’s Advocate”
  4. Brainstorm 50 new ideas
  5. Empathize
  6. Connect you to an expert in the field
  7. Teach you a skill
  8. Share my own experience/path
  9. Give a pep talk/cheerlead
  10. Help you prioritize
  11. Take notes while you download your thoughts
  12. Help you develop evaluation criteria
  13. Do it along side you
  14. Send you articles, videos and other resources
  15. Fix it for you

What are some other instruments you use? Post below.

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