They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Yet, all too often, people come to coaching using just a single word, that is, a label, to represent HOW they see something, such as, “I am a writer,” or, “He is a leader,” when in reality the label lacks specificity and represents a vague picture of HOW things really are. As a coach, I prefer using digital descriptions instead of labels because I believe they paint a clearer picture of reality.
Let’s explore digital descriptions and how useful they can be, starting with the letters in our alphabet. When you think about it, letters are really just symbols that we use to construct words and labels. And when you assemble the words/labels into a description, a picture emerges.
So, think of words/labels like pixels (i.e., colored dots), which are used to form a digital picture. A single word represents a single pixel, so the more words (pixels) you use, the clearer the picture becomes. Let me illustrate by using our digital picture metaphor.
Think of the label “tree” as a single green pixel in a digital picture of a tree. With no other pixels, the picture would just be a green dot and look nothing like a tree. Add a thousand other colored pixels one by one and a specific picture of a tree comes into focus. In a similar fashion, let a green pixel represent a label (e.g., tree). With no other words, the picture would just be vague and lack specificity in the representation of a specific “tree.”
As words are added to the description (e.g., large, tall, robust, oak, winter, positioned on the side of a mountain, in fall, etc.), the number of words increases, thereby bringing more specificity to the exact image of the specific tree in the specific environment in which it exists. Thus, if a picture is worth a thousand words, a description needs a thousand pixels to clearly represent what is real.
Digital descriptions can have a profound impact in casting (or miscasting) one’s role in life. Let’s assume there is a need for a leader. Before we can cast the right person, we need a clear picture of exactly what kind of leader we are looking for (i.e., his/her attributes). To attain a clear picture, we need descriptive words.
To do that, we need to question the label: What exactly is a leader? What attributes make up the kind of leader we are looking for? How would we find a person with such attributes? These open-ended questions may be challenging, but they are critical in the formulation of a digital description. The following are sample digital descriptions of a leader:
- A brave soldier who is the first one onto the battlefield.
- A person who has the specific knowledge to get our troops safely onto the battlefield.
- An articulate, charismatic individual who can inspire our troops and motivate them to go into battle.
- A person who can be held accountable (title) for the success or failure of our troops on the battlefield.
- Different combinations of the above.
As you can see, each description brings clarity to the different kinds of possible leaders and key attributes (i.e., bold italicized words) that one needs to possess. A digital description brings your attention to what you should be paying attention to.
By just using the label “leader,” we run the risk of miscasting our leader. Imagine the impact of casting an articulate, charismatic leader as the person who is in charge of getting our troops safely onto the battlefield. We would have a motivated group with no knowledge about how to get where they need to go. In the end, digital descriptions reveal subtle but profound differences in the picture of the leader needed and his/her associated traits.
The lesson here is simple: labels, generalizations, and our keep-it-simple culture only serve to misdirect our attention, thereby inhibiting our ability to clearly see what is real (i.e., reality). So, the next time you get stuck and don’t know how to move forward, pause and consider using digital descriptions to describe more specifically what is going on. Like pixels in a picture, the more words you use to describe the picture, the more your picture will resemble what is actually real instead of what you believe is real.