Monday, April 17, 2017

Hands Off

Have you ever tried teaching a skill to someone? Ever been in charge of a project with a team and tried explaining how to do what needs done? Most people would rather just DO IT THEMSELVES.  They don’t want the aggravation of having to try to teach someone else how to do what they do.  

But teaching others what you have mastered is so valuable.  Here are just a few reasons why:

  1. to accomplish big tasks, you need a big team - you can’t do it alone
  2. you can go farther faster when you empower a team
  3. teaching others leaves your legacy in the world

OK, so if you are still reading this article, you likely are bought in to the value of teaching others what you do, what you know.  Now, I want to teach you HOW I TEACH others.  This is my philosophy of how I equip others, how I have learned is the best way to effectively get my “students” to comprehend what I am attempting to teach them.

Hands off

I have a Hands off approach to how I teach.  I learned this years ago when I first started teaching piano.  I had taken piano lessons myself since I was 5 years old all the way through college where I earned a degree in Piano Performance.  I thought to myself “teaching piano will be a breeze - I have had piano lessons all my life!” 

I remember my first student was an 8 year old boy.  His mom would sit with us as I taught him music.  This boy was excited, respectful, and motivated to learn music.  The first few lessons, I did a lot of talking and explaining about the piano.  The next few lessons, I did a lot of playing the piano, trying to show him how to play.  Then, in the last few minutes of each lesson, I would have him sit at the piano and repeat what I had been showing him.  He struggled to play, but I just chalked it up to him being young and new to the piano.  

After 2 months of lessons, the mom met with me and told me that her son was discouraged as he was not really getting what I was teaching.  She said “Matt, I wonder if you maybe had him do more playing, he may start to embrace the piano more.”   I have to admit, my first emotion inside said “hey, lady - I have my Bachelor’s Degree in Piano Performance.  I am a professional musician.  Don’t tell me how to teach!”  But, I remained teachable to this comment.   To please the mom and keep the boy as a student, I began taking the mother’s advice and started the lesson with the boy on the piano bench.  When I taught the song, I taught it with him in the seat in front of the keys.  I would lean over him to play the song, then immediately would have him repeat.  I would let him make mistakes.  And when he would make mistakes (wrong fingers, wrong position, wrong rhythm), I would resist the urge to correct.  I found that when the boy would sit and figure it out, he would eventually self-correct.  I would only correct when he got stuck.  The more that I would be quiet and let him get his hands on the keys, the better he would learn the song.  And…when the boy would play it right for the first time, he would look over at me with the biggest smile, looking for my approval.  I would cheer and celebrate him!

A hands off approach to teaching takes longer.  It takes incredible amounts of patience, restraint on your part as the teacher. The key to making this approach work is:

The teacher must take their hands off so the student can have their hands on

As the teacher, think of yourself as a Football Coach.  The Coach is in charge of the team.  The Coach is responsible for the team to win.  However, the Coach does not actually play in the game.  The Coach stands over on the sidelines.  In Football, the Coach does not even call all of the plays.  He lets the Quarterback take that role.  Think how stressful it is to be the Coach in charge of the team and responsible to produce a win, but he can’t go out and make the winning play! But the Coach embraces this concept: for the Coach to win, the Team has to win.  The Coach must trust his players.  He must allow the players to implement the strategy.  He must trust the Quarterback to earn the respect of the team, because it is the Quarterback who must work with the team on the field.

Let’s apply this Hands Off Teaching Approach to how you work with your team, whether it be at school, at work, or at church:

Less Teaching, More Empowering

I think I have been guilty of thinking my leadership training and my Powerpoint presentation was so great that everyone in the room should now be a great team player.  There is a place for teaching, for sure.  But what I have come to realize is that my team members get it best when they have the opportunity to lead something themselves.  Empowering does not mean just throwing them in the pool like a child who has never swam before.  But it does mean letting them swim with you close by.  People develop their “swimming muscles” when they have to swim on their own.  A teacher won’t let them drown, but an empowering teacher won’t “hold them in the water” either.  They take their hands off the child so they can truly experience the feeling of having to swim on their own.  This is empowering teaching.

Less Correcting, More Coaching

Correcting is good and necessary.  But Coaching is better.  What’s the difference? To me, it’s the timing of when you give it.  My friend, Dave Simiele is great at this.  He teaches his team at Christ Fellowship church to minimize correcting conversations on Sunday service times.  When one of his team members comes to him with a problem, he says “that’s a Monday conversation.”

What he is saying is that he would prefer to evaluate processes or correct problems during the week in private where he and team can focus on solutions with margin.  Sunday services for a Pastor is like the NFL Football game.  We need to be focused on people and focused on doing our best to make the service run smoothly.  That’s good coaching!

Less Watching, More Doing
Take your hands off the project or task, and have them put their hands on it.  Back to the piano lesson story, understand that people retain much more of what they learn when they DO, not just listen or watch.  Also, when people do something, there is a dynamic of muscle memory that comes in to play.  Once my piano students would play a musical passage correctly, I would cheer for them and then immediately have them repeat it over and over.  I wanted them to feel what playing it right felt like.  I knew they likely would forget all of the notes and rhythms, but what would help them is seeing it and feeling it several times.  When you teach something, get their hands on it.  

Whether it’s getting your team to recruit volunteers, or share a story publicly, or write out a progress report, have them do it over and over.  Point out specific things they do well, and you will find they will repeat those things.  Your team wants to be successful.  This is how you help them feel successful.  They will improve as they are hands-on in doing the work themselves.  When they get it right - cheer them on!

Teaching takes patience, insight and strategy.  But it is worth taking time to teach others what you do well.  Teaching others skills that you have mastered will turn out to be the most rewarding thing you do.  Empowering others to be successful becomes your legacy that will give greater meaning to your life.


  1. Good stuff Matt, nobody ever learns to drive at Disney's Tomorrowland Speedway. The center rail needs to be removed (hands off) to really learn how to drive.

  2. Matt,
    Great lesson, and so applicable - practically every day. Thanks coach!

    1. MIss you all, Chuck! What a great family you have.

  3. Awesome teaching! I'm going to share this with myself! Thanks Matt