Do you ever wonder why, despite your best efforts, people you coach don’t get any better? I do. My son helped me learn part of the answer in our piano lessons recently. First, some background:

I grew up taking piano lessons. I was lucky enough to have a top-notch teacher named Stanley Hummel. He was a slender six foot six, had a tall shock of white hair, and made the piano sing. Though four feet tall and chunky at the time, I wanted to play like him. I ended up taking 10 years of lessons. Music opened up all sorts of opportunities for me – social, artistic, and intellectual. (Indirectly, music even led me to my wife!)

So naturally, I wanted to give my son, Cameron, the same opportunity. As a practical matter, I decided to start teaching him myself. We started with the basics of music: notes, rhythm, dynamics. Then I started assigning him homework to practice for our lessons.

When I used to play a piece perfectly, Mr. Hummel used to make a distinctive mark on the page that showed it was “crossed off.” It was a sign of progress to knock off several songs each week. I felt good leaving Mr. Hummel’s house. I put the same system in place with Cameron.

But early on, I noticed it didn’t work very well. He wasn’t getting many songs crossed off and I could tell he hadn’t practiced them effectively. I would sagely say to him at the end of the lesson, “You need to practice more to get that one crossed off.”

Then it struck me: he didn’t know how to practice. I was focusing my lessons on the wrong things. Instead of telling him he needed to practice more and assuming that would solve things, I needed to spend our lesson time teaching him how to practice.

This hit me in the middle of a lesson, so I channeled Mr. Hummel for the most effective five minutes of my short piano teaching career. I don’t remember him overtly teaching me to practice when I was a kid, but he clearly had a method. All I needed to do was put it into language Cameron could grasp.

How often do we talk right past those we coach? A colleague needs to present recommendations more effectively to clients. We tell her, “You needed to prepare better for that pitch.” Afraid to admit she doesn’t know how, she nods her head and thinks, You’re no help at all. We’d be better off by asking her, “Would you tell me what you do to get ready for a pitch?” Or even better, we could prepare with her once, observing carefully what she’s doing (and not doing), and clearly offering her our experience on how to prepare better.

The good news: Cameron started improving his piano skills rapidly. Teaching him to practice has dramatically increased his ability to get songs crossed off. Even better, he’s starting to love the music – and that’s what it’s all about.