The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever - by Michael Bungay Stanier
March 10, 2017
This edition of Kathy’s CliffNotes is on the book The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever by Michael Bungay Stanier. This book is fantastic, and honestly, you should give a copy to everyone you work with.
This book isn’t only relevant for people managers, but it’s relevant for anyone that interacts with other humans at work, and in life.
The book breaks down coaching into 7 essential questions, dives into why these questions are important, and why it’s important to tame your inner advice monster. The real secret sauce of coaching that the book digs into is building a habit of curiosity. The change of behavior that’s going to serve coaches most powerfully is simply this: a little less advice, and a little more curiosity. And above all, build a coaching habit so it’s part of your everyday interactions.
As a little side bonus, the book also covers 5 strategic questions every business should continually work through. These questions were used by the most successful CEO at P&G. These 5 questions scale down to the individual and the team, and scale up to a complex, global, multibillion-dollar organization These questions are not linear. Answering one will influence the answer to the one that follows and likely to the one that preceded it. It is the process of working back and forth between them, creating alignment between your answers, that is the strength of the process. It was was Eisenhower who said, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The result of these 5 questions is that they force great planning.
What is our winning aspiration? Framing the choice as “winning” rules out mediocrity as an option. If you want to win, you need to know what game you’re playing and with (an against) whom. What impact do you want to have in and on the world?
Where will we play? “Boiling the ocean” is rarely successful. Choosing a sector, geography, product, channel and customer allows you to focus your resources.
• How will we win? What’s the defendable difference that will open up the gap between you and the others?
What capabilities must be in place? Not just what do you need to do, but how will it become and stay a strength?
What management systems are required? It’s easy enough to measure stuff. It’s much harder to figure out what you want to measure that actually matters.
Before we dive in, per usual, here is a cute animal picture to bring a smile to your face...Who doesn't love a hipster bunny?
A few choice quotes on the importance of questions:
“Answers are closed rooms; and questions are open doors that invite us in.” - Nancy Willard
“Ask the right questions if you’re going to find the right answers.” - Vanessa Redgrave
“What people think of as the moment of discovery is really the discovery of the question” - Jonas Salk.
Tame your inner advice monster. For some reason, other people's challenges are so much easier to solve than our own. Even though we don't really know what the issue is, we're quite sure we have the answer they need. However, you’re advice is not as good as you think it is. Hold the advice monster in check. It's important for people to come up with their own answers. That doesn't mean you hide the ball, but most of us do more speaking than listening. At the crux is the insight that when you offer to help someone, you “one up” yourself: you raise your status and lower hers, whether you meant to or not.
Ask one question at a time. Give the other person space to think of an answer.
Stick to questions starting with “what”. Sometimes “why” questions can put the other person on the defensive right off the bat, instead of creating a space for open dialogue.
Get comfortable with silence. Silence is a measure of success. Silence means the other person is thinking, and is searching for the answer. She's creating new neuro-pathways and in doing so, literally increasing her potential and capacity.
Actually listen to the answer. One of the most compelling things you can do after asking a question is to genuinely listen to the answer. Stay curious my friend. Don’t drift off thinking about what you’re going to say next while they're still talking. Also, acknowledge the answers you get. The point is to encourage. When coaching, your job is to create the space for learning moments.
Stop offering up advice with a question mark attached. That doesn’t count as asking a question. No more rhetorical questions. “Have you thought of…?”; “What about …?”; “Did you consider…?”. If you have an idea, wait. Ask “and what else?” and you’ll often find that the other person comes up with that very idea that’s burning a hole in your brain. And if she doesn’t, then offer your idea - as an idea, not disguised as a fake question.
When someone asks you “What do you think I should do about…?”: Instead of giving an answer, say “that’ a great question. I’ve got some ideas, which I’ll share with you. But before I do, what are your first thoughts?”...”That’s terrific. What else could you do?”...”That’s great. Is there anything else you could try here?”...
Separate coaching for performance versus coaching for development:
Coaching for performance is about addressing and fixing a specific problem or challenge. It’s putting out the fire or building up the fire. It’s everyday stuff, and it’s important.
Coaching for development is about turning the focus from the issue to the person dealing with the issue, the person who is managing the fire. The conversation is more rare and significantly more powerful. The focus is on pulling someone forward to learn, improve and grow, rather than just getting something sorted out. The simple act of adding “for you” to the end of as many questions as possible is an everyday technique for making conversations more development - than performance - oriented. Yes the problems still get sorted out. But with “for you” there’s often additional personal insight, and with personal insight comes increased growth and capability. Adding “for you” to a question also help people figure out the answers faster and more accurately.
Deepen Focus with the 3P’s: The 3P model is a framework for choosing what to focus on in a coaching conversation - for deciding which aspect of a challenge might be at the heart of a difficulty that the person is working through. A challenge might be centered on a:
Project: challenges around actual content
Person: issues with team members, colleagues, other departments, customers, clients.
Pattern of behavior: if there’s a way the person is getting in their own way, and not showing up in the best possible way.
Trust that you’re being useful. When you start shifting your behavior from giving advice and providing solutions to asking questions, you will feel anxious. To further reassure yourself, master the last of the 7 essential questions - “What was most useful here for you?” so you create a learning moment for the person and for you.
You Need a Coaching Habit:
The seemingly simple behavior change of giving a little less advice and asking a few more questions is surprisingly difficult. You’ve spent years delivering advice and getting promoted and praised for it. You’re seen to be “adding value” and you’ve the added bonus of staying in control of the situation. On the other hand, when you’re asking questions, you might feel less certain about whether you’re being useful, the conversation can feel slower and you might feel like you’ve somewhat lost control of the conversation (and indeed you have. That’s called “empowering.”)
Coaching is simple. In fact, this book’s Seven Essential Questions give you most of what you need.
Coaching should be a daily, informal act, not an occasional, formal “It’s Coaching Time!” event.
Here’s why it’s worth the effort: the essence of coaching lies in helping others and unlocking their potential.
When you build a coaching habit, you can more easily break out of three vicious circles that plague our workplaces: creating over dependence, getting overwhelmed, and becoming disconnected.
Circle 1: Creating Over dependence: Building a coaching habit will help your team be more self sufficient by increasing their autonomy and sense of mastery and by reducing your need to jump in, take over and become the bottleneck.
Circle 2: Getting Overwhelmed: You’re pulled in different directions by proliferating priorities, distracted by the relentless ping of email and hustling from meeting to meeting, you lose focus. The more you lose focus, the more overwhelmed you feel. The more overwhelmed you feel, the more you lose focus. Building a coaching habit will help you regain focus so you and your team can do the work that has real impact and so you can direct your time, energy and resources to solving the challenges that make a difference.
Circle 3: Becoming Disconnected. It’s not enough just to get things done. You have to help people do more of the work that has impact and meaning. The more we do work that has no real purpose, the less engaged and motivated we are. The less engaged we are, the less likely we are to find and create Great Work.
7 Essential Coaching Questions:
The Kickstarter Question: “What's on your mind?”
It's almost a fail safe way to start a chat that quickly turns into a real conversation.
This question says, Let’s talk about the thing that matters most. It’s the question that dissolves ossified agendas, sidesteps small talk and defeats the default diagnosis.
The Small Talk Tango: There’s no mistake, there’s a place for small talk. It’s a way of connecting and engaging with a person, of building relationships. While small talk might be a useful way to warm up, it’s rarely the bridge that leads to a conversation that matters.
The Ossified Agenda: is commonly found in standing meetings - same time, same people, same place, same agenda. It becomes dreary recitation of facts and figures, a report that sheds little light and seems to drain energy from the room. The agenda might have made sense at one point, but now it’s putting process in front of what really matters.
Default Diagnosis: There’s no question or conversation about what the issue is. You’re sure you know what it is. Or they’re sure they know what it is. Or maybe you both think you know what it is. And so...bang! You’re off to the races, pursuing something that, if you’re lucky, is approximately-ish the real topic. The response is comfortable and feels like progress because you’re solving something. But you’re in the wrong hole. Digging faster or smarter isn’t going to help.
The AWE Question: “And what else?”... “And what else?” .... (and you keep asking it until the other person runs out of other things to say).
This question has almost magical properties. With 3 little words it creates so much more: more insight, more wisdom, more self awareness, more possibilities.
You do want to remember that the first answer someone gives you is almost never the only answer, and it’s rarely the best answer. When you use “and what else” you’ll get more options and often better options. Better options leads to better decisions. Better decisions lead to greater success.
Remember to acknowledge the person’s answers before you leap to the next “and what else”. You don’t need to say much, it’s about encouraging them and letting them know you listened and heard what they said.
Recognize success. At some stage in the conversation, someone is going to say “there is nothing else.” That’s the response you should be seeking.
Try to ask the “and what else” question 3-5 time. See what happens.
“And what else” is such a useful question that you can add it into almost every exchange. Some variations:
When you ask someone “what’s on your mind/” and she answers, ask, “and what else?”
When someone’s told you a course of action she intends to take, challenge her with “and what else could you do?”
When you’re trying to find the heart of the issue, and you ask “what’s the real challenge here for you?” and he offers up a timid or vague or insipid first answer, push deeper by asking, “and what else is a challenge here for you?”
When you start your weekly check-in meeting by asking “what’s important right now.”, keep the pressure on by asking, “and what else”
When someone is nudging a new idea to the fore, exploring new boundaries of courage and possibility, hold the space and deepen the potential by asking, “and what else might be possible.”
The Focus Question: “What's the real challenge here for you?”
This helps you focus on the real problem, not the first problem. When people start talking about a challenge, keep in mind that what they're laying out for you is rarely the actual problem. This question helps zero in on the actual problem. So you stop spending so much time and effort solving the wrong problem.
This is the question that will help slow down the rush to action, so you can focus on the real problem. When you start jumping in to fix things, things go off the rails in 3 ways: you work on the wrong problem; you do the work your team should be doing: and the work doesn’t get done.
Avoid coaching the ghost. The key thing to know here is that you can coach only the person in front of you. As tempting as it is to talk about a “third point” (most commonly another person, but it can also be a project or a situation), you need to uncover the challenge for the person to whom you’re talking. And asking the question “so what’s the real challenge here for you?” will get you there.
The Foundation Question: “What do you want?”
The illusion that both parties to a conversation know what the other party wants is pervasive, and it sets the stage for plenty of frustrating exchanges.
The Lazy Question: “How can I help?”
This question will make you more useful to those you interact with while working less hard to figure out how to be useful.
The power of “how can I help?” is twofold. First, you’re forcing your colleague to make a direct and clear request. And second (and possibly even more valuably), it stops you from thinking that you know how best to help and leaping into action. Too much of your day is spent doing things you think people want you to go.
When you ask the Lazy Question, the science tells us, you’re not only more effective, but you’re also more respected.
The Strategic Question: “If you're saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?”
This question gets you to the heart of overwhelm and is the question at the heart of every good strategy.
The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.
Have you ever heard or uttered the phrase, “I never said I was going to do that!”? Me too. So to ask, “Let’s be clear: what exactly are you saying Yes to?” bringing the commitment out of the shadows. If you then ask, “What could being fully committed to this idea look like?” it brings things into even sharper focus. But a Yes is nothing without the No that gives it boundaries and form.
Say Yes more slowly. Wait until you actually know what’s being asked. Saying Yes more slowly means being willing to stay curious before committing.
This question shines a light on what we’re holding on to, so we might better weigh up what’s worth keeping and what might need to be set free.
The Learning Question: “What was most useful for you?”
Ask this at the end of a conversation, this question helps the person verbalize and thereby realize that the conversation was useful.
How People Learn: People don’t really learn when you tell them something. They don’t even really learn when they do something. They start learning, start creating new neural pathways, only when they have a chance to recall and reflect on what just happened. Your job as a manager and leader is to help create the space for people to have those learning moments. And to do that, you need a question that drives this double-loop learning. That question is, “What was most useful for you?”
“What was most useful here for you?” is a strong and positive way to finish a conversation. Not only do you help people to see and then embed the learning from the conversation, but by your finishing on a “this was useful” note, people are going to remember the experience more favourably than they otherwise might.
If you want to enrich the conversation even further - and build a stronger relationship, too - tell people what you found to be most useful about the exchange. The equal exchange of information strengthens the social impact.