As a manager, you’ve likely had some training in how to coach your team. And you probably take some time to talk with each employee and offer advice. But if you’re like me and the 10,000 other managers Michael Bungay Stanier has worked with, you might need to re-examine and revise your approach.
They say people learn from experience, and Michael Bungay Stanier has done plenty of learning. His bio mentions getting banned from high school for a “balloon incident,” getting sued by one of his law school professors, getting fired on the first day of a job, and other dubious adventures. But he’s also the founder of Box of Crayons consulting company and author of several books, including the one under discussion today, The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever.
Coaching is not the same as advising.
This is book is an easy read but packed with clear advice, well-researched explanations, and wry humor. Bungay Stanier asserts that by regularly coaching employees, managers can keep their teams focused on work that’s meaningful and dispense with much of the corporate tail-chasing that makes us “busy.”
Even though coaching has become fashionable in business circles today, in Bungay Stanier’s experience, few people really know how to do it effectively. Most coaches need to learn how to talk less, ask good questions, and listen to the answers. But, as the author writes, “the seemingly simple behavior change of giving a little less advice and asking a few more questions is surprisingly difficult.”
The right questions make coaching work.
He presents his book as a blueprint for basic coaching skills framed by “7 Essential Questions.” He explains why each question is important for coaching and shows readers how to use typical triggers to incorporate them into your coaching sessions right away.
I won’t go into each question here, but there are three that I found particularly interesting. You can use these for coaching but also for typical interactions with co-workers to cut through clutter and get to the heart of any matter.
My favorite three questions:
- The AWE Question – “And what else?”
- The Lazy Question – “How can I help?”
- The Strategic Question – “If you’re saying ‘yes’ to this, what are you saying ‘no’ to?”
The AWE Question – “And what else?”
I love this question because it blocks our natural instinct to hear about a problem and jump in with an answer. Our brains are terrific at reaching conclusions before we have all the facts. In fact, the book shares research showing that doctors interrupt their patients after an average of 18 seconds.
But jumping in too early may lead to solving the wrong problem or missing important issues. The AWE question makes us stop, learn more, and stay curious. Both in coaching and in day-to-day interactions, this question can help you uncover numerous possible solutions to a problem and even buy you more time to think if you’re not sure how to respond to someone.
Bungay Stanier advises using this question “with genuine interest and curiosity.” And “for bonus points, practice listening to the answers.”
The Lazy Question – “How can I help?”
Bungay Stanier points out that jumping in to help others isn’t very, well, helpful. Even with good intentions, when you solve someone’s problem, you could be taking on their work, removing a learning opportunity, or lowering their sense of status. None of this creates a functional, cohesive team.
Asking “How can I help?” prevents you from barging in and taking over. The author explains why this question works: “First, you’re forcing your colleague to make a 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.”
In or outside a coaching session, when a colleague brings you a problem, you can use the Lazy Question to determine whether and how your intervention can help. You might be surprised to find how much less work you have to do by finding out what they really want from you.
The Strategic Question – “If you’re saying ‘yes’ to this, what are you saying ‘no’ to?”
From The Coaching Habit:
Of the many definitions of “strategy” that I’ve seen, I think I like Michael Porter’s best, when he said, “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”
I like this question most of all because it makes people face a reality they mostly try to ignore – the fact of priorities. In any universe with limited time and resources, any action you take means there are other actions you cannot take.
It’s uncomfortable to admit that you’re selecting one action at the expense of others, but that’s what we do every day. The key is to do it deliberately and strategically. And that’s what the question buys you. It also helps you identify what resources will be dedicated to your chosen action and not dedicated to others.
If you have colleagues regularly throwing requests at you, you can use this question to figure out which ones you’ll say ‘yes’ to and which you’ll turn down. Bungay Stanier offers several follow up questions that can help you get to the real strategic value of any task and decide if it’s something you want to spend time on:
- Why are you asking me?
- Whom else have you asked?
- When you say this is urgent, what do you mean?
- According to what standard does this need to be completed? By when?
- If I couldn’t do all of this, but could do just a part, what part would you have me do?
- What do you want me to take off my plate so I can do this?
Stay curious, my friend.
Bungay Stanier stresses over and over how important it is to approach coaching from a point of curiosity. Being curious means you haven’t already decided what’s going to happen. Instead, you’re interested in finding out. It opens your eyes to new ideas, problems, or perspectives. And it gives you the information to take the best actions in the end.
Best of all, staying curious and learning more gives your team the chance to step up, grow their own skills, solve their own problems, and become stronger contributors to your business. As Bungay Stanier notes, “coaching can fuel the courage to step out beyond the comfortable and familiar, can help people learn from their experiences and can literally and metaphorically increase and help fulfil a person’s potential.”
Thank you to Michael Bungay Stanier for an engaging and practical book that can help managers and anyone who works with humans.
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