I started to grow my team at work last year.
As a result, I wanted to become a better leader.
I scoured the Internet looking for book recommendations and Michael Bungay Stanier’s “The Coaching Habit” kept coming up. People I admired, like Daniel Pink and Brene Brown, were among those that endorsed it.
So, of course, I picked it up and devoured it.
What follows are my favorite takeaways from the book.
You Need a Coaching Habit
Coaching has shown to have a “markedly positive” impact on performance, climate (culture) and the bottom line.
Giving a little less advice and asking a few more questions is surprisingly difficult.
Building a coaching habit helps you break out of the three vicious circles that plague workplaces:
- Creating Overdependence – The more you help your people, the more they seem to need your help.
- Getting Overwhelmed – You probably have too much work.
- Becoming Disconnected – It goes beyond getting things done. You must do work that has impact and meaning.
Build Your Habit
The change of behavior at the heart of what this book is about is this: a little more asking people questions and a little less telling people what to do. [Editor’s note: If you really want to hone this skill I recommend Edgar Schein’s “Humble Inquiry“.]
Think less about what your habit can do for you, and more about how this new habit will help a person or people you care about.
Ask one question at a time
When you hurl question after question it doesn’t feel like a supportive conversation, it has the unpleasant vibe of an interrogation.
Now that you’re convinced you need to start giving less advice and start asking more questions, let’s arm you with some good questions.
(1.) The Kickstart Question
The kickstart question is, “What’s on your mind?”
It’s a question that says, Let’s talk about the thing that matters most.
Coaching for performance is about addressing and fixing a specific problem or challenge. Coaching for development is about turning the focus from the issue to the person dealing with the issue. The latter is more rare and more powerful.
On Working with People
Situations are always made more complex when you — in all your imperfect, not-always-rational, messy, biased, hasn’t fully obtained enlightenment glory — have to work with others who, surprisingly, are also imperfect, not always rational, messy, biased, and a few steps short of full wisdom and compassion.
Why does this question work so well?
We are what we give our attention to. If we’re mindful about our focus, so much the better. But if we’re unwittingly distracted or preoccupied, we pay a price.
Cut the intro and Ask the Question:
Don’t ramble and meander. If you know what question to ask, get to the point and ask it. If you must have a lead-in phrase, try “Out of curiosity.”
(2). The AWE Question
“And what else?”
With seemingly no effort, it creates more — more wisdom, more insights, more self awareness, more possibilities — out of thin air.
There are three reasons this question has the impact it does:
- More options can lead to better decisions;
- You rein yourself in;
- You buy yourself time.
The first answer someone gives you is almost never the only answer, and it’s rarely the best answer.
Decisions made from binary choices had a failure rate greater than 50%.
Having at least one more option (i.e. not binary) lowered the failure rate by almost half, down to about 30 percent.
When you use “And what else?” you’ll get more options and often better options. Better options lead to better decisions. Better decisions lead to greater success.
Going Too Far: The Paradox of Choice
The power of “And what else?” is that it’s the quickest and easiest way to uncover and create new possibilities, but be careful. You don’t need too many options. Four is actually the ideal number at which we can chunk information. More than four options creates decision making paralysis.
Rein Yourself In
Tell less and ask more
Your advice is not as good
As you think it is.
We’ve all got a deeply ingrained habit of slipping into the advice-giver-/expert/answer-it/solve-it/fix-it-mode. When you take the premium that your organization places on answers and certainty, then blend in the increased sense of overwhelm and uncertainty and anxiety that many of us feel as our jobs and lives become more complex, and then realize that our brains are wired to have a strong preference for clarity and certainty, it’s no wonder that we like to give advice. [Ed note: The smartest people say “I don’t know” all the time.]
Giving advice feels more comfortable than the ambiguity of asking a question.
Stay curious and ask a few good questions.
Buy Yourself Some Time
When you’re not entirely sure what’s going on, and you need just a moment or two to figure things out, asking “And what else?” buys you a little extra time.
Committing to an answer and then having a chance to reflect on it creates greater accuracy. More recent studies have found that follow-up questions that promote higher-level thinking (like “and what else?”) help deepen understanding and promote participation.
(3) The Focus Question
People in organizations like yours around the world are working very hard and coming up with decent solutions to problems that just don’t matter, and while the real challenges often go unaddressed.
When you start jumping in to fix things, things go off the rails in three ways: you work on the wrong problem; you do the work your team should be doing; and the work doesn’t get done.
When you solve the problem yourself your team has trained you to do their work for them.
The focus question is… “What’s the real challenge for you here?”
The Proliferation of Challenges
“If you had to pick one of these to focus on, which one here would be the real challenge for you?”
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.
Moving from Performance to Development
Coaching for development goes beyond just solving the problem and shifts the focus to the person who’s trying to solve the problem.
Coming up with ways to fix things feels more comfortable than sitting in the ambiguity of trying to figure out the challenge.
Stick to questions starting with “What” and avoid questions starting with “Why.” If you’re not trying to fix things, you don’t need the backstory. Why questions can also unnecessarily put people on the defensive.
(4) The Foundation Question
“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” — George Bernard Shaw
The Foundation Question: “What do you want?”
Peter Block defined an adult-to-adult relationship as one in which you are “able to ask for what you want, knowing that the answer may be No.”
There are 9 self-explanatory universal needs:
Recognizing the need will give you a better understanding of how you might best address the want.
The challenge for busy and ambitious managers is that you want those you interact with to be engaging rather than retreating.
How do you influence others’ brains and your own situation so that situations are rewarding, not risky?
T – Tribe – I’m with you, not against you
E – Expectation – Is what’s going to happen next clear?
R – Rank – Don’t diminish others’ status
A – Autonomy – If you believe you do have a choice then this environment is more likely to be a place of reward and therefore engagement
(5) The Lazy Question
When you offer to help someone, you “one up” yourself: you raise your status and lower theirs, whether you mean to or not.
While this seems counterintuitive, people don’t usually want help thrust upon them.
Instead of jumping in, ask the lazy question.
The Lazy Question: How Can I Help?
The power of “How can I help?” is twofold:
First, you’re forcing your colleague to make a direct and clear request.
Second (and possibly even more valuable), it stops you from thinking that you know how best to help and leaping into action.
The more direct version of “How can I help? is “What do you want from me?”
Other ways to soften the question being asked:
- “Out of curiosity”
- “Just so I know”
- “To help me understand better”
- “To make sure that I’m clear”
When responding to their answer, you have a number of options:
“Yes” is one, of course.
“No, I can’t do that,” is another option.
Don’t just give them a No; give them some other choices.
Or buy yourself some time with, “Let me think about that.”
Another way to buy yourself some time when someone puts you on the spot is, “That’s a great question. I’ve got some ideas which I’ll share with you. But before I do, what are your first thoughts?”
(6) The Strategic Question
Strategy isn’t a PowerPoint document gathering dust.
“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” — @MichaelEPorter
A “Yes” is nothing without the “No” that gives it boundaries and form.
No puts the spotlight on how to create the space and focus, and energy and resources that you’ll need to truly do that Yes.
The secret to saying No is to shift the focus and learn how to say Yes more slowly.
Saying Yes more slowly means being willing to stay curious before committing:
- 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 that I can do this?
A Harvard study suggests that only 10 percent of managers had the right focus and energy to work on the stuff that matters.
Most likely you can think of someone in your organization who seems to be able to “hold the line” and stop that aggregation of small tasks and additional responsibilities that, for the rest of us, eventually consume our lives. That’s because they know how to say Yes more slowly than you do.
How to Say No When You Can’t Say No:
Say Yes to the person, but say No to the task.
5 Strategic Questions That Force Great Planning:
- What is our winning aspiration?
- Where will be play?
- How will we win?
- What capabilities must be in place?
- What management systems are required?
[These questions are from Roger Martin’s and A.G. Lafley’s “Playing to Win,” arguably the best book on strategy.]
(7) The Learning Question
You want your people to learn so that they become more competent, more self-sufficient and more successful. Conveniently, they want that as well.
The Learning Question = “What was most useful for you?”
Your job as a manager and a leader is to help create the space for people to have those learning moments.
You can make the learning experience more successful by leveraging the AGES model, which stands for Attention, Generation, Emotion and Spacing.
When we take the time and effort to generate knowledge and find an answer rather than just reading it, our memory retention is increased.
This is why advice is overrated.
If I tell you something, you might not remember it, but if I ask you something and you generate the answer yourself, the odds that you will remember increase substantially.
Asking, “What was most useful for you?” achieves the following:
- Makes it personal
- Gives you feedback
- It’s learning, not judgment
- Assumes the conversation was useful
- Reminds people how useful you are to them
- Asks people to identify the Big Thing that was most useful
If you want to enrich the conversation even further — and build a stronger relationship, too — tell people what you found to be the most useful about the exchange.
What does this book help you accomplish?
You’re going to change the way you have conversations with the people you manage, influence and engage with. You’ll stay curious, tamp down on giving advice and help people quickly figure out their own paths, all while sharing your own advice and wisdom in the right dosage and at the right time.
The change of behavior that’s going to serve you most powerfully is simply this: a little less advice, a little more curiosity.