The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier. Toronto: Box of Crayons Press, 2016.
Summary: Kicking the advice habit, asking questions well, and using variations of seven key questions can lead to more effective leadership coaching.
Over the next few weeks, I will be mixing in reviews of books on coaching, part of some reading I am doing for my own development. I’ll take the risk of reviewing these because all of us influence others in some way, and it is never a loss to learn how we might do that with greater effectiveness that helps others flourish.
One of the key ideas of this delightfully straightforward and easy to read book is that many leaders tend to give directions, answers, and advice far more than ask questions. This thwarts effectiveness by promoting dependency rather than autonomy in those we lead. It leads to more time being absorbed in this unproductive activity, and at worst, leaders become bottlenecks in their organizations.
Another critical insight is that deciding to ask more and better questions is not enough if the leader doesn’t recognize what triggers the advice-giving habit. With each of the seven questions that follow, the author asks us to identify the triggers that activate habits that derail us from good coaching and to identify a new practice that will be come a new habit.
The core of the book is seven great coaching questions:
- The Kickstart Question: “What’s on your mind?” Ask this early, with a minimum of chit-chat and this gets to the reason for the conversation. Often this will be about one of the 3Ps: Projects, People, and Patterns, all linked to each other.
- The AWE Question: “And what else?” This question draws out more information, often identifies more options, buys time, and keeps the “Advice Monster” at bay.
- The Focus Question: What’s the real challenge here for you? Often what is on one’s mind is nebulous, or there are many challenges mentioned. This question gets concrete and personal and prevents “coaching the ghost” of discussing someone not in the room rather than what is facing the person in front of you.
- The Foundation Question: “What do you want?” Often the coachee is not clear on this and it is not clear in the situation. Once clear, it is possible to have an adult conversation where it is possible to answer “yes,” “no,” “give me time to think about that,” or perhaps, “not this, but that.” Also, it is critical to recognize the difference between wants and needs, the latter often being the reasons behind the wants. The question can also be a mutual one, particularly in a management situation where two people can get clear on what each wants in a situation and then get on with figuring out how to respond to that.
- The Lazy Question: “How can I help?” It question calls upon the person to make a direct request, and it delivers you from being the perpetual rescuer. A blunter way to ask this question is “What do you want from me?” Instead of deciding for a person how one can be helpful, it allows them to say what really would be helpful, and it allows you to decide whether you can offer that help. It is lazy because it saves us from providing all sorts of unwanted and counterproductive help.
- The Strategic Question: “If you are saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?” This chapter offers some great help in figuring out how to say “no” when it is very hard to do. It also helps us figure out what we will be saying “no” to if we choose a strategic direction, and what else we may need to say “no” to in order to fully embrace the “yes” rather than over-commit.
- The Learning Question: “What was most useful to you?” This recognizes that debriefing is where learning really takes place, and clarifies the most important outcomes to your discussion. It also has the side benefit of increasing the perception that the coach as useful!
Stanier includes psychological research at the end of each chapter explaining why the questions are effective. He also sandwiches a “Question Masterclass” between each question that explores how one asks questions as well as what questions we ask–things like cutting the intro and asking the question, sticking to “what” questions, getting comfortable with silence, listening to answers, and acknowledging them.
The questions ring true with my own leadership and coaching experience–these are good questions. The insight on the “advice monster” is one most leaders need to heed. There is a refreshing contempt for truisms like “work smarter, not harder.” I do wonder about the author’s claim that “Coaching is simple” and that this book will “give you most of what you need.” Is this hype, or simply an author with a lot of chutzpah? What I can say is that this was a quick read, offered good questions and reasons for using them, and didn’t bury its message in a ton of verbiage. That’s worth something.