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Book Summary: The Coaching Habit

Drawing on years of experience training more than 10,000 busy managers from around the globe in practical, everyday coaching skills, Bungay Stanier reveals how to unlock your peoples' potential. He unpacks seven essential coaching questions to demonstrate how - by saying less and asking more - you can develop a coaching method that produces great results.


Over the past few years, coaching has risen tremendously in popularity. And for good reason - it works. If it’s done correctly.

In a 2006 BlessingWhite study, 73% of managers admitted to having some form of coaching training. However, only 23% of them thought that the coaching had an impact on their performance or job satisfaction. Why didn’t it work?

Probably for three reasons. One, the coaching was probably overly theoretical, too boring or complicated. Even if it was engaging, you probably didn’t spend the time necessary to turn the advice into action. Thirdly, receiving advice can be difficult.

But it doesn’t have to be that way! Coaching is simple and it will help you unlock your potential. It will let you work less hard and have more impact. 

Join us for the next 12 minutes as we learn the biggest insights from Michael Bungay Stanier’s fantastic book The Coaching Habit.

The Seven Essential Questions

We’ll cover seven questions that will break you out of the vicious circles of over-dependent teammates, overwhelming amounts of work, and disconnection from the work that matters. We’ll also cover some 'Question Masterclass lessons,' lessons that should be applied in order to get the most out of the Seven Essential Questions. The behaviour change we hope to instil is simple: a little more asking people questions and a little less telling people what to do. But first, we’ll tell you how to build a habit.

  1. Make a vow: Be clear about the payoff for changing something. Research shows that it’s helpful to think about how the new habit will help people you care about.
  2. Figure out the root of the cause: if you don’t know what triggers the old behaviour, you’ll never change it.
  3. Be short and specific: define your new habit as something that needs less than sixty seconds to complete.
  4. Practice deeply: practice small chunks of the bigger action, practice often, and be aware of your improvements.
  5. Plan how to get back on track: Everyone stumbles, but don’t let it get you down. Make your habit into a resilient system.

Question Masterclass Part 1: Ask One Question at a Time

When questions come hurling from every direction, there’s no time to answer any of them. Ask only one question at a time. And then be quiet and wait for the answer.

Question 1: The Kickstart Question

Striking up a conversation can be challenging. An almost fail-safe way to start a chat that will quickly turn into a real conversation is the question, 'what’s on your mind?' It’s open and it invites people to get to the heart of the matter that is most important to them. It shows trust and dissolves agendas, small talk and default diagnosis.

There are two types of coaching: coaching for performance and coaching for development. Coaching for performance is about addressing and fixing a specific problem. Coaching for development is about turning the focus from the issue to the person dealing with the issue. This is more rare and much more powerful. The 3P model is a way to create focus and shift the focus (when appropriate) to coaching for development.

The 3P model includes projects, people and patterns. After the initial, 'what’s on your mind?' question, see if you can identify which of the three P’s you can connect it to. This will likely lead to a deeper and richer conversation.

Question Masterclass Part 2: Cut the Intro and Ask the Question

If you know what question to ask, get to the point and ask it.

Question 2: The AWE Question

The best coaching question in the world is this: 'And what else?'

It may seem simple, but it has magical properties. When you ask, 'And what else?' you’ll get more options and often better options. Better options lead to better decisions, which will lead to greater success. Often as a coach, it’s tempting to give advice rather than ask a question. We call this the Advice Monster. You have the best intentions but it’s not always what’s best.

'And what else?' breaks the cycle. It tames the Advice Monster. And, in a situation where you’re not entirely sure what’s going on and you need just a moment to figure things out, it buys you some time.

Stay genuine. Don’t just use this question without genuine interest and curiosity. If someone says to you, 'there  is nothing else,' don’t panic. This is the response you should be seeking. It means you’ve done your job well.

Question Masterclass Part 3: Should You Ask Rhetorical Questions?

Stop offering up advice with a question mark attached. Don’t ask questions like, 'Have you thought of…?' or 'What about…?' Offer your idea as an idea, not disguised as a fake question.

Question 3: The Focus Question

Often, when people talk about a challenge at hand, what they’re laying out is rarely the actual problem. They could be describing a few different things: a symptom, a secondary issue, the remnants of a previous problem, or even a half-baked solution to an unarticulated issue. Remember that you’re not responsible for solving everyone else’s problems. You need a way to manage your temptation to jump in and fix it.

'What’s the real challenge here for you?' will help you slow down the rush to action so you can spend time solving the real problem. Asking this question will get to the root of the problem and help you figure out what needs to be done. Focus on the real problem, not the first problem.

Question Masterclass Part 4: Stick to Questions Starting with 'What'

Try to avoid 'Why?' questions. They make people defensive, and more details won’t always help you manage people better. If you’re not trying to fix things, you don’t need the backstory.

Question 4: The Foundation Question

It’s important to lay the foundation by asking, 'What do you want?' It often results in silence, because it’s a difficult question to answer. We often don’t know what we actually want. And even if we do, it’s often hard to ask for it. It’s difficult for both parties to know what the other party wants and that can make things frustrating. However, one way to help is to understand the difference between wants and needs.

The distinction is easy. “Want” is something you’d like to have; 'need' is something you must have. However, in practice it’s hard to stop upgrading everything to the 'need' category.

Marshall Rosenberg is the creator of Nonviolent Communication, a communications process that helps people exchange information better. In his model, he says 'wants' are surface requests and 'needs' are deeper, universal needs - such as freedom or identity that push for the 'want.' Recognising the need will help you best address the want.

There are four primary drivers - they spell out the acronym TERA - that influence how the brain reads a situation.

T is for tribe. Are you with me or against me?

E is for expectation. Do you know the future or not?

R is for rank. Are you more important or less important than I am?

A is for autonomy. Do I get a say or don’t I?

You want to increase the TERA Quotient whenever you can. Asking 'What do you want?' will do that.

Question Masterclass Part 5: Get Comfortable with Silence

Silence may feel uncomfortable, but it is often a measure of success. Give the person you’re coaching a chance to think and search for the answer. It may be tempting to fill the silence, but don’t.

Question 5: The Lazy Question

We know you want to help people. You want to add value and be useful. However, there’s a difference between thinking you’re being helpful and actually being helpful.

People like playing 'rescuer.'  In this mode, we constantly jump to help solve problems, offer advice, take over responsibilities - but we’re not always adding value by doing this. You limit opportunities for growth of those you’re working with. That’s where the lazy question “How can I help?” comes into play.

Asking 'how can I help?' is beneficial for two reasons. First of all, it forces your colleague to make a direct and clear request. Second, it stops you from thinking that you know best and leaping into unwanted action.

Be careful when asking this question. Use gentle tones so people can tell that you’re being genuine. A way to soften this question, and all questions, is to use the phrase 'out of curiosity.'

Don’t be afraid of receiving an undesirable response to the question (“I need you to do this awful task”). You can always say no. Or a nice middle ground response is, "I can’t do that… but I could do [insert your counter-offer].”

Question Masterclass Part 6: Actually Listen to the Answer

Whenever you ask one of the Seven Essential Questions, be sure to genuinely listen to the answer. Stay curious, and stay active.

Question 6: The Strategic Question

There’s a difference between the work that you love to do – the work that excites you and is meaningful to you – and the  other work. Most of the time, we’re busy with the other work. And even though it is likely contributing to the great work (the meaningful and exciting work), we still don’t like to do it very much.

Which leads us to the strategic questions: 'If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?'

This question is more complex than it sounds. Too often, people half-heartedly agree to something or there is a misunderstanding about what’s been agreed to. There are two types of 'no'  answers: the no of omission and the no of commission. The first type applies to the options that are automatically eliminated by you saying 'yes.' The second type is what you need to say to make the 'yes' happen. This type is how you create space, focus and energy to truly do the 'yes' you care about.

It’s hard to say no. The secret to saying no is to learn how to say yes more slowly. We get in trouble because we commit too soon. Saying yes more slowly means asking more questions before committing.

Another way to make it easier to say no is to switch the focus from the person to the task. It’s easier to say, 'I have to say no to this,' than 'I have to say no to you.'

Remember that saying no to things gives you the opportunities to say yes to the things you truly care about. So an important question is, 'If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?'

Question Masterclass Part 7: Acknowledge the Answers You Get

This isn’t about judging people; it’s about encouraging them and letting them know that you listened and heard what they said.

Question 7: The Learning Question

As a manager and a leader, you want people to learn so they can be more competent, more self-sufficient and more successful. However, helping people learn is difficult. People don’t learn when you tell them something – they learn when they have the 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. Do that by asking, 'What was most useful for you?'

We know that a lot of the things we learn leave our brain the second we move on to something else. We also know how to make learning experiences more successful, and that is if one creates their own connections to new ideas. This is why asking 'What was most useful for you?' increases the odds of you remembering the lessons.

The main point is to get the person to reflect on their experience and come to the conclusion on their own about what they have learned. There are a few different questions you could ask that will result in the same retrieval process to embed the learning. 'What did you learn?' 'What was the key insight?' and 'What’s important to capture?' are other options, but 'What was most useful for you?' is the best because it assumes the conversation was useful, it asks people to identify the thing that was most useful, it makes it personal, it gives you feedback, and it reminds people how useful you are to them.

Question Masterclass Part 8: Use Every Channel to Ask a Question

These questions can be helpful via email too. Questions work just as well typed as they do spoken.

Now, Get Out There!

Conversations between managers and those they’re managing often have too much baggage or too much certainty. They often wander off the path too quickly or work too hard to get back on path. They leave both parties feeling exhausted at the end.

These Seven Essential Questions will change that. You’ll work less hard and have more impact. The behaviour change that will serve you most powerfully is simply this: a little less advice, a little more curiosity.




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