Research done in 2006 by leadership development firm BlessingWhite found that 73% of managers had some form of coaching training. However, only 23% – or, just one in four people – felt that the coaching had a significant impact on their performance or job satisfaction. Put in the words of Box of Crayons founder Michael Bungay Stanier, “you’re probably not getting very effective coaching; and you’re probably not delivering very effective coaching.”
Get ready to change both with “The Coaching Habit,” a witty and conversational guide to mastering the art of coaching through seven essential questions – and quite a few tips and tricks!
The three main reasons why coaching doesn’t work
You don’t need a survey or a wide-ranging meta-study to tell you that coaching doesn’t work – you’ve probably experienced this yourself. In many cases, it can even be counterproductive. Rather than taking anything out of coaching sessions, many people leave them feeling more confused and less motivated than before. According to Bungay Stanier, there are three reasons why traditional coaching tends to fail so frequently:
- Too much theory, too little practice. Traditional coaching lessons are “overly theoretical, too complicated, a little boring and divorced from the reality of your busy work life.”
- Too much “pure coaching,” too little “applied coaching.” It’s easy to learn by heart how you need to behave in certain situations; what’s difficult is adopting the behavior itself. There is no point in cataloguing new insights if you don’t know how to translate them into action, is there?
- Too much advice, too little real help. Contrary to popular wisdom, most people don’t want to be handed ready-made answers, but to be asked the right questions and find the solutions themselves. It’s the bad coaches who give advice and have all the answers; the good coaches are interested in asking the right questions.
The three vicious circles that plague the workplace
Nobody would argue with the idea that “the essence of coaching lies in helping others and unlocking their potential.” However, what most coaching guides forget to mention is that by helping others properly, coaches actually help themselves even more by breaking out of the three vicious circles that plague most modern workplaces.
- Creating overdependence. If you train your people to refer all their decisions to you, you’ve created an overdependent team. Being the guy with all the answers makes your employees feel disempowered and less motivated. And the less motivated they are to find answers themselves, the more they ask you for advice. In the words of Bungay Stanier: “The more you help your people, the more they seem to need your help. The more they need your help, the more time you spend helping them.”
- Getting overwhelmed. Coaching is all about making your people more autonomous and more self-sufficient so that you can more easily delegate assignments to them. In the opposite scenario, by helping your employees, you’re actually adding more and more tasks and duties to yourself. As priorities proliferate, you start losing focus; the more you lose focus, the more overwhelmed you feel.
- Becoming disconnected. The more you do work that has no purpose, the less engaged and motivated you become. Unfortunately, the less engaged you are, the less likely you are to find meaningful work. You have to help both yourself and your employees do more of the work that has impact and meaning if you want a team connected to a vision, rather than a group of people interested only in getting things done and nothing more.
The seven essential questions (1): two questions to break the ice
“What people think of as the moment of discovery is really the discovery of the question,” said once Jonas Salk, the developer of the first successful polio vaccine. Indeed, while answers disengage and disempower people, questions inspire them to become more involved and enthuse them with faith in their own skills and abilities. Put in a different way: whereas answers produce the three vicious circles of the workplace, questions help teams break out of them. Therefore, just like every great country song has three chords, every great coaching conversation is made up of seven essential questions.
The first two of these questions are not merely foundational, but also boosters for the other five questions. Moreover, together with the third one they form a soul-piercing arrangement, “an irresistible 1-2-3 combination” which can easily become “a robust script” for every single coaching conversation you’ll ever have. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
- The kickstart question: “What’s on your mind?” Most conversations are superficial and useless, because people ordinarily get stuck in one of the following three situations: “ossified agendas” (that is to say, static, never-changing itineraries), “small talk tangos” (irrelevant trivia-related discussions) or “the default diagnosis” (conversations in which both sides feel they know what the issue is without discussing the nature of the issue first). The kickstart question, “What’s on your mind?” is a fail-safe way to turn a chitchat into a real conversation. It’s a question that says, “let’s talk about the thing that matters most,” and one that “dissolves ossified agendas, sidesteps small talk and defeats the default diagnosis.” Once you ask it, you can always use the 3P framework – projects, people, and patterns – to deepen the focus of the conversation in the direction you want.
- The AWE question: “And what else?” Bungay Stanier considers the AWE question “the best coaching question in the world” and claims it has magical properties. “With seemingly no effort,” he explains, “it creates more – more wisdom, more insights, more self-awareness, more possibilities – out of thin air.” The AWE question does at least three things: 1) it generates more and better options (and hence, better decisions and greater success); 2) it restrains leaders from giving advice and encourages them to listen (aka, it tames the Advice Monster); and 3) it buys coaches time to figure things out when they are not entirely sure what’s going on.
The seven essential questions (2): two questions to get to the heart of the matter
Once you have started the conversation in a way that’s both focused and open, it’s time to get to the heart of the matter. That is what the next two questions – the focus question and the foundation question – aim to achieve.
- The focus question: “What’s the real challenge here for you?” Famous Russian writer Anton Pavlovich Chekhov once said that as soon as you complete a short story, you should cut off its first half. Well, the same holds true for conversations – most of them are “all introductions and no essence.” By asking the focus question – “What’s the real challenge here for you?” – you help your employees cut across the vagueness and the ambiguity and delve straight into the main issues. Coaches should be well aware that people rarely lay out the actual problem at the beginning of a conversation. Otherwise, they might end up dealing with the wrong problems, be they symptoms, secondary issues, or ghosts of previous complications. The focus question redirects the conversation from the first problem to the real problem, and, just as importantly, from the coach to the employee.
- The foundation question: “What do you want?” “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place,” said once George Bernard Shaw. Indeed, in most cases, people don’t know what they want to get out of a conversation and know even less what the other party truly needs. There is a difference between wants and needs and it is an important one. Wants are merely surface requests fairly unique to every individual, and needs are necessities common to all humans. According to Marshall Rosenberg, the creator of the Nonviolent Communication Model, there are nine self-explanatory universal needs: affection, freedom, participation, creation, identity, protection, recreation, understanding, and subsistence. Every want veils at least one of these needs. For example, when your employee asks you, the leader, to talk to the VP for them, they are really telling you that they need some kind of protection. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to articulate a need, and easy to formulate a want. That’s why the foundation question – which lies “at the very heart of adult-to-adult relationships” – is “what do you want?” and not “what do you need?” However, a good coach shouldn’t stop at the wants, because it is the needs that really make an exchange a real conversation between two human beings.
The seven essential questions (3): three questions to save time and ensure usefulness
The last three of Bungay Stanier’s seven essential questions are time-saving. The lazy question should save you hours, while the strategic question should save hours for those you are working with. Finally, the learning question should save everybody the trouble of repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
- The lazy question: “How can I help?” According to Stephen Karpman, rather than being who we really are, most of the time we are playing less-than-fantastic versions of ourselves to get something out of a conversation. The three roles we play most often – especially in stressful, emotional or high-conflict situations – are that of the victim, the persecutor and the rescuer. However, the role one plays inspires the other party to take up an appropriate role in response, which essentially means that if, as a leader, you see yourself as better than everybody, you create victims. Just as well, when your employee acts as a victim, it triggers the rescuer in you. The lazy question, “How can I help?”, is the best way to get out of this vicious circle. The power of the question is twofold: it forces your employee to make “a direct and clear request,” while stopping you from leaping into action. That way, neither your employee gets to be a victim, nor do you end up stuck in the role of a rescuer.
- The strategic question: “If you’re saying ‘yes’ to this, what are you saying ‘no’ to?” Whenever you say “yes” to something – a project, a person, a pattern – you are actually saying “no” to something else. That’s why it’s important to always have a good reason for both answers. Since good reasons don’t come out of nowhere, barring any urgency, give yourself time to respond to any request. “Saying ‘yes’ more slowly,” suggests Bungay Stanier, “means being willing to stay curious before committing.”
- The learning question: “What was most useful for you?” There is no better way to complete your coaching conversation than the learning question. By asking your trainee “What was most useful for you about this exchange?” you are simultaneously extracting the most important part of the conversation, sharing the wisdom with everyone around, and embedding the learning inside your employee’s brain by having them retrieve it. Of course, the question gives you feedback as well, by either reassuring you that you’re on the right track or giving you guidance on what to do differently the next time.
As entertaining as it is practical, “The Coaching Habit” offers several great takeaways, perhaps none as eye-opening as its central counterintuitive idea that providing the right answer is not only easier, but also less productive than merely asking the right question.
By extracting the essentials of coaching to seven such questions, Bungay Stanier has given us here a playfully structured, easy-to-read, and memorable manual to mastering the art of helping others reach their full potential.
“If this were a haiku rather than a book,” writes Bungay Stanier, “it would read: ‘Tell less and ask more. Your advice is not as good as you think it is.’” Ironically, one of the best pieces of advice you’ll ever get.