The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever

The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever

by Michael Bungay Stanier

The Coaching Habit will teach you the most practical, relatable and direct techniques that are essential in becoming a great coach/leader. It particularly explores seven transformative questions that will help you make a difference with how you lead and support others. Through this book, you will learn the simple and everyday habits that can transform you from a mere leader or manager to an excellent coach.

Summary Notes

The importance of behavioural changes in building the right coaching habits.

“We live within our habits. So shape the way you want to lead, and build the right coaching habits.”

The importance of behavioural changes when it comes to building the right coaching habits can never be overemphasized. You need to change certain behaviours to cultivate the right habits for leadership. For example, you may have to learn to avoid being too argumentative in order to effectively spark conversations with the people you are leading.

The truth is that nothing is stronger than habits. While bad habits can easily ruin you, you will easily build the structures of success once you understand your good habits. Of course, good habits do not happen overnight, but you need to consistently work on changing your behaviour for the better. 

It’s quite normal to start experiencing resistance the moment you start trying new habits, but you don’t have to give in. Be determined to keep practising your new habits till the point where you start doing things effortlessly.

That said, the formula to starting a new habit is structured in three main parts:

  • Identifying the trigger for your new habit: This simply means identifying what has made you want to adopt a new habit. For example, you may decide to start building good relationships with your team members after going through bouts of frustrations as a result of misunderstandings.
  • Identifying the old habits: This stage is all about understanding the old habit so you know exactly what you are trying to stop. For example, you can identify rudeness as the reason you always have misunderstandings with your team members.
  • Define the new habit: The new habit should be one that takes 60 seconds or less to do. For example, you can decide to say “I’ll think about it” instead of outright rejecting the opinions and proposals of your team members.

Actions to take

Starting a conversation: a kickstart question

“One of the reasons managers don’t coach more often than they do is that they don’t know how to start.”

As a leader, you might have limited yourself from coaching as much as you should because of the challenges in starting conversations with others. A good opening line will always make a difference, so you need to learn to start conversations in a captivating manner. Otherwise, you may get stuck in a conversation that is boring, superficial or not useful.

You may want to dig deeper with each conversation, but do you know how to go about that? Well, one of the most efficient ways to start chats that can turn into real conversations quickly is to ask the question “What’s on your mind?”. 

This question invites people to go to the heart of the matter and share what's most important to them. In turn, it will help you understand them and decipher the areas of their lives that need coaching.

There are two major aspects of coaching and knowing the difference will help keep you in check during conversations with others. You are either Coaching for Performance or Coaching for Development. 

Coaching for Performance is about addressing and fixing a specific problem or challenge, so you might want to focus more on the challenge. Coaching for Development, on the other hand, entails turning the focus from the issue to the person dealing with the issue, so you will have to focus more on understanding the person facing the challenge.

Actions to take

The awe question: And what else?

“And What Else?”—the AWE Question—has magical properties.”

As a leader or coach, you should be able to prompt others to reveal important things about themselves to you. You may already know how to kickstart a conversation, but do you know how to make others reveal the details that will guide you towards coaching them the best possible way? Remember, you can only coach someone well if you understand their situation and challenges.

The awe question, “And what else?” is, therefore, that magical question that opens room for more insights, self-awareness, and possibilities. The responses from this question will definitely give you a greater understanding, so you can in turn make the best coaching decisions. 

It is however of the utmost importance to ask this awe question at the right moments. Some of such scenarios include;

  • After someone has responded to the what’s on your mind question, you can proceed with “And what else?”
  • After someone has told you about their next course of action, you can challenge them with “And what else could you do?”
  • After someone has responded to a question about their real challenges, you can go deeper by asking “And what else is a challenge here for you?”
  • When you start your weekly check-in meeting by asking “what’s important right now?”, you can keep the pressure on by asking, “And what else?”
  • When someone’s nudging a new idea to the fore, exploring new boundaries of courage and possibility, you can hold the space and deepen the potential by asking, “And what else might be possible?”
  • When you’re brainstorming new ideas and you don’t want to get bogged down, you can keep the energy up by firing out, “And what else?”

Actions to take

The focus question: What’s the real challenge here for you?

“When people start talking to you about the challenge at hand, what’s essential to remember is that what they’re laying out for you is rarely the actual problem.”

As a leader, you can easily focus on solving the wrong problem if you do not know how to probe others to state the real problem. One of the best ways of identifying the real problem is to ask the focus question - “what’s the real challenge here for you?”.

The focus question is important because it slows down the rush for action, so you can focus on the real problem, and not just the first problem. Aside from solving the wrong problem, you can easily find yourself solving all the problems alone if you do not learn to get into the root of the real matter by asking the focus question. 

The goal of the focus question is for the person you are having a conversation with to wrestle with her struggles and what she needs to figure out, so you can in turn coach her well on how to solve the main problem at hand.

Actions to take

The foundation question: What do you want?

“An adult-to-adult relationship is one in which you are able to ask for what you want, knowing that the answer may be No.”

It is imperative for you as a leader to know what others really want. As a matter of fact, knowing what others want should be at the heart of all adult-to-adult relationships. You can’t just assume what others want unless they expressly tell you. The illusion that both parties to a conversation know what the other party wants is not only pervasive but also sets the stage for plenty of frustrating exchanges.

Asking the foundation question “What do you want?” will help others reveal their expectations, needs, desires, and wants, which will guide you towards coaching them well. 

That said, it's important for you to know the difference between a want and a need as this will also help you make the right coaching decisions. A want could be anything from getting a report done by a certain date to understanding whether you need to attend a meeting or not. Meanwhile, needs go deeper as they are necessities. They can be grouped into nine universal categories: Affection, Freedom, Participation, Creation, Identity, Protection, Recreation, Understanding and Sustenance. 

Most times, you would have to listen to others before guessing the needs that lie behind their requests. For example, if someone says you should help him talk to your CEO, it could simply mean he needs protection.

Actions to take

The lazy question: how can I help?

“The biggest worry people have about asking, “How can I help?” is the range of potential answers”

Sometimes, you may find yourself focusing on the wrong things because you failed to ask the lazy question “How can I help?”. This question is so powerful because it forces others to communicate effectively by making clear and direct requests. This will in turn guide you to help them in the particular thing they can’t do or figure out by themselves.

Moreover, the focus question stops you from assuming that you know how best to help and just leaping into action. As a coach, you do not want to spend your time trying to handle a problem that doesn't exist or a situation others do not consider a problem. However, by asking “How can I help?”, you will be able to temper your approach so that you can be helpful in a way that actually helps others.

You may be nervous about asking the lazy question for fear that others may ask you for very difficult or impossible requests. Well, this shouldn’t stop you from asking. You have the right to accept or refuse to help with particular tasks or projects.

The lazy question solves the problem of “The Drama Triangle”, which many organizations face. The Drama Triangle is a model of dysfunctional social interactions that illustrates a power game involving three groups of people:

  • Victims: This set of people often feel trapped, victimized, helpless, and hopeless. They think they are powerless and always blame the persecutors.
  • Rescuers: These are people who often intervene on behalf of the victim and try to save them from perceived harm. However, rescuers often offer short-term fixes that keep the victims depending on them. The rescuers, therefore, turn to neglect their own needs.
  • Persecutors: The persecutors always blame the victims and criticize the approach of the rescuers without providing appropriate solutions or guidance.

Actions to take

The strategic question: If you’re saying YES to this, what are you saying NO to?

“But a Yes is nothing without the No that gives it boundaries and form”

As a coach, you have to figure out the right way to make others be intentional about the things they accept to do. The truth is that some team members accept certain tasks and projects out of pressure, without really thinking of the implications should they fail to accomplish what they agreed to. Well, this is exactly where the strategic question “If you’re saying YES to this, what are you saying NO to?” comes in. 

This question is more complex than it sounds - it actually influences people to be clear and committed to the things they have accepted to do. This question equally goes a long way to clarify all misunderstandings. 

The truth is that a yes is nothing without a no that gives its boundaries. For example, if someone accepts to meet and prospect a potential client at 10 am, it means they can’t be part of the sales meeting scheduled at the same time. In essence, it means they are saying yes to prospecting the potential client and no to attending the sales meeting. 

There are five other strategic questions that can help you determine if someone is intentional about his yes or no for a particular project. These questions are not linear, meaning that the answer to one question may influence the answer to the one that follows and likely to the one that preceded it. They are:

  1. What is our winning aspiration?
  2. What area/sector should we focus on?
  3. How will we win?
  4. What capabilities must be in place?
  5. What management systems are required?

Actions to take

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.”

Being a leader or coach means you are interested in making people get stuff done. However, you definitely want more than that. The best coaches are focused on helping others become more competent, self-sufficient, and successful, so they can handle their future projects by themselves.

Nevertheless, it's never easy helping people to learn. It's not surprising that others will fail to retain most of the concepts you have been teaching them for a while. The truth is, people do not really learn when you tell them something. Instead, they learn much better when they have a chance to recall and reflect on recent happenings. 

This explains why the learning question “what was most useful to you?” is important in your conversations with others. This question actually helps others focus on one or two key takeaways from the conversation. Besides, the learning question is also a personal one that gives others the opportunities to tell themselves what was useful, rather than you telling them what you think was useful.

Actions to take

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