Saying Less, Asking More, and The Coaching Habit

Two words we don’t often think of as key components to a combined term are “coaching” and “habit.” But that’s just what Michael Bungay Stanier proposes in his terrific new book The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, and Change the Way You Lead Forever. I’ve followed Michael for over a half decade, ever since his previous Do More Great Work crossed my desk and found a permanent spot on my bookshelf.

The Coaching Habit
Michael Bungay Stanier

Michael has an intriguing view of the world. In fact, he’s probably the only person I know who takes to heart George Orwell’s opinion that “an autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful,” and includes as a sort of badge of honor that he was banned from his high school graduation, sued by one of his Law School lecturers for defamation, and managed to give himself a concussion while digging a hole as a laborer.

So it should come as no surprise that Michael wants leaders to change the way they view leadership, and thus change the way they lead. The change he argues for is one related to the rather fine art of coaching, and entails turning that art into a leadership habit.

After devouring The Coaching Habit, I caught up with Michael to ask him a few questions.

You make a distinction between coaching for performance and coaching for development. What does that matter…isn’t all coaching about improving?

The way I describe the difference is that coaching for performance is about the fire: building it up, tamping it down, doing whatever needs to be done. So that’s essential — it’s fixing the issue at hand. Coaching for development shifts the focus to the person who’s dealing with the fire. That’s helping them learn, gain new insights about themselves and about the situation, make new connections and become more competent and self-sufficient.

Both modes are important. And what I’ve noticed is that while “performance” gets most of the airtime, it’s “development” that has the lasting impact.

What helps make coaching for development an easy and more regular part of the conversation is adding the phrase, “for you?” at the end of a question. You can see that in the difference between “What’s the real challenge here?” and “What’s the real challenge here for you?” With the “for you” variation, the answer shifts from the fire to include the person dealing with the fire.

Does a coach need to have deep experience, if not success, in the specific domain or area of subject expertise he/she is coaching someone on?

No. And ironically, deep experience sometimes gets in the way. Deep experience can seduce you into thinking that you know all the answers and you should just tell people what to do. And while there’s always a place for explaining what to do, there are three broad challenges with leaping to offering up answers.

First, it’s an overused default response by most managers and leaders. Second, most advice isn’t actually that useful. And finally, people don’t actually act on people’s advice very often, even when it is good.

If you do have experience, that’s great. But use that experience to shape the questions you ask. Slow down the rush to give advice and see how much they can figure out themselves. If you don’t have experience, don’t worry about it. Asking the questions will help the person figure most of it out themselves, and if expertise is needed you can probably find it elsewhere.

The first of your seven questions — “What’s on your mind?” — seems very therapist-like, which works in that setting because of objectivity and confidentiality. Might not an honest and thus helpful answer in a business setting require even more trust?

It’s true that you can imagine a therapist leaning forward and asking in a gentle therapist-y voice, “what’s on your mind?” And it’s also true that it’s the question that Facebook uses to prompt you to share your life with two billion other people.

What I’ve found is that when you ask that question, people answer at the level that’s appropriate and useful for them. So in most work settings, people aren’t going to launch into their marital issues — they’re going to talk about the work issue that’s most pressing for them. And that’s the purpose of the first question: get the conversation to something that matters more quickly.

That said, if there’s a lack of trust between the two parties, there’s more work to be done to repair that bridge than just having a powerful opening question for a conversation.

What distinguishes a great coach from a good coach?

A great coach has the capacity to help get to the real issue at hand much faster. Time is limited, and these days if you’re a busy manager and you can’t coach in 10 minutes, you don’t have time to coach. And that means you’ve got to get to the real stuff fast.

But I’m going to offer a slightly broader, more lofty answer here. I think a great coach has the courage to ask tough questions and challenge the person they’re working with, and the compassion to stay on that person’s side and be a champion for their growth and success.

I agree with your underlying premise that we all live our lives in pursuit of answers to questions, but all too often we don’t ask the right questions, or give the right questions much thought. Why is that?

This gets to the distinction between Good Work and Great Work. Good Work is the day-to-day stuff: getting things done, keeping things moving. It’s your job description, so it’s always going to be part of the equation. Great Work is the work that has more impact and has more meaning. It’s the work that you’re proud of and challenged by.

And while people want more Great Work, almost everyone is stuck with too much Good Work (and Bad Work too). That’s because it takes focus, courage and resilience to do more Great Work.

And I think the same is true in being willing to ask and then sit with the right questions. Because they’ll push you and challenge you and make you uncomfortable. And it’s always easy enough to fill that space instead with action, mistaking busy-ness with impact and meaning.

Why, when it is so esteemed in the East, are we in the West so uncomfortable with silence?

I’m not sure I can speak for the entirety of the West. But one of the things I know to be true about sitting with silence, is that you’re sitting with an increase in ambiguity and uncertainty. Did they understand the question? Was it a good question? Am I adding value? Will they have an answer? Will it be a useful answer? Have I lost control of this conversation? What’s happening here?

But if you can sit with all of that for, oh let’s say three or four seconds, it’s remarkable how consistently the other person will fill the space.

What’s the one thing you want people to take away or remember about The Coaching Habit?

Seven good questions asked regularly will let you work less hard and have more impact.

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You can pick up a Kindle copy of The Coaching Habit for under $5.