The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier

If you’re interested in becoming a better coach, manager, or leader — or you just want to start asking better questions at work — check out The Coaching Habit from Michael Bungay Stanier. You get practical advice on what coaching is, why you’d want to do it, and how to immediately improve. It’s centred around seven essential questions that seem carefully crafted to help you help your colleagues, teammates, and reports focus in on solving problems through coaching. Each question is finely honed, specific, and easy to ask. The first three, and the last, form a script you can immediately apply to any 1:1 meeting you’re in.

Like a lot of business and self development books there’s some padding but what fluff is in there is all great advice and ultimately minimal. It’s an extremely practical and to the point book. That’s because the core of the book, the seven essential questions, are so practical and so usable. These are the questions you should have in your toolbox when your reports and colleagues come to you with questions like, “What do you think I should do about…?”. They’ll help you avoid giving the bad advice that throws projects, people, and processes off the rails. And they’ll help you instead get to the heart of actual challenges while encouraging real learning and self-development. It’s pretty easy to recommend.

What are the seven essential questions?

“What’s on your mind?”

  • This is the opening question that kickstarts a coaching session. For example: “Hi there, what’s on you mind today that you’d like to talk about?”
  • Asking “What’s on your mind?” is an almost guaranteed way to turn any conversation into a real conversation.

“And what else?”

  • This question pairs with “What’s on your mind?” The idea is that you can use it after asking someone “What’s on your mind?” like, for example, with “And what else is on your mind?”.
  • It should also be used to investigate the items revealed by “What’s on your mind?”. For example, “So, you mentioned that you’re feeling overwhelmed with your workload. And what else?”
  • The author calls “And what else?” the “world’s best coaching question.”
  • The first answer someone gives you is never the only answer and it’s rarely the best answer.
  • You’ll get more options and often better options for what’s really challenging someone by asking this question.
  • This lets you stay curious longer and curb your urge to give advice. If you give advice too soon, without knowing what’s really challenging someone or why, you’re going to give advice on the wrong problem in the wrong way.
  • It can also just buy you time to figure out what’s going on in a situation and put your won thoughts in order.
  • You’ll ask this question at least three times and rarely more than five in a session.

“What’s the real challenge here for you?”

  • This is the “focus” question. For example, “Can you help me understand what the real challenge is for you in this situation?”
  • This questions is the first step in your colleague working out the problem.
  • Asking someone “What’s the real challenge here for you” encourages the person you’re coaching to very concretely explain what problem they have to work out for themselves.
  • The phrase “for you” is very specific here. It focuses someone in on how they themselves will work on improving what is really blocking or challenging them — and not focusing on problems that they can’t fix or the problems of others.

“What do you want?”

  • This is the “Foundation” question. For example, “What is it that you want to achieve in this situation?”
  • Ask “What do you want?” and they begin to problem solve by working backwards from an ideal outcome. Asking someone what do you want encourages them to imagine the outcome and avoid focusing on obstacles that are in their way.
  • This frees themselves up to work backwards rather than struggle with figuring out what to do.

“How can I help?”

  • This is the (Clever) Lazy Question. For example, “I’d love to support you. How can I help?”
  • They’ll help you help them by telling you what they need.
  • Asking “How can I help?” encourages someone to make a clear request and helps you avoid offering advice too soon.
  • It also (and this is maybe even better) stops you from thinking you know how to help and jumping in to offer advice before you know the real problem.

“What is your next step?”

  • This is the Strategic Question. For example, “With what we’ve discussed, what do you see as your next step?”
  • It immediately turns conversations on a dime towards next actions.

“What was most useful for you?

  • This is the Learning Question. For example, “As we wrap things up, what was most useful for you today?”
  • People only learn when they reflect on something and your job as a coach is to make spaces for that to happen. This question makes that space.
  • It has other benefits like its assumption that the conversation was useful, creating a moment to figure out why and how when you ask it.
  • It asks people to come up with just one thing to learn from and avoids overwhelm.
  • The “for you” always makes it specific and personal and increases the chance for learning to happen.
  • It gives you feedback.
  • It forces people to extract value vs a binary was anything useful.
  • It reminds people that you’re useful: when they look back over your conversations they’ll remember that every one had something useful.
  • When they’re done sharing you can share what you found most useful. This exchange will also deepen your social bond.

I’ve been impressed with how easy its been to put some of the items into action.

One piece of advice the Bungay Stanier has is stop asking “fake questions” that are ideas you have disguised as a question. Instead you should ask, “And what else have you considered?” Or a variation. Or one of the other seven essential questions. Otherwise you should just share your idea like, “I have an idea.” I’ve started doing this much more regularly and it’s helped me be more succinct as well as more real.

Additionally, I’ve incorporated the seven essential questions into my 1:1s with my reports. While building a habit of incorporating this into my routine I have my notes up in a document that I keep open on zoom calls. This keeps them literally right in front of me when I’m most often pulled into coaching scenarios. I’ve been most surprised by asking “What was most useful?”. It’s pretty clear that wrapping up coaching in that way will create a great feedback loop.

Like with any business or self-development book, the real challenge with applying any lessons learned is going to be not over-applying the lessons learned. Everything has to be adapted to your circumstances. But the Coaching Habit is light, practical, and laser-focused on asking better questions in order to support self-development, problem-solving, and learning. It’s pretty easy to adapt and apply with that focus.

It might sound like a lot. Seven questions for every coaching conversation! But one of the key ideas from the book is that coaching is not a special, formal, activity — despite the framework. At the end of the day, these seven questions (and you aren’t asking them all in every session) are pretty light. And one of the main points of the book is that coaching is a daily activity that can happen in as little as 10 minutes. Great to keep in mind: there’s always time to learn.

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