Answers Versus Questions

I read Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit about a year ago, but I still struggle to adapt his main point into my daily life. What Bungay Stanier recommends is that we ask more questions in conversations, because questions get the other person thinking in a way that develops their thoughts more thoroughly. We like to give advice and tell people the answers we think they need to hear, but our answers often fail to help the other person. Our answers come from our perspective which is limited and does not truly capture and address he issue and concerns of the other person. Questions on the other hand, encourage the other person to think more critically about what they are going through and helps them identify the right answer to the right question.

 

One of the chapters in Bungay Stanier’s book begins with a quote from Nancy Willard, “Answers are closed rooms; and questions are open doors that invite us in.” In coaching, there are two important considerations when thinking about questions versus answers. The first is that an answer doesn’t really get the person we coach to think very deeply about their problem. The second is that an answer may not actually be addressing the right question. Questions on the other hand allow the person being coached to think through the actual challenges they face and steer the conversation in the direction they need it to go. When we provide an answer, we are saying that we fully understand the other person and exactly where they are in relation to their problem, something that is impossible because we can never perfectly know another person’s challenges.

 

Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler suggest that human conversation is a way for us to signal and display our knowledge and our mental toolkit. The real value in a conversation should come from the listening side, where we take in lots of new information for almost no real cost. But in reality, we all try to talk as much as possible in conversations (for the most part) and we want what we say to be interesting and important. When this creeps into coaching, then the coaching interaction is shifted where the main goal is not to help the other person but to show off. This is why our own answers are so damaging in coaching. We are assuming we understand exactly what issue the other person faces and pushing our assumption and recommendation onto them even if they did not ask for it. The worst part is that we may be answering the completely wrong question or providing advice that doesn’t actually fit the person or their situation out of a selfish desire to be impressive.

 

Questions allow the individual to expand on their issue and better organize their thoughts. They can address the specific areas where they have challenges, and questions can guide them through the thinking process. It is hard to get used to asking questions more than providing answers, but in the long term, you allow the other person to find the right answer for themselves and their situation, and you allow them to grow and be a more self-aware individual.

Beyond Sorting Things Out

One of the arguments that Michael Bungay Stanier makes in his book The Coaching Habit is that we view coaching as something directive, controlling, and done by a mastermind who directs the people they coach as if they were chess pieces. Bungay Stanier highlights the ways that this vision of coaching falls short and fails to actually achieve the goals of coaching. Our visions of great coaches often center around strong men (men because they are often in the professional sports world) who bark orders, make smart decisions, display power, and are shrouded in mystery. Real successful coaching Bungay Stanier argues, is actually less about the coach, is less directive and more exploratory, and more focused on growth than on problem solving.

 

One of his chapters starts with large bold text reading, “Call them forward to learn, improve, and grow, rather than to just get something sorted out.” A bad view of a successful coach places them at the center of the coaching relationship. The coach finds the weaknesses, identifies the problems and shortcomings, and then directs the people they work with to make specific changes and to do specific things to overcome their obstacles. The coach’s brilliance leads the way and their orders sort out the problems for everyone so that the team can be great.

 

Unfortunately, this view of coaching is not actually helpful for individual growth nor is it representative of the leadership of great teams. When a coach takes this approach, what they find is that they are increasingly called upon and relied on to solve every problem and curve ball thrown at the team. The coach becomes the go to voice for every decision and it is up to them to determine the right path forward in every situation. Success and failure rest on the coach, and while this may give the coach great power and prestige (if things go well) it limits the potential and possibilities of the team. Any human can only make so many decisions and take on so many projects. Being involved in every single decision may give you great power, but it is also constraining, stressful, and limiting.

 

Truly successful teams are able to distribute leadership, authority, and decision-making. A good coach allows decisions to be made independently of themselves so that they can take on new opportunities and think long-term. To do this, coaches can’t just solve every problem that comes up, they need to help those they work with to learn, improve, and develop real skills that will help them tackle the myriad of challenges that can and cannot be predicted. When coaches empower rather than direct, the team can flourish as more people are able to apply skill sets that make a difference. Rather than being limited by the time, attention span, and strengths of the coach, these teams can be dynamic, flexible, creative, and fast. The role of the coach becomes one of empowerment by identifying areas to develop skills for others rather than to provide answers from above.

Coaching Tactically and Coaching Strategically

I work for a tech start-up in the heath care space and within our company (at least in our office which is lead by a couple of former Microsoft ninjas) two key buzz words are tactical and strategic. I was not sure exactly what these words meant and how they were used in business until I had a very specific meeting with our site director who was at one point my manager for roughly 6 months. I was in a one-on-one meeting explaining some challenges that I was facing in my role. Every day I was reacting to problems that bubbled up and needed my immediate attention, and I was not quite doing anything that would get ahead of those individual problems and solve the long term issues that created these acute problems. My boss at that point described the difference of thinking tactically versus strategically.

 

The daily grind and the individual problems that scream for our attention create the tactical work. The long term planning and insightful problem solving that stops those problems is the strategic work. The tactical is important and takes a certain set of skills, but the strategic is the differentiator — what separates the average companies from the excellent companies, what makes the top employees stand out from those who show up each day and punch a clock. What I was learning in that one-on-one was the difference between the two types of thinking. Now, when I look back at that coaching session, I also  see two different coaching styles at work.

 

In his book The Coaching Habit author Michael Bungay Stanier makes a distinction between two types of coaching: coaching for performance and coaching for development. He describes the two styles and approaches in the following way, “Coaching for performance is about addressing and fixing a specific problem or challenge. It’s putting out the fire, or building up the fire, or banking the fire. It’s everyday stuff, and it’s important and necessary.” In this quick quote he is describing tactical coaching. How can you help an employee, colleague, or friend navigate the individual challenges that are popping up in front of them and how can they get through those obstacles? Bungay Stanier continues, “Coaching for development is about turning the focus from the issue to the person dealing with the issue, the person who’s managing the fire. This conversation is more rare and significantly more powerful.”

 

The second quote is about coaching strategically, helping the individual see not just how to overcome one challenge, but how to adapt and change what they are doing, the process they work with, and how they are approaching obstacles to make them better in the long run. It is a focus on the individual and their growth as opposed to a focus on a problem and how to address that problem. Thinking strategically requires awareness and understanding of common threads between problems and issues, and that is what you are trying to build in the other person. You are working with them to find the areas of growth for them that will connect the dots in their own life and story, and you are working with them to shift their perspective to solve long term problems and not immediate issues. This is what my boss was doing with me when he explained the difference between thinking tactically in my daily work and angling myself and my operations to be more strategic.

Kickstarting Conversations

When you are coaching someone professionally, meeting with a colleague or associate, or just hanging out with a spouse or friend, how do you really get around to having important conversations? In my life, I too frequently have quick chats about mundane topics like the weather that often don’t lead to something more interesting. Sometimes, I bring up the Don’t Panic Geocast (a fantastic geology podcast that I highly recommend) and get too deep into the science of a given weather patter or how that weather shapes some aspect of earth science. Some days and in some situations getting a conversation going is a challenge, and sometimes the conversation we get started is not the conversation that we both actually want to have. The question for us, when we want to have meaningful conversations, is how do we get a conversation going and avoid simply talking about a Podcast, TV show, or the weather?

 

In his book on how to be an effective coach and create habits that lead to meaningful coaching interactions, Michael Bungay Stanier offers a solution to the conversation initiation conundrum. He offers what he calls a Goldilocks Question that is just right to get a meaningful conversation flowing. He looks at this question specifically in the realm of coaching, but it can certainly be used across the board when conversation about sports teams has died out or when you don’t want to talk to the 17th person about that day’s weather. Bungay Stanier’s question is simply, “What’s on your mind?” which he describes as “An almost fail-safe way to start a chat that quickly turns into a real conversation.”

 

The power of this question, according to Bungay Stanier, is that “its a question that says, Let’s talk about the thing that matters most. It’s a question that dissolves ossified agendas, sidesteps small talk and defeats the default diagnosis.”

 

In a coaching relationship, it can feel like you need to be in control. That you need to direct the conversation and ask intimate probing questions that get the subject to connect new dots and make new discoveries. While asking more questions than speaking is a good thing, the coach does not really need to be in control. When you are helping someone else as a coach, you can use this question to give them a little more control of what is discussed, because they are the one who knows best what issue they are facing and need assistance on. Asking “what’s on your mind?” and not forcing a question toward a specific area will allow the conversation to center around the biggest item that needs to be talked through and ironed out. Rather than getting stuck in a rut with your coaching, this question requires you to be nimble and on your feet as conversations go where the subject needs them to go, not where you are comfortable with the conversation going.

 

In my life I have not been good at remembering this question. It is one that I hope I can return to and one that I hope can help me have deeper conversations with my wife, my uncle, and some of my friends.

Resistance to Change

A short section in Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit is titled “One of the laws of change: As soon as you try something new, you’ll get resistance”.

I think we have all experienced this at one time or another in our life. We end up in the habits and patters in our lives because it is easy. We get used to doing the same thing each day and become accustomed to the same routine. Changes and adjustments to that routine become incredibly difficult and we often find ourselves doing the same things and then reflecting back and wondering why we didn’t make the change we wanted or why we couldn’t fit in something new.

Bungay Stanier doesn’t see these habits and the resistance to change as a necessarily bad thing. If you can develop a great routine that is helping you to be healthy, encouraging meaningful relationship with those around you, and allowing you to accomplish the most important things in your life, then you can use the power of habit to your advantage. The grooves and tracks in life that make change hard, can be an advantage when you don’t want to think about working out in the morning or after work, but instead go to the gym out of habit. What is important with habits is to remember that they shape the structure of our lives, but that we can control them so that they shape us in the ways that we desire. Bungay Stanier writes, “We live within our habits. So change the way you want to lead, and build the right coaching habits.”

The book is specifically about coaching and adopting the right mindset and habits to be a strong coach in life, in the professional space, and in sports. But awareness of our habits and actions is powerful and applies to every part of our life. Recognizing when we have let a habit set in is crucial for change and for living an intentional life. If dessert is a habit after dinner that you don’t consciously think about or if the doughnut on Friday is automatic, then you will never be able to change the behavior. If you can see when you are on auto-pilot you can begin to change yourself and your routine so that the same decisions do not exist and you break out of the habits you dislike. It is not easy and you will feel push back from your own habits and the structures in place around you (like friends, timing, and physical space) but you can adjust all of these things in turn to build the new habit that you would prefer.

Changing Our Speaking and Advice Giving Habit

Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit is all about changing the ways we relate to others by changing how we give advice to, listen to, and generally speak with those around us. Most of the time, as Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler explain in their book The Elephant in the Brain, we are in a hurry to share what we know, give advice, and speak up. Bungay Stanier suggests that what we should be doing, if we truly want to change our coaching habit to be more effective and helpful for those around us, is spend more time listening and more time asking questions rather than giving advice and speaking. Hanson and Simler suggest that our urge to be helpful by speaking and giving advice is our brain’s way to show how wise, connected, and valuable we are, but the problem as Bungay Stanier would argue, is that this gets in the way of actually developing another person and helping someone else grow.

 

To make a change in our speaking habit, first we must understand what we want to change and we must focus on the why behind our change. Once we have built the self-awareness to recognize that we need to change, we need to understand what is driving the habit that we are working to get away from. This is why I introduced Hanson and Simler’s book above. If the habit we want to change is speaking too much and not asking enough questions, we need to understand that when we are coaching or helping another, we are driving to give advice in part to demonstrate how smart we are and how vast our experiences are. We are driven in other words, to not help the other but to boast about ourselves. Understanding this small part helps us know what we actually want to change and what is driving the original habit.

 

Bungay Stanier references another book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and writes, “if you don’t know what triggers the old behavior, you’ll never change it because you’ll already be doing it before you know it.” The self-awareness necessary in changing habits requires us to first see what needs to change, second to identify the ‘why’ behind our desired change, and third to become aware of the small things that trigger our habit. If we know that having our phone near our bed leads to us being more likely to check Facebook first thing in the morning, then we can remove that trigger by placing the phone in another room and finding a new alarm. Ultimately we can be more likely to succeed in changing our habit of checking Facebook as soon as we wake up. Similarly, Bungay Stanier would agree, knowing that we provide advice to make ourselves look valuable to society helps us see the mental triggers that encourage us to share bad advice rather than to listen and ask helpful questions. Ultimately, to change our habit we need to further expand self-awareness to recognize not just the change we want to make and the reason we want to make a change, but to also recognize the large and small things that drive us into our old habits. Addressing these triggers and structuring our life in a way to avoid them can help us be more successful in changing habits for the better.

Change for Others

Michael Bungay Stanier gives his readers some advice for making the changes in their lives in his book The Coaching Habit. His first piece of advice is to become self-aware of what you want to change, and the second piece of advice is to understand exactly why you want to make that change. When thinking about a change that you want to make, it is helpful to think through the benefits and to turn the change into something positive that you are doing for other people. Simply making a change because it will benefit yourself may not bring you the mental impetus to move forward with the challenges of actually changing your behavior.

 

Bungay Stanier describes one of his takeaways from Leo Babauta’s book Zen Habits, “He talks about making a vow that’s connected to serving others …think less about what your habit can do for you, and more about how this new habit will help a person or people you care about.”

 

This is a powerful strategy for making important changes in our life and becoming the person that we want to be. Making a change just for ourselves is hard, because we can tell ourselves lots of lies that justify and excuse our behaviors. However, if our reason for change is connected to helping someone else, improving our life to further improve another person’s life, or is rooted in improving the world experience of another person, then we have another layer of motivation for break our old habit.

 

I believe this strategy is powerful because it gets us thinking about the kind of person we want to be and the behaviors of people who are like the person we want to be. If we tell ourselves we are trying to live more healthy lives to set better examples for our family and to be able to participate with our kids in athletic activities or live longer with our family, then we can start to think about the traits that a healthy person may adopt. We tell ourselves we want to be healthy and that healthy people don’t eat donuts at work every day. The sametemptation exists, but now we envision ourselves fitting in with the healthy group that does not eat donuts, and we compound that with our accountability to our family to be healthy for them.

Building Habits

In my last post, I described the ways in which much of our life happens on auto-pilot in habitual decisions and actions that often don’t register with our conscious mind. Not everything we do needs to be a conscious action (think about how tired your brain would become if you had to focus on every step you took and how annoyed you would be if you had to think about every blink), but becoming more aware of our unconscious decisions is incredibly valuable for making changes in life. Michael Bungay Stanier looks at the ways we can actually change our habits in his book The Coaching Habit and he identifies five specific components to changing behavior. He writes, “To build an effective new habit, you need five essential components: a reason, a trigger, a micro-habit, effective practice, and a plan.”

 

If we think about our habitual actions that we barely notice, we can see that we will never actually change those habits if we don’t first build self-awareness around our actions and behaviors. It is not enough to just think to ourselves that we want to write more, exercise more, or have a more tidy home. We have to actually recognize what habits are shaping the end state that we want to change. We have to have awareness of a problem, issue, or what could be different, and then we have to dive deeper to understand what it is that causes to the thing we want to change. It all begins and is shaped by a self-awareness that is like pancake batter poured in a single spot. You focus on one thing but your awareness and recognition slowly spreads outward around that one thing.

 

Changing a habitual action requires a reason to change. You may recognize that your house is messy and that it stresses you out. From there you have to recognize something that leads you into the original habit that you want to change. Do you automatically roll out of bed and grab your phone as a flashlight and then find yourself checking emails or Facebook for 30 minutes instead of making your coffee? What can you do to prevent yourself from grabbing your phone? For me, purchasing a flashlight allows me to leave my phone in another room, helping me keep away from habitual morning distraction. This solution is somewhere between a micro-habit and an environmental modification to try to replace the trigger (my phone) that lads to the habit I want to avoid (wasting time online). An important step toward change might be small and may not even seem related to your original habit, but can still shape your behavior in a powerful way. Thinking through these changes and building this awareness is what allows you to create a plan to actually make the changes you want to make.

 

This is a very quick and simplified version of changing a habit, but throughout, you can see the importance of self-awareness in making changes in your life. Habits stick because they go unnoticed. We don’t recognize what it is that drives our unconscious habitual decisions, so we end up with the same habits shaping our same behaviors and actions. We must be aware enough to recognize the change we want, what leads to the behaviors we want to avoid, and think through our actions to plan ahead.

Habitual

At the beginning of his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier says that we could all be better coaches by asking more questions and giving less advice. From those one-on-one meetings, to chatting with a co-worker about a tough relationship situation, and even to dealing with a toddler or teenager, having a habit of asking questions rather than giving advice would make us a better coach and conversational sounding board. However, our natural inclination as humans in a conversation is to give advice. Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler in The Elephant in the Brain suggest that we jump into advice giving because we are eager to show how much we know, demonstrating our skills, wisdom, and talents to gain prestige in other peoples eyes. What Bungay Stanier demonstrates in his book is that our natural reaction is counter productive, at least if we actually want to be helpful for another person and aid their growth.

 

Bungay Stanier accepts that changing away from our default advice giving mode is difficult, particularly because we are creatures of habit. He writes “…A Duke University study says that at least 45 percent of our waking behavior is habitual. Although we’d like to think we’re in charge, it turns out that we’re not so much controlling how we act with our conscious mind as we are being driven by our subconscious or unconscious mind. It’s amazing; also, it’s a little disturbing.”

 

I wrote recently about my love-hate relationship with routines. I love the habits that routines build and the productivity and time saving quality of a good routine. At the same time, a consistent routine seems to rob me of my mental decision-making powers, and time seems to pass in a way where I am a passive viewer and not an active driver of my life. The habitual aspects of our days don’t seem like they could add up to 45% of our time, but I do not doubt it to be true. Any time I have tried to make a serious change in my life, I have been confronted with the power of habits that become baked into my daily routine. Leaving work and driving home directly, rather than to the gym, can be as much of an unconscious habit as much as it can be a conscious decision. Checking my phone can easily become automatic, and something I don’t even realize I have done until I notice my hand slip my phone back in my pocket.

 

I don’t think there is a need to abandon all habits and try to force ourselves against any particular habit. But I do think there is a need to be aware of our habits so we recognize when we are making decisions and when we are following impulses and acting without really thinking about what we are doing. Much of Bungay Stanier’s book is about realizing the times when we act impulsively in conversation and start offering advice that we have not truly thought through. He encourages us to change our conversation behavior to ask more questions so that we, and our conversation partner, can think more deeply and find better answers to our problems. This can’t be done if we are not aware of what we are saying and simply acting habitually in our conversations and discussions. Self-awareness is a step toward addressing a habit, by allowing us to realize the opportunity for making a choice versus acting out of habit.

 

This brings me back to the ideas of Hanson and Simler. If we better understand where our desire to give advice comes from, and we understand how evolution has shaped human beings to behave, we can begin to push back and try to be more productive versions of ourselves. I find that I can address a habit more effectively if I understand what aspects of my biology may be driving it. Accepting that our advice is meant to make us look good and not meant to help the other person makes our advice look less sexy, and makes it easier for us to be critical of the advice we are giving and more willing to let the other person do the talking and thinking.

Asking More Questions

Michael Bungay Stanier starts one of the chapters in his book The Coaching Habit with a quote from Jonas Salk, “What people think of as the moment of discovery is really the discovery of the question.”  This quote is fitting because Bungay Stanier’s premise in The Coaching Habit is that we too often focus on giving orders, directing people, telling others what should be done, and giving advice. Bungay Stanier turns the role of the coach around and suggests that coaches should let other do the talking and advice giving. The job of the coach, in his view, is to get the individual speaking and to constantly ask questions to help the other person in a process of self-discovery.

 

Asking more questions does not translate into constantly asking why or how come. It is about listening to the individual and getting them to describe their challenges more completely and to help them visualize improved opportunities and strategies for success. The individual you are working with is the expert in their life, even if they don’t know it. You, no matter how well you know the other person, are not truly an expert in their life and any advice or direction that you provide will necessarily be short sighted.

 

I recently read Robin Hanson’s The Elephant In The Brain in which he argues that much of human behavior is guided by motivations and agendas that we keep secret, even to our selves. Our behaviors are shaped by goals and desires that we don’t necessarily want to share with others because they are self-serving and potentially break with social norms. If we assume that everyone is acting based on self-interest and hidden motivations (at least part of the time), then we have to assume that as coaches we don’t always know or receive the actual answer that describes someone’s behavior. If we are coaching and working with someone, we can ask questions that get them to think about their hidden agendas and better understand and acknowledge what is happening internally. It would be defeating to try to force and individual to state their hidden motive, so we should not question it too relentlessly, but we should help them acknowledge it in their own mind.

 

Ultimately, asking questions helps you and the other person become more introspective. Giving advice does not help the other person because it is advice and direction coming from your limited perspective. A better approach is to ask questions that help expand the scope of consideration and perception for the other person, helping them find the answer themselves and helping them become more self-aware.