Coaching is About Curiosity

One of the final paragraphs from Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit  reads, “But the real secret sauce here is building a habit of curiosity. The change of behavior that’s going to serve you most powerfully is simply this: a little less advice, a little more curiosity. Find your own questions, find your own voice. And above all, build your own coaching habit.”

 

The crux of Bungay Stanier’s thoughts on coaching is that being a good coach requires asking questions in a process of discovery as opposed to providing answers in the form of advice giving. Contrary to the typical American version of coaches or the sports movie version of coaches, an effective coach doesn’t just bark orders and doesn’t just automatically give everyone answers, advice, and life lessons. True coaches, in real life, help individuals find answers themselves.

 

When we think about coaches, we often imagine someone who has years of experience, who has been in every situation, and who can decipher exactly what needs to be done at any moment. This imagined coach, however, does not exist. No matter how long someone has been coaching and no matter how insightful they are, no one can truly understand the pressures, challenges, and specifics of the situations and needs of another person. By focusing on asking questions, the coach discovers what is happening and what the other person needs. The individual being coached gets more help from questions than advice because the questions drive them to think more deeply about themselves, other people, and the where they are at in life. Questions can shift their perspective, encourage deeper thought, and lead to discoveries that advice cannot produce.

 

For almost all of us, we do less listening than we do speaking. When another person is talking, we spend a lot of our free brain space trying to anticipate where the conversation is going so that we can have a perfect response. Knowing this about ourselves can help us understand why advice simply doesn’t land. The other person, while we are giving them advice, is thinking ahead of where our advice is going. Asking a question instead of giving advice gets the other person talking and thinking through what they are saying and describing. It allows them to put pieces together in a constructive form of discovery in a way that advice simply doesn’t.

 

Ultimately, by remembering that coaching is a form of discovery, we enter our coaching opportunities willing to be more flexible, and willing to be more responsive to the needs of the person we are coaching. Rather than walking into the coaching opportunity feeling pressured to have brilliant insights and to give the other person some magnificent piece of advice, we can enter the opportunity knowing that we can both co-discover a solution that is not yet apparent. This takes a lot of pressure off of both the coach and the person being coached.

Getting Team Members to Take Action

I don’t find myself in a lot of direct coaching situations today, but nevertheless, Michael Bungay Stanier’s book, The Coaching Habit, has been helpful for understanding coaching relationships and knowing how to be truly effective not just as a coach, but also as someone receiving coaching. One recommendation that Bungay Stanier has in his book is for coaches to ask more questions relative to the advice they give. As a person working on a small team and as a spouse, this is something I have always been challenged by. As an employee who knows that he doesn’t quite know everything (as much as I sometimes do feel that I do), recognizing that the questions people ask me are great chances for us both to develop greater understanding is important. For the person being coached, questions are always a little terrifying. Answers from above are easy, but questions mean you have to really know your stuff and be prepared to provide a meaningful response.

 

Bungay Stanier recommends that coaches use questions to get the other person thinking and to truly get to the most important issues for a given employee. From the outside we can look at someone’s problems and assume that we know what is going on for them, but we can never truly get inside their head. Asking more questions relative to giving advice is one way to better understand what someone is dealing with. One way to get more questions into your coaching conversation is to give the person you are working with a chance to answer both your questions and also their own questions before you chime in.

 

Bungay Stanier recommends the following approach as a coach when someone asks you a question, “Say, ‘That’s a great question. I’ve got some ideas, which I’ll share with you. But before I do, what are your first thoughts?'”

 

This strategy provides an insight into the thoughts and approaches of the other person. It reveals their general approach to a given situation and helps you understand where their thinking breaks down. The response gives you a chance to give examples and to focus on what the other person is actually looking at and thinking about, whereas giving advice without this question just shows what you think about a problem without understanding it from the point of view of who you are working with. You won’t be able to address the person’s questions if you don’t know how they are understanding and interpreting the situation they are in. Asking what their thoughts are and what their approach would be in a given situation reveals how you can be the most effective as a coach.

 

As an employee, I try to remember this and bring this into my own 1-on-1’s with my manger. I know that I can shed light into my thought process and outline what approaches to problems and situations seem reasonable to me. Rather than expecting an answer from my manager, I can better explain my challenges and how I have thought about approaching a situation to elicit better guidance. It is not easy on either side, as the coach or the team member, but it is necessary to actually drive improvement for both of us and our team.

Asking Others What They Really Want

The Coaching Habit is Michael Bungay Stanier’s book about how to become a more effective coach and help the people you work with, manage, or coach to become the best version of themselves possible. His book is full of both theory and practical applications, looking at psychology and building on his own coaching experiences and experiments. One of the suggestions that Bungay Stanier includes in his book is to ask people what they really want and help them build an understanding of what is at the core of their motivations and desires.

 

Bungay Stanier presents what he calls “The Foundation Question” as a tool to help build the ground to understand the direction that people want to go and start a conversation about why people are focused in a specific direction. Getting to the heart of someone’s desires will reveal a lot and will help prepare a road map toward the goals that go along with those desires. In the book, he writes,

 

“What do you want? I sometimes call it the Goldfish Question because it often elicits that response: sightly bugged eyes, and a mouth opening and closing with no sound coming out. Here’s why the question is so difficult to answer. We often don’t know what we actually want. Even if there’s a first, fast answer, the question “But what do you really want?” will typically stop people in their tracks.”

 

It is hard for us to be self-aware and reflective enough to really know what we want, but it is even harder for us to be able to then take our desires and package them in a way that we can explain to other people. Beginning a process of thinking about what we really want and what drives us will shed light on how frequently we are motivated by selfish interests and meaningless definitions of success. Often our motivations are driven by someone else, outside ourselves, that we want to impress or whose standards we feel we need to live up to. Working through these complex emotions and desires with another person can be a way to help them get on a more stable and productive path. Bungay Stanier’s question can reveal a lot of fear and a lot of goals that sound great but have self-defeating motivations. The Foundation Question helps determine the starting point from which we can build better goals and align work and habits to achieve those goals.

More Developmental Conversations

Michael Bungay Stanier encourages coaches to strive toward having more meaningful discussions with people, especially when they are in designated coaching situations. In one-on-one meetings, in general workplace conversations, and when chatting with friends and family, leaders can make the most of their conversation by being aware of how they speak and by using techniques to help drive conversation in meaningful directions.
In his book, The Coaching Habit, Bungay Stanier shares some of the techniques he has learned and applied to have a bigger impact as a coaching. One of the keys to being a successful coach is keeping conversations focused on the person you are working with and focusing on their growth and development. Often times it is hard to keep a conversation from becoming a vent session, but if you are able to keep a conversation open and productive, you will help the other person grow in ways that venting cannot. As a strategy, Bungay Stanier writes, “The simple act of adding “for you” to the end of as many questions as possible is an everyday technique for making conversations more development than performance-oriented.”
I wrote about Bungay Stanier’s question, “what’s the real challenge here for you?” and in his book he expands on the final part of the question, “For you”. When coaching, adding this final bit to any question encourages the individual to reflect inward and think about themselves and their actions in a given situation as opposed to just the challenge itself and the other actors or obstacles they think are in their way. Getting people to look inward helps them find answers inside of themselves or to think through challenges in a new frame that opens up more opportunities than they were aware of. This is what separates venting from development and it is a key skill to help other people cultivate.
It is also important to remember “for you” and to ask questions that use “for you” because we don’t truly know what is going on in the other person’s head. We can make suggestions all day long and offer our advice, but if we are not helping the other person build self-awareness skills, then we are simply telling them something from our limited vantage point outside their life and their mind. It is far more helpful for a coach to work through  the challenges another person faces and to help the other person learn to open doors themselves.

Don’t Gossip as a Coach

Human beings are great at gossiping. We seem to excel at talking about other people when they are not around and complaining about them or telling stories of other people’s strange behaviors. It makes us feel good to talk to someone else and have our insecurities about someone else justified, to have ourselves boosted above the person who is not around, and to know that other people are on our side. But that is all that gossip is. It is a form of self aggrandizing behavior that increases our political clout in our social group at the expense of another person and as much as we talk about another person, gossip is really all about us and all about making ourselves feel good.

 

So why does gossip make its way into our coaching relationships? This is a question that Michael Bungay Standier raises in his book The Coaching Habit. Bungay Stanier calls the temptation to bring gossip into professional coaching settings “coaching the ghost” because the person whose behavior and actions that you discuss is not actually in the room with you. Bungay Stanier recognizes that these conversations in our coaching meetings help with bonding and feel good on an individual level, but he is honest about the reality of the situation and how little gossip helps you achieve anything meaningful. Redirecting back to real coaching, he writes,

 

“The key thing to know here is that you can coach only the person in front of you. As tempting as it is to talk about a “third point” (most commonly another person, but it can also be a project or a situation), you need to uncover the challenge for the person to whom you’re talking.”

 

To move from gossip to coaching conversations must actually focus on the individual and how the individual can work better alongside the other person or how the individual can better manage the other person. Often times we just want to vent about the things we dislike or find annoying in our co-workers or family members, just telling someone what you don’t like or reaffirming another does not actually lead to growth. Instead we need to focus on what can be controlled, mainly our own mind, thoughts, and decisions. We can only control how we react and perceive the actions of another person, so we should focus on that rather than focusing on the person we dislike.

Instant Problem Solver

We all have a part of ourselves that thinks it knows the answer to every problem out there. Not just our own problems, or the problems with the work we do, or the problems with our own families and relationships, but everyone’s problems. The truth is, however, we really don’t know nearly as much as this part of our brain believes and when we try to solve everyone’s problems, we really just create bigger traffic jams. In his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier names this part of our brain “The Advice Monster” and he explains what happens when we let the Advice Monster run our brains.

 

“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. And when you start jumping in to fix things, things go off the rails in three ways: you work on the wrong problem; you do the work your team should be doing; and the work doesn’t get done.”

 

The bottom line is that when we jump into instant problem solver mode, we usually are not being as helpful as we imagine we are. Because we are approaching the other person’s issue with our limited knowledge of what we think their problem is, we focus in the wrong direction. Instant problem solver mode solves the problem we want to solve, and not the actual problem that the other person is facing.

 

The alternative that Bungay Stanier suggests is to spend more time listening to others and see what solutions they come up with before we decide that we know what their problems are and before we decide that we know how to fix them. The instant problem solver manages to find solutions that create more work for themselves and make their day to day life a little bit more difficult. When we resist the instant problem solver urge, we let the person or team we work with identify solutions they can implement for the problems they face. The individual grows and has an opportunity to adapt a new solution, and our time remains clear for additional problem solving.

Asking Fake Questions

I’m not sure where it comes from, but for some reason we like to give advice by asking questions. It is so common that we see it on tv shows and in movies, read it in books, and I’m sure we do it to our children. We ask questions like “Have you thought about…”, “What about…”, or “Did you consider…” and even in the most recent The Black Panther movie there is a funny scene where one character says, “Why didn’t you…” to which the character she questioned had to respond, “Because we didn’t think of that.”

 

Michael Bungay Stanier in his book The Coaching Habit encourages us not to give advice by asking questions. The questions are not real questions and are more of rhetorical questions built to make us look helpful. Bungay Stanier would argue that in the end, these questions are not really us trying to get more information or clarification, but  just a way for us to be more subtle about the way we give advice. I actually think that the example above from the Marvel movie is a perfect example of why Bungay Stanier doesn’t like these fake questions. In the movie, the character asks her question, and the respondent has to admit that he was short sighted and when he does, the questioning character responds with smugness and a look that says “haha I’m smarter than you”. It is great for the movie and the characters involved, but our lives and relationships are not Marvel cinematic imaginations. We actually have to live with the people around us and cultivate meaningful relationships with them, and condescension and smugness through fake questions is not the best approach to building meaningful relationships.

 

“Stop offering advice with a question mark attached” is Bungay Stanier’s recommendation because the questions are meant to make the coach look smart rather than to help the person we are coaching find the answer they are looking for. He recommends that we ask probing questions to get the person we are speaking with to describe more of the problem or issue they are facing and to be more detailed in explaining what approaches and solutions they have tried. By getting them to further expand on their issue and listening longer, we may find that they have already tried the solution that we want to give to them wrapped in a comforting fake question. If we find that the person really has not considered our question, then we can give them our advice, but we can do it without the magician facade of a mysterious question that makes it look as though the individual simply missed the point and never considered the right thing. Bungay Stanier would suggest that we just give the advice and say, “I recommend xyz” or “one thing you have not mentioned is xyz, and in the past I have found that to work for me in these situations.” Ultimately, we want to avoid being in a place where our advice is not clear and where we elevate ourselves over another person when coaching.

A Great Start to a Coaching Conversation

The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier is not just a book with a few good theories about coaching. Bungay Stanier includes a lot of specific words, phrases, and conversation examples to help you see concrete ways to improve your coaching. One example that Bungay Stanier includes is a quick way to get a coaching conversation moving in a clear path to help you discuss the issues that are driving the challenges for the individual you are working with. His quick start question is as follows:

 

“So there are three different facets of that [the problem the individual said they are having] we could look at … the project side — any challenges around the actual content. The people side — any issue with team members/colleagues/other departments/bosses/customers/clients. And patterns — if there’s a way that you’re getting in your own way, and not showing up in the best possible way. Where should we start?”

 

What I love about this question is that from the start, it disentangles different parts of a problem that anyone may be facing. In my own life, and in listening to others, I have noticed how frequently all of these different issues seem to meld together and become overwhelming. By disaggregating each piece of the problem, you can begin to look at individual items in a manageable way. It is a lot easier to begin to look for things that one can change or adjust, when you take the pieces one by one and fit them back together.

 

This question also helps to steer coaching conversations away from becoming venting conversations. I really struggle in my relationship with my wife with handling conversations about the challenges she faces. One of the reasons is because I don’t handle venting well. When my wife wants to vent and tell me about the issues and challenges she faces my natural reaction is to simply tell her what she should do as if I was some sort of magic profit who could solve all her problems. Of course, my views of her challenges are not actually accurate and my advice giving does not work in these venting conversations. By steering questions away from venting using the approach that Bungay Stanier suggests in the quote above, we can heave more productive conversations focused on what really matters. A coaching session will be useless if it becomes a venting session. The other person may feel better temporarily about having a chance to vent, but nothing will actually be solved and their possibly mistaken perceptions will in a sense be validated by being heard.

 

The questions that Bungay Stanier presents in the quote above keeps us focused on specific issues in a solutions oriented direction. The questions also show that there are different aspects of our problems that need to handled in different ways. By working with the individual to acknowledge the self originating aspects of their problem, you get them to refocus on themselves and their growth without blaming other people for their challenges. The other pieces of the issue can be also worked on in a more objective manner when we are not looking at the whole.

Behaviors and Ways of Working – The Keys to Unlocking Growth

I am not currently in a leadership or management position with the company I work for, but I still took away a great deal from Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit. I have always had a bit of a coaching mindset and the book taught me a lot about how to be a better coach, which is helpful even though I am not currently in a coaching position. I learned a lot about how I can better support my coaches and mentors in my current role, and I believe that will translate well into future opportunities and relationships. Reading his book from the standpoint of someone being coached was helpful to see how to also position myself to set up powerful and positive coaching.

 

One of the big difference between an effective coach and someone who simply manages people and projects is that the coach is focused on the development and growth of the individuals they work with rather than just on making sure work is getting done. Focusing on growth and development means looking at individuals, their performance, and what opportunities they have to improve their work and lives. Bungay Stanier describes it like this,

 

“Here you’re looking at patterns of behavior and ways of working that you’d like to change. This area is most likely where coaching-for-development conversations will emerge. They are personal and challenging, and they provide a place where people’s self-knowledge an potential can grow and flourish. And at the moment, these conversations are not nearly common enough in organizations.”

 

Being receptive to coaching requires good self-awareness and self-knowledge. If an individual does not see themselves honestly and does not have a true vision of themselves, with both their strengths and opportunities for improvement, they will never be able to grow in a way that will reach their true potential. Coaches can help bring this out by focusing on real patterns and looking for opportunities to change and address those patterns. We all know how hard patterns and behavior can be to change, and coaches can provide the impetus for change by identifying the environmental and internal changes that can help usher in those changes. This is a process of developing greater awareness and self-knowledge with the person we are coaching and connecting that back to the larger picture of organizational success or personal growth. This ties in with ideas of management by objectives (MBO) where each goal or action that an individual takes is tied in with the larger goals of the department and company overall.

 

As an individual, I have been able to harness self-awareness to focus on the patterns and areas where I have wanted to change and build new habits or skills. Working with a manger and understanding these conversations allows me to be someone that my manager can practice these conversations with. I can help my manager better see and understand the problems and patterns that I experience as a result of the tools we use and the environment we are in, and we can discuss ways to overcome the resulting obstacles that I face. The strategies developed for me can then influence the conversations and approaches used with other people down the line. It all starts with self-awareness and honestly addressing patterns of behavior and ways of working, whether you are the coach or the one being coached, and then addressing the changes that can be made to help the individual make the adjustments that will lead to the changes that will benefit themselves and the organization.

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.