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.

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.

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.

What Coaching Does

Michael Bungay Stanier explains why coaching is such a positive force for those receiving coaching, and why we should invest more of our time and effort into learning to be a great coach. He writes, “Coaching can fuel the courage to step out beyond the comfortable and familiar, can help people learn from their experiences and can literally and metaphorically increase and help fulfill a person’s potential.” These three areas identified by Bungay Stanier are key to growth and development and are some of the hardest areas in life to harness and improve.

 

Bungay Stanier’s book, The Coaching Habit, helps demonstrate ways to develop other people and outlines the benefits that coaches, teams, and individuals receive when coaching is done right. As I wrote before, it is not just the individual who benefits from good coaching, but also the coach who develops a stronger team and is able to empower the individual to do and take on more. Good coaching maximizes the potential and growth of an individual and helps them take the scary first steps toward improvement.

 

When I think about the three areas that Bungay Stanier identifies in good coaching, I think the process to become successful and how we often fail to take big steps toward our goals and fail to learn from our experiences. Research has shown that many people, do not actually apply their talents to the best of their ability and do not step out to take on new and larger roles for themselves. I study political science and one of things that researches have found is that there are many people who would make good political candidates, but that many of them never think they have a chance and never run for office. A simple invitation and a little coaching to encourage political participation makes a big difference in terms of who runs for office and who steps out of their comfort zone to try. On our own it is hard to step forward and drive toward the things we want when the future is muddy and complicated, but with someone who can help encourage us and help us view success, we are more likely to make the first move.

 

I think we also fail to learn well from our experiences. It is not that we are ignorant, self-centered, and think we are flawless, but rather that life is busy and distracting, and pausing to think critically of an event from our past is hard to do. As Bungay Stanier explains, good coaches ask more questions than they provide answers, and their questions are often reflective in nature. Good coaches encourage us to think about our experiences in a way that we normally would not, and they help us make new connections and discoveries from the things we have done or have happened to us in the past. Encouraging us to take chances and helping us think more critically about our past experiences is what allows us to better reach our potential.

Professional Coaching – Its About Them!

I am not currently in a leadership position in my career and I am not currently doing any real long-term coaching either in my with colleagues, friends, students, or interns. Nevertheless, Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit, has been helpful for me when thinking about professional growth and development. In the future I expect to be in leadership positions and to have the opportunity to work with people in a coaching capacity. In the meantime, learning about good coaching helps me learn how to be coachable and help my coaches be successful coaches.

 

Bungay Stanier focuses on aspects of coaching that we often get wrong and fail to approach in the most helpful and constructive manner. I think for many people, particularly men in the business world, the kinds of images that come to mind when thinking about coaches are men ranging from Bill Bilechick from the Patriots, representing the genius strategist who knows how to pull the right levers for success, to Bobby Knight, representing the relentless enthusiast who has a drive that won’t stop or let anything stand in the way of good performances. Bungay Stanier however, has a vision of good coaching that is less about the coach, and more about helping the individual become the best version of themselves. The first step in Bungay Stanier’s coaching vision, is not lever pulling or inspiring, but more of door opening and aligning. Regarding a successful coaching mindset he writes, “Building a coaching habit will help your team be more self-sufficient by increasing their autonomy and sense of mastery.”

 

Good coaching empowers those who you lead and opens doors to allow them to apply themselves, think creatively, and grow and develop with new skills in new situations. The coach in this view is not absent, but the focus of the relationship and coaching is on the individual being coached and not on the skills, strategies, and demonstrations of the coach. Bungay Stanier’s successful coaching relationship gives authority and autonomy to the individual so that they can become independent and grow in the direction that makes sense for them.

 

Coaches who make the coaching relationship about themselves find that they absorb responsibility themselves and create dependent followers rather than more talented teams. Coaches who don’t empower and create dependence lead to poor outcomes, “Everyone loses momentum and motivation. The more you help your people, the more they seem to need your help. The more they need your help, the more time you spend helping them.” Empowering by placing the individual at the center and giving them the guidance necessary to develop skills and abilities allows coaches to do more and be more impactful than if the relationship is about the coach and all that the coach can do for the individual.

The Essence of Coaching

While I was working on my undergraduate degree at the University of Nevada I spent some time coaching cross country and track and field at Reno High School. I really enjoyed coaching and had a great time working with the runners and helping them try  to win state championships and compete at their best. What I never really asked myself, however, is what I thought coaching was all about.

 

I tried to be a good role model for the kids and show them how to work hard and improve their running, but I never thought deeply about what my role as a coach should be. In his book The Coaching Habit Michael Bungay Stanier takes a deep look at coaching (mostly from a professional standpoint as opposed to a sports standpoint) to understand what coaching is truly all about. “The essence of coaching,” writes Stanier, “lies in helping others and unlocking their potential.” A coach is committed to being helpful and focusing on helping others become the best possible version of themselves. This is something I think I understood at an intuitive level, but I never really stepped back to think about my role as a coach in this way, and it certainly was not at the front of my mind ever day when I arrived at practice.

 

Coaching was partly a way for me to continue getting good workouts in with people who I enjoyed. It was partly about me demonstrating something positive about myself in terms of leadership, loyalty to the school form which I graduated, and my ability to serve as a positive role model. These hidden motives were not the only drivers of my coaching decision, I really did enjoy working as part of a team toward a big goal and I appreciated having the chance to help our head coach and help our athletes improve and push themselves. But I am certain that I would have developed a different coaching style if every day before practice I through to myself “the essence of coaching lies in helping others and unlocking their potential.” Everything from my conversations, to how I participated in workouts, and to who I spoke with at practice would have shifted as I tried to unlock the most potential in the most kids.

 

I don’t think I was a poor coach because I partly participated for my own hidden motives (hidden even to myself!). But I certainly don’t think I was the best coach I could have been, and that is because I lacked self-awareness and my coaching focus was not dialed in on what is the most essential element of coaching. What coaches must remember is that while they benefit personally and may have hidden motives of their own, coaching needs to be about another person and about unlocking greater potential in the world.

Asking Questions While Coaching

In his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier helps us see what makes a good coach. The key lesson that he shares with us is that a good coach does more listening than talking, something that seems to cut against our ideas of coaching in the United States. Good coaches, according to Bungay Stanier, don’t hog all of the speaking time. In the United States, our vision of a good coach is someone who has an anecdote for every situation with instructions and life lessons baked in. They are always talking, always telling everyone where their problem is and how to fix it. While this is the kind of coach we see in movies Bungay Stanier explains that this is not the kind of coach that we actually want and is not the kind of coach that will help us grow and improve. If we want to be good coaches, we need to learn that listening rather than advice and direction giving can be the most powerful tool in a coaches box, and that the standard vision of a coach is not as helpful as we may believe.

 

Bungay Stanier writes, “when you’re asking questions you might feel less certain about whether you’re being useful, the conversation can feel slower and you might feel like you’ve somewhat lost control of the conversation (and indeed you have. that’s called “empowering”). Put like that it doesn’t sound like a good offer.” I know for myself, whether I think about a sports coach, a business coach, or even a life coach, I picture some wise person who can tell me what to think and tell me what to look out for, but when I think about Bungay Stanier’s ideas of what a coach is (particularly a life or professional coach) I see a more impactful coach. A strong coach helps you discover solutions and approaches to challenges that work for you. They help you grow and develop by helping you learn,  become more self aware, and solidify your often tangled and jumbled thoughts.

 

Good coaches ask questions because it forces the person they are working with to think deeply and try to find their own answers. Giving advice is good and providing direction is helpful, but Bungay Stanier would argue that nudging an individual and asking them questions helps them grow in ways that simply telling them does not. When we respond to questions we think more deeply about our past, our goals, and what has or has not worked for us. We think about ways we could approach things differently or try new solutions. Telling someone something directly just gives them one point of view, and not necessarily the point of view that will help them the most based on their own history and experience. What listening and asking questions does is empower the other person to solve their own problems and learn more about themselves and the options at hand.