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.

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.

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 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 or solve the long term issues that grew out of 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 is the tactical work. The long term planning and insightful problem solving that stops those problems from showing up in the first place 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, but now when I look back, I’m also able to see the difference in the coaching style that was taking place along those same lines.

 

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 hurdles? 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 piece 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 an understanding of common threads between problems and issues. When you coach strategically, that is what you are trying to build in the other person. You are working with them to find the areas of growth 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, build successful habits, and move beyond 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.

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 as coaches we too often focus on giving orders, directing people, telling others what should be done, giving advice, or filling up all the meeting time doing the talking. What he suggests we should do more of as coaches is let other people talk while we focus on asking more questions and listening. The job of the coach, in his view, is to get the individual speaking and to constantly ask further probing questions.

Asking more questions is not just about constantly asking why or how come. It is about listening to the individual and getting them to describe the situation more fully to identify what they believe they could have done differently in a given situation to get a better outcome. 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 and leave out important factors.

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 ourselves. 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 the best answer to another’s problem. If we are coaching and working with someone, we can ask questions that get them to think about their true motivations and build self-awareness. 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 kick start the other person’s introspection.

Ultimately, asking questions helps you and the other person better understand themselves. You 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. Your answers are incomplete and don’t lead to growth and development, whereas probing questions force the other person to be more considerate and help them grow and improve future behaviors.

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.” The three areas he identifies in which coaching makes an impact on our life 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, demonstrates ways to develop other people and outlines the benefits that coaches, teams, and individuals receive from good coaching. 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 individual and helps them take what are often scary steps toward improvement.

 

When I think about the three areas that Bungay Stanier identifies in good coaching, I think about how anyone becomes successful and how often as individuals we fail to take big steps toward our goals and fail to learn from our experiences. Research has shown that many people, particularly people of color, 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 good candidates out there from minority populations, 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 running for office. Simply on our own it is hard to step forward and drive toward the things we want when the future is muddy and complicated.

 

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 and experienced. Encouraging us to take chances and helping us think more critically about our past is what allows us to unlock our potential, and it is why good coaching is so valuable and should be practiced by more people.

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 in either my career or 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 addition to gaining insight into how I can be a good coach, the book has also helped me learn how to be coachable so that my coaches be successful.

 

Bungay Stanier focuses on aspects of coaching that we often get wrong and fail to approach in the most constructive manner. I think for many people, particularly men in the business world, the kinds of images that come to mind when think about coaches are sports figures like Bill Bilechick (representing the genius strategist who knows how to pull the right levers for success) or 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 marabout 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 for them to think creatively, take on new challenges, 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 but instead create dependence ultimately end up with 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 allows coaches to do more and be more impactful than if the relationship is about the coach.