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.

Curiosity and Asking Questions

I keep coming across people who encourage curiosity. The message is that if you want to do meaningful work, to end up in an interesting place, and to have an impact on the world, you should always be curious. Searching for answers, looking around to recognize what you don’t know, and constantly learning about more and more seems to be something that the most successful people do. Questions, the advice suggests, don’t lead to answers and ends, but rather to journeys and new pathways.

 

The idea of curiosity, questions, and learning as the path rather than the destination is echoed in Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit. He quotes Sam Keen by writing, “To be on a quest is nothing more or less than to become an asker of questions.” Questions drive our actions as we search for new answers and lessons. Questions take us to new places, both physically and mentally, and broaden our understanding of the complexity of the world.

 

This quote is comforting to me as someone who enjoys esoteric knowledge and learning. My family members frequently roll their eyes when I start a sentence with, “So I was listening to a podcast…” I love learning new things and connecting dots that are not obvious and that I had not previously considered. I have seen this journey in myself lead to a greater appreciation for people who see and think differently from myself. I have ventured into areas I thought I understood, only to be shown the nuances of decision-making and the challenges of truly understanding an area. Diving into topics that we all experience but don’t all know the background of has revealed biases and forces at work that are virtually imperceptible. Living a journey fueled by curiosity feels incredibly valuable, and is something I wish people would seek out more than we seek to win arguments.

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.

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.

Whats the Real Challenge

Yesterday I wrote about how easy it can be to solve the wrong problem. When we go to meetings, chat with someone during a lunch break, or are working in a group on a project, it can become very easy to start complaining about whatever thing happens to be annoying us at that moment. Whatever issue we just had to deal with can be a bit overwhelming and can come to dominate our thoughts. However, the issue we just dealt with may not actually be the big thing at the heart of our problems. We might be annoyed by the way a particular form is being completed by another person or by a team’s inability to come together to finalize a draft of a new project, but the real challenge may be something deeper and more significant. If we don’t access that deeper level, then we are not actually doing anything that will help us or our organization improve when we complain at a surface level about some annoyance.

In his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier has a recommendation for us to get to this deeper level. Throughout his entire book he encourages us to be better listeners and to ask the right questions to get our conversations moving in the right direction. His advice to get to the big issue is to ask, “What’s the real challenge here for you?” Whether we ask this to ourselves or to someone we are coaching, the result is a more deep consideration of the situation that is leading to frustration or bad outcomes. Bungay Stanier describes the question this way, “This is the question that will help slow down the rush to action, so you spend time solving the real problem, not just the first problem.”

Bungay Stanier explains that we will always have multiple problems to deal with, but that not all problems are created equal. Some will be more pressing then others and some will stem from larger more structural problems. Asking what the real challenge is can help develop thoughts on the larger issues at the core. Adding the “for you” part of the question dials in on the specific details that are in the individual’s (or your own) control, as opposed to details that are too vague and general to be something we can address directly. It also helps the question be more personal and aim toward individual growth and opportunity.

The Coaching Habit helps us get beyond simple venting and complaining to have more constructive and thoughtful discussions. Learning to listen and understanding how questions can help shape the direction of our conversations is crucial for successful coaching and even for successful introspection. Understanding our real challenge and then helping others dial in on their real challenges can drive new growth and productivity.

Solving the Wrong Problem

I work for a growing but still small tech start-up in the healthcare space based out of the bay area. The company has a great mission and is amazing to work for, but we have certainly had a lot of growing pains and unanswerable questions over the last four years that I have worked for the company. One of the biggest challenges we have faced is making sure we answering the right questions and getting the right solutions to the right problems in place.

 

Michael Bungay Stanier looks at these types of problems and takes them on in his book about coaching, The Coaching Habit. His book is full of recommendations to be a more effective coach and manager, and one of the benefits of his techniques is an improved understanding of the problems and questions that organizations must face. In the company I work for, things have always been in flux, and that means that sometimes it is hard to know what the real issue is and where we should be focusing all of our energy. If you polled the entire office about what the biggest problem is right now, you would get different answers from everyone. Bungay Stanier described the situation like this:

 

“You might have come up with a brilliant way to fix the challenge your team is talking about. However, the challenge they’re talking about is most likely not the real challenge that needs to be sorted out. They could be describing any number of things: a symptom, a secondary issue, a ghost of a previous problem which is comfortably familiar, often even a half-baked solution to an unarticulated issue.”

 

Effective leaders don’t just jump in when a team is discussing the issues they are facing and they don’t just take on all the problems in an attempt to solve everything themselves. Good leaders try to drill deeper to understand what is really at the heart of the collective issues facing the team, and then work to empower the team to tackle the problems they face. In my next post I’ll describe the conversation that Bungay Stanier recommends to help us find the right problem to solve, but for now I’ll describe the question he uses to get to the heart of the issue, “What’s the challenge?”.

 

In my career I have solved a lot of problems and fixed a lot of issues, but often times I have spent a lot of energy on problems and issues that end up not being very important. Something might be a little bit off and something might be an inconvenience, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I need to spend a lot of effort fixing that individual thing. Perhaps what everyone complains about is frustrating and annoying, but it may just be part of a larger problem or something that would go away altogether by solving a bigger picture item. This is definitely an area where growth is possible for me, and is something that all organizations struggle with, especially if we are quick to action and don’t make real efforts to dive further. Asking ourselves and our team, “What’s the real challenge?” and looking upstream from the stated problems to possible larger causes is one way to make sure the work we do matters and is one way to galvanize our team around the most important solutions.

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.

Advice Monster

In his book The Coaching Habit, Michale Bungay Stanier suggests that we all have an advice monster living inside us.  The advice monster knows what is best for everyone. It knows how to solve the worlds problems. It is a genius and has no faults. It knows other people so well that it doesn’t need to listen to their problems or thoughts because it already has everything figured out for them ahead of time. In fact, the advice monster knows other people better than other people know themselves and it understands social problems and infrastructure problems and monetary problems better than experts and academics who spend their whole lives and all their time working through and thinking about such problems.

 

The short and more accurate description of the advice monster is this, the advice monster is a jerk. It lives inside us and wants to pop out and shout at every moment. And this idea of the advice monster is backed by science. Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain why humans evolved to have advice monsters living inside of us. Speaking takes energy, and sharing advice and insights from what we learn overtime gives away our hard earned knowledge basically for free. We should have evolved to be stingy speakers and eager listeners, hungry to take in valuable information about where there is good food, about what dangers lie ahead, and about who to follow on Instagram. But instead, we evolved to speak and shout knowledge about for everyone to hear.  When someone else is talking rather than listening we spend all our time thinking about what we should say next, rather than listening for any helpful info they can give us.

 

The evolutionary explanation from Simler and Hanson is that we are simply showing off when we speak and we evolved to do this. We evolved to show off our mental  toolbox. The things we have learned, the observations we have made, the dots we have connected, and the insights we take from what we see and learn are valuable, and we want to display that to the group we belong to so that others will see us as valuable allies. We have an advice monster because we are political social animals, and to survive as part of the tribe we needed to show our value, and what better way to be valuable than to have novel information about building tools, about where food can be found, and to be able to tell stories that help improve group unity.

 

Unfortunately today, the advice monster is ruining lives and destroying relationships. Coaches today cannot simply let their evolved advice monster run the show, or the people they coach will never grow. Bungay Stanier offers a quick haiku to describe the way we should be coaching once we cut out our advice monster:

 

“Tell less and ask more.
Your advice is not as good
As you think it is.”

 

Expanding on the idea of the advice monster, he writes, “We’ve all got a deeply ingrained habit of slipping into the advice-giver/expert/answer-it/solve-it/fix-it mode. That’s no surprise, of course. When you take the premium that your organization places on answers and certainty, then blend in the increased sense of overwhelm and uncertainty and anxiety that many of us feel as our jobs and lives become more complex, and then realize that our brains are wired to have a strong preference for clarity and certainty, it’s no wonder that we like to give advice. Even if it’s the wrong advice–and it often is–giving it feels more comfortable than the ambiguity of asking a question.”

 

Listening doesn’t feel good because it doesn’t engage our evolutionary biology. Nevertheless, it is the way to actually solve other people’s problems. We never truly understand them and their problems as well as we think we do, and certainly not as well as they do. The key is to ask questions and encourage others to find the answers they already know exist. This pushes the advice monster aside and helps us actually be useful for the person we are supposed to be helping.

And What Else?

Yesterday I wrote about our tendency to view situations and decisions in the world as binary, and how the reality of the world is often more complex and nuanced than our decision making structures would suggest. Michael Bungay Stanier offers a way to get beyond binary views in his book The Coaching Habit. His solution is simply to ask the question, “And what else?” to get new ideas flowing and to break out of the simple this-or-that mentality that so many of us often stumble through.
In his book he writes, “…What would happen if you added just one more option: Should we do this? or This? or not? The results were startling. Having at least one more option lowered he failure rate by almost half, down to about 30 percent.
    When you use, “And what else?” you’ll get more options and often better options. Better options lead to better decisions. Better decisions lead to greater success.”
As almost everything in Bungay Stanier’s book, his advice and research is geared around professional and business coaching situations, but the takeaways can be expanded upon and used in more areas of life. His research shows that businesses perform much better when they consider a third option and are willing to look beyond the binary perspective. It is reasonable to think that other areas of our life would improve if we became better at recognizing when we were in a binary mindset and asked ourselves if there was a different option or even if we didn’t have to make a decision at all. When we start to become more comfortable with slightly larger perspectives, by making a choice between three options rather than just two, we start to see that the world has more possibilities than we originally recognized, and we start to be able to live a little more flexibly. Recognizing that our vision is limited, especially if we only give ourselves two possibilities for how the world is shaped, is key for growth and learning. Asking what else is a first step to challenge our thoughts and begin to expand our worldview.

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.