The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever is a highly readable little book by Michael Bungay Stanier. It’s short on theory but long on practical tools and techniques that are a shot to the heart of good coaching. If you want to enhance your management and leadership style with a coaching approach, but don’t have the time or inclination for formal training, then you should pick up a copy. As Brene Brown says in the introduction to the book:
Coaching is an art, and it’s far easier said than done. It takes courage to ask a question rather than offer up advice, provide an answer or unleash a solution. Giving another person the opportunity to find their own way, make their own mistakes and create their own wisdom is both brave and vulnerable. It can also mean unlearning our “fix it” habits. In this practical and inspiring book, Michael shares seven transformative questions that can make a difference in how we lead and support.
It would be a dis-service to the author to tell you what the seven questions that he identifies are. Instead, I’ll share two challenges that he identifies for anyone seeking to be a better coach-leader.
Avoid the Advice Monster
Bungay Stanier explains a well understood concept in coaching, that:
The seemingly simple behaviour of giving a little less advice and asking a few more questions is surprisingly difficult. You’ve spent years delivering advice and getting promoted and praised for it. You’re seen to be “adding value” and you’ve the added bonus of staying in control of the situation.
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 organisation 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 realise 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.
Bungay Stanier calls this urge the Advice Monster:
You have the best intentions to stay curious and ask a few good questions. But in the moment, just as you are moving to that better way of working, the Advice Monster leaps out of the darkness and hijacks the conversation. Before you realise what’s happening, your mind is turned towards finding The Answer and you’re leaping to offer ideas, suggestions and recommend ways forward… even though we don’t really know what the issue is, or what’s going on for the person, we’re quite sure we’ve got the answer she needs.
Learn to Shut Up and Listen
You’ve asked someone an essential question; what do you do next?
You move into Black-Belt Active Listening mode.
Nodding your head like a well-sprung bobblehead doll.
Making small grunting noises of encouragement.
Maintaining eye contact at all costs.
… One of the most compelling things you can do after asking a question is to genuinely listen to the answer.
It is often the ironic case that the moment when we can see the cogs turning inside someone’s head, is the moment when we often have the strongest urge to interrupt. If we are not talking then are we adding value? Yes, you are, and you must learn to trust that you are being useful.
When you start shifting your behavior from giving advice and providing solutions to asking questions, you will feel anxious. “I’m just asking questions. They’re going to see right through this and minute now.”
Learn to recognise the moment when you ask the question and there’s a pause, a heartbeat of silence when you can see the person actually thinking and figuring out the answer. You can almost see the neural connections being made.
It’s in that moment that you are adding real value, and you don’t have to say a word!