2 powerful ways to get better at coaching your employees

The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever is one of the best books I’ve read for managers and leaders who want to use a coach approach with their employees but don’t have the time or inclination for formal training. It’s short on theory but long on practical tools and techniques that are a shot to the heart of great coaching.

The author identifies seven questions to ask when taking a coach-approach towards engaging with your team. Rather than spoil the book, I’ll share two challenges that he identifies for anyone seeking to be a better coach-manager or 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.

When coaching your employees, Bungay Stanier urges to avoid 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 one of your employees 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!

If you enjoyed this, you might like:

My post about the difference between coaching and mentoring. I define what coaching really is and explore the origins of mentoring in Greek mythology.

My comprehensive list of the best books about executive coaching, including books about leadership and performance psychology.

This superb resource from San Francisco based executive coach Ed Batista, in association with Harvard Business Review: Keys to Coaching Your Employees.

For more on how to be an effective listener, this video is superb.