The Coaching Habit (book review)

I recently finished

The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever by Michael Bungay Stanier

Overall it was a useful, easy read, and I was already able to apply some of the ideas in the book in real-world situations, which is a pretty big positive. My biggest qualm with the book is choosing to package these insights as a book to begin with.

Really good books use the long-form +100 page format to cover nuanced notions of their key insights, that would have been completely lost had the author used a shorter-form format. Conscious Business and Turn the Ship Around are good examples of taking full advantage of the long form format.

Good books can be summarized in a long-ish HBR article or a 10-page whitepaper while still retaining more than 80% of their value.

The Coaching Habit is a good book, but not a really good one.

The book starts of with good framing of the difference between “giving advice” and “providing coaching”, making a compelling case for the latter. It also astutely acknowledges that transitioning from the former to the latter is a behavior change effort which therefore requires a behavioral approach to change: identifying the triggers that typically lead you down an “advice” route and being deliberate, once a trigger has been identified, to go down the “coaching” route instead.

The book revolves around a core of 7 coaching questions. Each introduced in a separate chapter which concludes with a lightweight scientific summary of why that particular question is so effective. Habit chapters are interleaved with the questions chapters, leading the reader through a reflection exercise identifying the particular trigger that should trigger that particular coaching question rather than the default advice.

1. The Kickstart Question: “What’s on your mind?”

Effectively shifting the focus from the challenge at hand, to the person dealing with the challenge. Can lead for deeper exploration starting off from the projects at hand, to dealing with the people involved with them, to the behavioral patterns of the person being coached.

“So there are three different facets of that we can look at: the project side – any challenges around the actual content. The people side — any issues with the team members/colleagues/clients. And patterns — if there’s a way that you’re getting in your own way, and not showing up in the best possible way. Where should we start?”

2. The AWE Question: “And What Else?”

The first answer someone gives you is hardly ever the best answer. The AWE question allows you to dig deeper, helps you build a pattern of inquiry (rather than default back to “advice mode” after the first question), and it buys you some time to really figure out what’s going on.

3. The Focus Question: “What’s the Real Challenge Here for YOU?”

Focuses on the real challenge rather than the first challenge. Brings the focus back to the person and encourages them to focus on one thing and the effect it has on them.

4. The Foundation Question: “What Do You Want?”

Clarifies (for you and the person you’re coaching) what’s the outcome that they seek. What they are truly asking of you or another person. Reminds the person that you are on their side and care about what they’re hoping to get out of the situation. A more indirect way to get at the answer to that question:

“Suppose that tonight, while you’re sleeping, a miracle happens. When you get up in the morning tomorrow, how will you know that things have suddenly got better?”

5. The Lazy Question: “How Can I Help?”

Encourages the person you’re coaching to make a direct and clear request AND it reminds you that you may not know how to best help and jump into “helping” in an unhelpful way… It’s always worth keeping in mind that a request is just a request. You don’t have to say “yes”. “I’m sorry, I can’t do that”, “I might be able to do that” or “I can’t do that, but here’s what I can do” are all totally acceptable responses (more here).

6. The Strategic Question: “If You’re Saying Yes to This, What are You Saying No To?”

In a world of finite time and resources, every “yes” has an opportunity cost, something that you won’t do as a result. That impact can be best captured looking again at project, people and patters.

Useful questions to ask before saying “yes”:

  • “Why are you asking me?”
  • “Who else have you asked?”
  • “When you say this is urgent, what do you mean?”
  • “According to what standard does this needs to be completed? By when?”
  • “If I couldn’t do all of this, but could do just a part, what part would you have me do?”
  • “What do you want me to take off my plate so I can do this?”

When saying “no”, deliberately create the distinction between what the person is asking you to do and the person. There’s a big difference between “I’m afraid I have to say no to this” and “I’m afraid I have to say no to you”.

7. The Learning Question: “What Was Most Useful to You?”

It assumes the conversation was useful and encourages the person being coached to reflect on the value they got out of the conversation. Ending with the positive reflection on the value leaves a positive recollection of the value they got out of it. It also gives you as a coach valuable feedback on your coaching and allows you to refine your habit. A slight variation of this question can also be used as a conversation starter: “what have you learned since we last met?”.

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The Coaching Habit (book review)

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