By Michael Bungay Stanier
Box of Crayons Press
I’m a good advisor but a pretty lousy coach.
Confusing these roles is how I get myself into trouble and annoy the people I try to help.
It’s an occupational hazard. After working in public relations for 25 years, I’m very much in what author Michael Bungy Stainer calls the advice-giver / expert / answer-it / solve-it / fix-it mode.
This mode doesn’t translate well to coaching.
It’s why I give answers to questions you haven’t asked and have solutions to what you don’t see as a problem. I’ll preemptively offer to save the day even when you have the situation well in hand.
To become a better coach, I need to talk less and listen more. Instead of having answers and offering up unsolicited advice, I need to start asking smarter questions.
Bungay Stainer, the founder and CEO of a company known for teaching 10-minute coaching to leaders, knows what questions effective coaches should ask.
“The seemingly simple behaviour change of giving a little less advice and asking a few more questions is surprisingly difficult,” says Bungay Stainer. “You’ve spent years delivering advice and getting promoted and praised for it. You’re seen to be ‘adding value’ and you have the added bonus of staying in control of the situation.
“On the other hand, when you’re asking questions, you might feel less certain about whether you’re being useful, the conversation can feel slower and you might feel like you’ve somewhat lost control of the conversation (and indeed you have. That’s called ‘empowering’).”
Bungay Stainer says the essence of coaching is helping others and unlocking their potential. It’s also the key to avoiding overdependence. When you train people to become excessively reliant on you for answers, you disempower them and frustrate yourself. You become swamped with work, turning yourself into a bottleneck while everyone around you 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.”
So instead of having all the answers, stick to asking one or more of the following seven questions:
What’s on your mind? Bungay Stainer calls this the kickstart question. It’s an almost fail-safe way to start any conversation with someone who’s asking for help. “It’s a question that says let’s talk about the thing that matters most.”
And what else? This is the AWE question and it’s the quickest and easiest way to uncover and create new possibilities. “With seemingly no effort, it creates more – more wisdom, more insights, more self-awareness, more possibilities – out of thin air.”
What’s the real challenge here for you? Asking the focus question will save you from wasting too much time and effort solving the wrong problem. “When people start talking to you about the challenge at hand, what’s essential to remember is that what they’re laying out for you is rarely the actual question.”
What do you want? This is a foundational question. “Recognizing the need gives you a better understanding of how you might best address the want.”
How can I help? This is the lazy question which forces your colleague to make a direct and clear request and prevents you from immediately leaping into action.
If you say yes to this, what are you saying no to? This is the strategic question. It’s been said that the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. “A ‘yes’ is nothing without the ‘no’ that gives it boundaries and form.”
What was most useful for you? This learning question should close out your conversations. “Not only do you help people to see and then embed the learning from the conversation, but by your finishing on a ‘this was useful’ note, people are going to remember the experience more favourably than they otherwise might.”
With each of his seven questions, Bungay Stainer also offers a master class in how to make effective coaching a habit. His book is a great resource for those of us looking to switch off our advisor mode, quit playing the all-knowing sage and superhero and do a far better job of helping the people around us find the answers to their questions and realize their full potential. – Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.