Many think being a leader is challenging. Although there is truth here, being a coach may take on another layer of challenge. Michael Bungay Stanier states that “The essence of coaching lies in helping others unlock their potential.” Talk about a challenge. In the same breath, talk about having a positive impact.

Michael Bungay Stanier is the author of The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. In reading his book, you will be challenged while seeing the power in the simplicity of how to coach for more creativity, better solutions, and higher productivity. In the case of productivity, it is about tapping into the potential of others so an organization can achieve its greater purpose and individuals can use their talents in unfettered ways.

Reading The Coaching Habit can be done quickly, but the points will linger while challenging you to begin new and better habits.

I am glad to have caught up with Michael Bungay Stanier and ask him a few questions. In doing this interview, I felt challenged. After all, reading a book about how to ask questions and then asking the author of this book questions can set up a certain anxiety! Well, to gain any better outcome, we need to start.

The Coaching Habit: Insights with Michael Bungay Stanier

Jon: What inspired you to write The Coaching Habit? Was there a personal experience or ah-ha moment?

Michael Bungay StanierMichael: Have you ever surfed? I’ve taken a number of lessons, but never quite got up on a board. I’m too tall and awkward and uncoordinated, it seems.

However, I get the theory of catching a wave, even if I can’t actually do it in practice. First, you’ve got to get the basics of surfing figured out. Then you’ve got to get into the ocean where the waves are. Then you’ve got to position yourself to catch the right wave.

You can probably see where I’m going with all of this…

The Coaching Habit is my fifth book, and they’ve all had a general theme of helping people and organizations do less Good Work and more Great Work. (Good Work is most snappily defined as your job description, whereas Great Work is the work that has more impact and has more meaning.)

Writing books about Great Work … that’s me in the ocean and learning to surf. When The Coaching Habit first showed up as an idea, that’s me seeing the next wave to catch. I tried and missed a number of those waves – I wrote four bad versions of this book before I wrote a good one – but finally I caught one.

And behind that extended metaphor is the fact that my company Box of Crayons teaches practical coaching skills to busy managers, so they can coach in 10 minutes or less. So this is the book that captures and shares some of the key lessons from our programs.

Jon: How do leaders stop giving the answers and start coaching others to develop answers?

Michael: In short: practice.

But before that, it’s useful to first understand how coaching actually helps the person coaching (as well as helping the person being coached). It allows you to work less hard, create more focus, and have more impact. So start with the WIIFM.

Then it’s helpful to understand how to build new habits, so that you have the simple yet powerful mechanism for behavior change sorted out.

And then pick a question you like (The Coaching Habit offers up seven that are particularly good), and build a habit around it.

And practice.

Jon: What are the flash points to know when you are trying to help more than coach?

Michael: There’s always a place for giving advice and telling people what to do. It’s just that it’s an overused muscle, and asking a good question and helping them figure out their own answers is an underused one.

At Box of Crayons, our belief is that every interaction has the potential to be more coach-like. So rather than me listing generic flashpoints, I’d have readers consider times when they feel their advice and help and suggestions seems to have less impact than they’d wish … and consider building a coaching habit in those moments.

Jon: In working with leaders, what differences, if any, do you find between generations when using your 7 questions?

Michael: I tend to be of the camp – to steal a line from the recent Brexit campaign – that our similarities are greater than our differences. Neuroscience tells us that all of us, whatever our age, find coaching a more powerful and more useful interaction much of the time.

Jon: With the generational shift to Millennials, what practical advice do you offer as they work with older and younger team members?

Michael: In the spirit of the answer above, I do think being more coach-like is a useful skill that transcends age.

Jon: I have only asked one “how” question (so far!). What is the value of asking “what” questions?

Coaching HabitMichael: Nicely done! In The Coaching Habit book, I suggest people stay away with questions starting with Why (it’s too easy to put people on the defensive) and be judicious with asking How questions (it leads to a “get it done” conversation) and linger longer on the What questions, as they are more effective at generating insights, opportunities, and curiosity.

Jon: Habits are difficult to start and stop. In adopting the coaching habit, what will help people begin a new, better way?

Michael: Habits are difficult to master … and they’re also the building blocks of behavior change, so it’s worth the effort to figure them out.

I’d suggest that part of the secret is

  • Work on one new habit at a time. If you try and develop multiple habits, you tend to fail at all of them
  • Be really specific. Instead of working on “asking more coaching questions,” build a habit that sounds something like: “When I have my one-on-one with Jon, and he asks me how to do things (as he usually does) and I go to tell him how (as I usually do), instead I will ask him, “What’s the real challenge here for you?”

Jon: And what else (AWE) should leaders do in developing their coaching habit?

Michael: Ha! Nicely played. (“And what else?” is one of the seven key questions, and in fact, we claim it’s the best coaching question in the world.)

I’d add that it’s useful to set up some support or accountability—someone or something (there are lots of great habit apps out there) to help you track how you’re doing and ensure you continue to walk the line.

Starting a New, Better Coaching Habit

I definitely agree with Michael’s point of that we have more similarities than differences when it comes to coaching and leading on purpose. No matter our age or generation, we can learn from The Coaching Habit. My only caveat would be that starting earlier rather than later will help leaders form better coaching habits and excel through their experiences and lessons absorbed.

Thank you, Michael, for challenging and coaching us!