Why You Need a Coaching Habit: Say Less and Ask More Questions

I'm staring uncomfortably at my water glass, trying to figure out how to answer my friend's question. It's a sunny day in Cupertino. I'm enjoying lunch at Cafe Macs at Apple's mothership. My friend, a manager at Apple, clears her throat and repeats the question. "Well, what do you think I should do? I love my job, but I'm not growing anymore." Trying to delay my response--and hide my lack of brilliant advice--I joke, "Hey, you're a manager at Apple, the most successful company in the world. You're not supposed to be unhappy with your job." She smiles in silence, waiting for some coaching. But the truth is, I didn't have a great answer. So I did what any good friend would do--I made some stuff up and hoped it would stick. 
Looking back, I don't feel bad. She went on to a great school back east--not my advice--and pursued a successful career in what she really wanted to do. We've all felt the pressure to come up with some Gandalf-like wisdom. And if you are a manager, you know that this pressure multiplies. If you're high enough in the company to reach demigod status, the expectations mount further. The truth is, we often don't have the answer, and even if we do, it's most likely not the answer that our people need.
Coaching people is like cooking: recipes take us only so far. To figure things out, we have to chuck a few noodles against the wall to see what sticks. That's why I love Michael Bungay Stanier's latest book, The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. Instead of bearing the burden as the person with all the answers, you can learn how to be a coach--and a good one at that. Because your people have Google to find answers, you can give them what they really need. First, someone to ask them well-designed questions that get them into problem-solving mode. And second, a good set of ears that provides them with a much-needed blank canvas to make sense of their thoughts.
In Bungay Stanier's book, he gives seven essential questions to help us coach our way through people's most difficult challenges. Now, having tried these seven questions in my own coaching, what strikes me most is that they actually work! In less than ten minutes, Bungay Stanier's methods armed me with a coaching structure to guide some wicked-smart people through super-complex problems. Take a look at these questions:
    1. The Kickstart Question: What's on your mind?
This question helps people get right to what's top on their list. And even better, it makes it super easy to jump from small talk right into what matters--them
    2. The AWE Question: And what else?
I'm tickled pink at how the AWE question draws out double what you get from the Kickstart question. Don't skip this one. Bonus: it builds needed trust early in the conversation.
    3. The Focus Question: What's the real challenge here for you?
I love this transition. I had a friend test the Focus question on me, and it helped me jump right through the mess I had just shared to figuring out concretely what the real problem was.
    4. The Foundation Question: What do you want?
Oh yes! This is what they want to talk about! If your colleague already trusts you, this answer is connected to their heart. If they don't trust you, put on your Dumbo ears and shut your mouth. If you're sincerely trying to help them, this could spur a huge breakthrough in your working relationship. The beauty of this design is that questions 1 to 3 get your teammate into a much better place to answer the Focus question. I have found in my coaching that people aren't usually ready to answer this one unless you grease the skids first.
My son, Seth, will scold me for being a spoiler if I go any further. I'll leave it up to you to get your copy of The Coaching Habit to explore questions 5 to 7. But to pique your interest, see if you can fill in the blanks:
    5. The Lazy Question:
    6. The Strategic Question:
    7. The Learning Question:
A few weeks ago, while Michael and I were discussing how he came to develop the coaching habit, he taught me this little gem. Statistically, killer business coaches bring a sense of humility to their practice. Creating a feeling of even ground is key to helping people work through their problems. The word "humility" originates from the Latin word "humilis," which means having a small flattened appearance. You can walk into a coaching session with a sense of superiority and proceed to pump people full of your brilliant advice. That is easy to control but creates little or no mutual influence. Instead, if your coaching game is built on even ground, you will ask open-ended questions where you can't control the answers. This method greatly increases the odds of both people leaving the conversation a slightly changed person. In my experience, good leaders seek to be influenced by their team. Great leaders develop a coaching habit.

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