The Coaching Habit: Change the Way You Lead

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Coaching Habit" by Michael Bungay Stanier. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How can you form a coaching habit? What difference would it make in your leadership?

The Coaching Habit teaches you how to turn coaching into an informal, effective daily habit by asking team members seven essential questions. Listening instead of speaking for just 10 minutes a day can refresh and revamp your interactions with your team members and ultimately transform the way you and your team work.

Keep reading to learn the fundamental principles of The Coaching Habit.

The Coaching Habit

A good sports coach can inspire and motivate their players and lead a team to victory. In much the same way, coaches in the workplace can bring out the best in their employees and increase productivity. However, many managers and leaders avoid coaching, thinking that it’s too complicated, too awkward, or too impractical. Others believe they’re already coaching when all they’re really doing is giving advice.

Whatever it is that’s keeping you from coaching, there are three reasons why you should put in the time and effort to make it a daily habit: 

  1. It empowers your team members. If most of your team’s responsibilities need your input and approval, then that means you’ve trained your team, perhaps inadvertently, to become overly reliant on you. This not only increases your workload but also makes you a potential bottleneck. By coaching your team, you train them to become more self-sufficient, effective, and efficient, all while lightening your load.
  2. It allows you to refocus. You can lose sight of your goals when you keep getting pulled in several directions at once. Coaching can help you and your team remember what’s important.
  3. It clarifies your purpose. Having coaching sessions can help both you and your direct reports see the meaning behind the work you’re doing, motivating you to perform at your best.

In short, coaching helps your team members grow and develop while making your work easier, more focused, more meaningful, and more enjoyable—in other words, coaching is imperative to being a good manager. In The Coaching Habit, you’ll learn how to turn coaching into an informal, effective daily habit.

How to Build a Habit

The Coaching Habit aims to help you get rid of bad coaching habits and replace them with a new coaching habit that you can practice every day: Talk less; listen more. 

Building any habit can be challenging. Simply declaring that you’ll exercise more, that you’ll stop spending and start investing, or that you’ll start coaching isn’t enough to form a new habit. Approach it systematically with the following steps:

1) Pinpoint Your Old Habit 

You can’t get rid of an old habit if you don’t know what it is in the first place, so be clear and specific about the coaching habit you’re trying to change. 

  • For example, you may have the bad habit of frequently stepping in and making decisions for your team members without letting them work through problems themselves.

2) Determine Your Triggers

Once you have your old coaching habit in mind, figure out what triggers it. There are five common types of triggers: location, time, emotional state, other people, and the immediately preceding action. Thinking in terms of these five categories may help you determine your triggers—once you realize what they are, you can more consciously stop yourself from engaging with them and performing your bad habits.

For example, you may be triggered to make decisions when you feel impatient (emotional state), when you’re trying to get out of the office at the end of the day (time), or whenever you deal with a team member who has a reputation for being indecisive (other people).

3) Specify Your New Habit 

Just as you’re clear and specific about the old coaching habit you want to change, you need to identify the new coaching habit that you want to form. In this case, you want to form the new habit of asking your team members one of the Coaching Habit questions.

  • For example, instead of stepping in to rescue an indecisive team member, your new habit might be to step back and ask her what’s on her mind or why making a decision is a challenge for her. 

The Coaching Habit Questions

Evaluate your current behavior and determine “coaching” habits that you might have. Maybe you jump in too quickly to give advice or try to solve team members’ problems as soon as they knock on your door or send you an email. Replace these old coaching habits with the new habit of listening more by asking one of the seven essential questions. 

(Shortform note: You should view these seven questions as individual tools rather than as a system—you don’t need to use all the questions one after the other. In any coaching situation, choose whichever questions feel most natural, applicable, and useful.) 

Question 1—The Conversation Starter Question: What’s on Your Mind?

The goal of coaching is to unlock a person’s potential, and small talk about the weather, sports teams, or weekend plans rarely leads to something that can help your direct reports grow. On the other hand, questions that seem like they come from a coaching manual may be difficult to bring up and may feel too formal and uncomfortable. What you need, then, is a question that hits just the right balance, one that’s casual and non-threatening while being direct and meaningful. The first essential question, “What’s on your mind?” is informal enough to encourage openness but focused enough to draw out the exciting or worrying things that have been occupying your team members’ thoughts.

When you ask a team member about something that’s been taking up space in his mind, you allow him to bring those thoughts to the surface and release them—therefore ensuring that they don’t get in the way of his work. 

Get the Conversation Rolling 

First, recognize your bad coaching habit—when someone comes to talk to you, do you get caught in small talk, jump to giving advice right away, or talk about some other work topic that isn’t really the issue? 

Then, determine what usually prompts you to jump into these bad coaching habits. Often, this trigger looks like a team member or colleague popping in to ask if you’ve “got a minute” or instant messaging you to ask if you’re busy—in other words, when someone approaches you with an issue, you react by doing what feels the most helpful or least awkward. 

Once you’re aware of the different ways team members approach you, you can consciously respond by performing the good coaching habit of asking the right question: “What’s on your mind?” Listen intently and understand what the team member is saying and resist steering the conversation towards what you think they’re saying and then offering canned advice. It helps to keep in mind that every issue involves one of the “3Ps”:

  • People: Relationships that may be causing friction or tension
  • Patterns: Repeated behaviors that may be detrimental to a person’s growth
  • Projects: Obstacles like technical challenges and other hindrances that keep a team member from completing a task—often, this is all you’ll need to talk about because it’s what people are most focused on in their day-to-day work. 

When your team member tells you what they’re thinking about, look for the “P at the center of the issue: Think about the relationships, behaviors, and technical obstacles involved, and ask your team member which one they’d like to discuss.

Question 2—The Follow-Through Question: Anything Else?

Team members may leave many things unsaid to maintain diplomacy or to avoid difficult conversations. By asking the second essential question, “Anything else?” you can bring up hidden issues and help team members dig down to continue unearthing solutions and possibilities. It’s a question that encourages deeper thinking and greater participation and shows how the first answer isn’t necessarily the best answer. Asking, “And what else?” can lead to:

  • Better decision-making: The more you ask, “And what else?” the deeper you probe, and the more options for action you can unearth. (Keep in mind that you should only ask this follow-up question a maximum of five times. While having more options is generally good, having too many options can lead to overthinking and decision-making paralysis.) 
  • Greater self-control: When someone comes to you with a problem, your immediate reaction might be to fix it. The problem with flexing your problem-solving abilities is that sometimes you only think you know what the problem is—you may not know all the pertinent issues and details. Asking, “Anything else?” keeps you from the bad coaching habit of immediately giving out advice based on your conclusions or perspective on the issue. 
  • More time: As a manager, you want to show that you’re always on top of things—but sometimes, you may not know the answer to a question your team member is asking you or aren’t sure of the correct way to proceed. When you ask, “Anything else?” and let your team member continue hashing out the problem, you give yourself more time to think. 

Use “Anything else?” in a variety of scenarios: after your conversation starter, when you’re trying to get to the heart of an issue, when you want to keep a conversation moving forward, or any other situation where you feel like there’s more that is waiting to be said. Be curious and give the person your full attention so that your “Anything else?” comes out as genuine, rather than as an automatic follow-up. 

Question 3—The Laser Beam Question: What’s the Central Challenge For You?

As a manager, you’re trained to be the chief troubleshooter in a fast-paced environment. When someone comes to you with a problem, you might come charging in to put out a fire without stopping to figure out what caused it. This then leads to three problems: 

  1. You might have to deal with the same fire over and over again, or have other flames crop up from the same source.
  2. You prevent your direct reports from learning how to deal with the fire themselves. 
  3. You’re so busy putting out fires, you’re not able to take care of your other responsibilities. This creates a bottleneck and causes work to come to a halt.

The third essential question, “What’s the central challenge for you?” allows you to weed through several issues to find and solve the real issue at hand. Since you’re used to the bad coaching habit of fixing things yourself, stopping to ask questions might feel like inaction. However, any insight you uncover by asking the laser beam question will be much more valuable than the wrong solution to the wrong problem.

Three common situations are great coaching opportunities, but often trigger “fixing mode” if you’re not careful:

  • The other person is dealing with a lot of issues. Some people don’t hold back when you ask them, “What’s on your mind?” and fire off numerous issues. Your brain starts to go into overdrive, trying to figure out which to tackle first. Stop yourself and ask, “If you had to choose only one of these to address, which one is the central challenge for you?”
  • The conversation turns into a gossip session. A team member’s complaints about a colleague or client are within the realm of issues neither of you can control. You can only coach the person in front of you. Switch the focus from a person you’re talking about to the person you’re talking to by asking, “I think I understand what’s going on with Barbara. What’s the central challenge for you?”
  • The issues are too vague. If the team member doesn’t know the exact problem himself, he may talk about abstract big-picture issues or drift between vaguely connected issues. If you’re left feeling confused after a long-winded conversation, narrow the scope by saying, “I can see that this issue comes with a lot of great challenges. What’s the central challenge for you?”

Question 4—The Empowerment Question: What Do You Want?

Every person has wants, but they may not express them due to fear of saying the wrong thing, being rejected, or coming across as demanding. When team members feel afraid to express what they want, the workplace can take on an atmosphere of uncertainty. These underlying negative feelings can make it difficult for team members to perform at their best. 

Make a habit of asking the fourth essential question: “What do you want?” This question increases the feeling of safety in the workplace because it makes team members feel that you’re on their side, that they have some control over their future, that they’re valued, and that they’re in a position to make a decision. All these signals encourage team members to lower the defenses that may be blocking them from thinking at their best.

Asking “What do you want?” is especially useful in two situations that can cause friction or uncertainty in the workplace: 

  • When a conversation seems to be losing steam. Sometimes a discussion seems to be going around in circles with no solution in sight. It may be a sign that the other person doesn’t feel safe enough to articulate what he wants. Asking, “What do you want?” tells him that he can freely share his desired outcome.
  • When there is conflict. When you and another person reach an impasse, make sure you truly understand what the other person is asking for by asking, “What do you want?” Then clarify your position by telling him what you want as well. 

Question 5—The Heavy Lifter Question: How Can I Support You?

When someone comes to you with a question or a problem, you may feel like it’s your duty as a manager to rescue him by finding solutions yourself. It seems like the most efficient way to address a problem, but your good intentions may backfire: Your team members may feel resentful when you step in instead of trusting them to find solutions, and in addition to preventing team members from learning and growing, you’ll needlessly add to your workload.

Replace your old “rescuing” habit with the good habit of asking the fifth essential question: “How can I support you?” This question makes for effective coaching in two ways: 

  1. It helps you exercise self-control by slowing you down and preventing you from jumping to finding solutions yourself.  
  2. It compels the other person to be clear and direct about what he needs. Often, this question will help him realize that he doesn’t need your help at all—he’s able to learn and grow, and you’re freed from doing unnecessary extra work.

You might be hesitant to ask this question because you’re worried the team member will ask for more help than you’re willing to give. Keep in mind that it’s just a question, not a commitment—asking “How can I support you?” doesn’t mean you’re obligated to say “yes.” You can also say “no,” give a conditional “yes” or “no,” or ask for more time to think about it. When considering your response, let your goal of training your team members to find their own solutions guide you.

Question 6—The Commitment Question: What’s the Cost of Saying ‘Yes’?

Many team members tend to take on any extra tasks someone asks of them—such as sitting in on meetings, joining committees, or participating in social activities—even when their schedules are already overflowing. They tend to say “yes” to these tasks, ignoring their overload, for two reasons: they associate being busy with being successful, and it can be hard or awkward to say “no.”

Seeing team members contemplating an opportunity or additional responsibilities should trigger you to ask the sixth essential question: “What’s the cost of saying ‘yes?” After asking, guide them to the best decision in two ways:

1) Help them reflect on their 3Ps: What projects will they need to give up to take on this new responsibility? Which people will be affected by his decision? What patterns and habits will he need to overcome to accomplish the new task?

2) Give them the tools to say no: You can help them avoid the difficulty of saying “no” with two methods:

  • The “slow yes”: When asked to take on a new task, he can get a better grasp of the commitment required by asking questions such as, “What’s the timeline?” and, “If I can only commit x hours, what would you like me to do?” Such questions will lead to one of four outcomes: He finds out that he doesn’t have a choice and has to do it anyway, he gets some illuminating answers that will better help him make a decision, he buys himself some time to think about it, or he’s left alone and someone else is asked to do the job. 
  • The “diplomatic no”: Explain that he can make “no” less awkward by refusing the task and not to the person—for example, saying, “It looks like I have to say no to this” instead of, “It looks like I’ll have to say no to you.”

Question 7—The Insight Question: What Was Most Useful for You?

As a manager, it’s part of your job to help your direct reports learn new skills and become better, more successful team members. Projects and problems provide many valuable teaching moments, but the lessons from those experiences may not always stick. 

The best way to help your team members absorb new information is by asking the last essential question: “What insights did you gain?” This question encourages your team members to identify and retain a concrete lesson they learned, as well as making them feel like you care about them. Additionally, knowing what parts of a project or issue taught them the most can clue you in to how to better coach them in the future.

Once the other person tells you what was useful for them, be sure to tell them what insights you gained, in order to reinforce that your coaching conversations aren’t meant to be one-sided.

Refine Your Coaching Skills

It’s not enough to just know and robotically ask the Coaching Habit questions. Take your coaching skills a step further by knowing the most effective way to ask them. There are four elements of “effective asking”: pacing, straightforwardness, engagement, and consistency. 

Pacing 

  • Mind your pace: With this book’s set of coaching prompts in your toolbox, you might be tempted to fire them off one after the other. However, your direct report may feel overwhelmed if you ask them too many questions at once. Wait for your team member’s response, really listen to it, and consider the best response before launching into your next question. 
  • Embrace silence: Be comfortable with silence, and allow the conversation some breathing room. You don’t have to fill every second with conversation. Don’t say anything for a few seconds to give the other person the chance to come up with thoughtful responses.

Straightforwardness

  • Don’t beat around the bush: If you already know what you’re going to ask, just ask. If you feel uncomfortable asking a question or think that your question might sound too blunt, preface it with phrases such as, “Out of curiosity…” or, “To make sure that I understand…” 
  • Don’t disguise advice as a question: Sometimes you want the other person to get to the solution you want without making it seem like you want things done your way. So, you ask questions like, “Have you considered…?” to put your ideas in their mind. Whenever you’re tempted to give advice disguised as a question, try asking, “Anything else?” Only after hearing everything the team member has thought of should you offer your own ideas.

Engagement

  • Use “what” questions: While “Why?” is a useful question in many situations, it may sound judgmental and make people feel defensive. Reframe your “why” questions into less intimidating “what” questions. For example, instead of asking, “Why did you do that?” try asking, “What kind of outcome were you hoping for?”
  • Give your full attention: Really listen to the responses to your questions. Turn off distractions such as email or phone notifications, and consciously put aside thoughts like deadlines or what you’re having for lunch. If you catch your mind drifting, just get back in the moment and refocus.   
  • Be an active listener: Don’t be a completely passive audience to your team member. Instead, show that you’re listening to them by engaging with what they’re saying. For example, “Great idea” or, “Yes, that sounds like a good solution” are simple ways to acknowledge what they’ve said before you move onto the next question. 

Consistency

Keep coaching, even when you’re not face-to-face. These days, much of the interaction between team leaders and team members takes place online via email, text, and messaging apps. This means you have fewer opportunities for face-to-face coaching, but don’t discount the power of remote coaching. 

  • For example, when someone sends you a lengthy email about a dilemma at work, use it as an opportunity to ask a question, rather than replying with detailed advice. You can say something like, “Before I send a more detailed reply, can you tell me what the central challenge is for you?

Commit to your habit of being curious and regularly coaching your team by asking the Coaching Habit questions and making use of the conversational tips above. If you think of new coaching questions that would fit into your team environment, work them into your conversations as you would the Coaching Habit questions. By building up these good coaching habits, you’ll greatly improve your coaching skills and be better able to help your team members become more valuable players.

The Coaching Habit: Change the Way You Lead

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Coaching Habit summary:

  • How to turn coaching into an informal, effective daily habit
  • Why you should practice listening instead of speaking for 10 minutes a day
  • The seven essential questions to ask your team members

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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