Coaching Principles to Live By: 3 Habits of Great Coaches

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

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What are coaching principles? What are the three most important principles, according to coaching experts?

In The Advice Trap, coaching expert Michael Bungay Stanier explains his coaching style of leadership which shifts the focus away from ourselves and onto others. In his book, he defines the three coaching principles that all great coaches follow.

Read on to learn about Stanier’s three coaching principles, according to his book The Advice Trap.

Coaching Principles to Live By

Michael Bungay Stanier is one of the foremost experts in coaching and the founder of Box of Crayons, a company dedicated to leadership training and development. Published in 2020, The Advice Trap is considered a companion to his previous bestselling book, The Coaching Habit. In the book, he explains that advice-giving can lead to more problems than solutions and encourages you, instead, to adopt a coaching style of leadership, which follows three core coaching principles.

(Shortform note: Stanier’s advice on how to improve your coaching comes at an important time in the contemporary workplace, as many leaders think they’re better coaches than they actually are. In one study, 24% of managers that rated themselves with above-average coaching abilities were ranked in the bottom 33% by others. Stanier’s recommendations on adopting a questions-first approach can help redress this gap, showing managers and their teams how to cultivate better coaching relationships.)

Stanier encourages you to make coaching a part of your lifestyle—whether you’re communicating in a face-to-face meeting or chatting informally over text message.

In this article, we’ll explore the three coaching principles that Stanier says any good coach should follow.

Principle #1: Listen and Communicate More

According to Stanier’s first coaching principle, a good coach is generous in both their silence and their words. When you’re not speaking, he suggests you embrace long pauses as opportunities to practice active listening. When you are speaking, try to express your thoughts and feelings more, especially when giving out praise.

(Shortform note: While Stanier promotes active listening as an important pillar of a coaching style of management, he doesn’t elaborate on the techniques you can practice to improve this skill. To be a better listener, you should focus on both your body language and speech. Researchers suggest you focus entirely on what the other person’s saying without thinking about how you might respond—make eye contact, nod occasionally, and try to hold back any negative facial reactions until they’re finished speaking.)

Principle #2: Be a Student

In his second coaching principle, Stanier asserts that a good coach seeks feedback and opportunities to learn better management skills. Try to learn how to be coached yourself.

  1. Admit your struggles. This helps both you and your coach work toward building a better relationship.
  2. Learn to accept discomfort. Remind yourself that learning good coaching habits takes time and practice.
  3. Practice self-reflection. Ask yourself questions that challenge your present habits and ways of thinking.
  4. Look for resources to learn, challenge yourself, and grow. Practice asking for feedback both from people you’re comfortable with and from those you’re less comfortable with.
How to Receive Feedback

Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen in Thanks for the Feedback agree with Stanier that learning to receive feedback can help you learn and improve, and like Stanier, they recommend that you purposefully seek out feedback from others. To get the most value out of the feedback you receive, they advocate adopting a growth mindset, in which you view your skills and traits as fluid rather than fixed. Their three suggestions for developing a growth mindset provide more detailed actionables to Stanier’s suggestions:

– First, to be more comfortable in admitting your struggles and accepting discomfort as Stanier recommends, the authors suggest reminding yourself that you’re being coached, not evaluated. You’ll be more receptive to feedback if you’re focused on changing your behaviors rather than your identity.

– Second, when you receive feedback, avoid fixating on your fear of being judged. As Stanier points out, feedback is not always comforting, and focusing on what you do instead of how people view you can help you contend with this discomfort.

– Lastly, the authors suggest rating yourself on how well you react to feedback. This can help you practice reflection as Stanier suggests.

Ultimately, like Stanier, Stone and Heen stress that growth is about the process and not the outcome.

Principle #3: Put Quality First

Stanier’s final coaching principle is to learn how to give high-quality advice. Although Stanier argues that offering advice isn’t always the best solution, he also believes a good leader should know how to give quality advice when it’s needed. He introduces four tips to doing so:

Tip #1: Give simple answers to simple questions—sometimes a straightforward question such as, “What time should I finish this project by?” can be answered with a simple response rather than an in-depth exploration of the situation. In these cases, offering the answer would be the most helpful and supportive thing you can do.

Tip #2: Lessen the pressure—sound less certain about your suggestions or else people might not even question them. Emphasize that your advice isn’t a command, but merely a thought or suggestion, with phrases such as, “This is just one thought I have…” or “I’m not sure if this is something you could consider…”

Tip #3: Be clear—state your advice plainly. Make sure your suggestions are clear and complete.

Tip #4: Summarize—ask questions to gauge how your advice was received, such as, “Did that help you in any way?” Asking for feedback can help you solidify your coaching habits.

Coaching Principles to Live By: 3 Habits of Great Coaches

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Advice Trap summary:

  • Why advice-giving can lead to more problems than solutions
  • Why questions are more beneficial than suggestions
  • How to combat your impulse to give unsolicited advice

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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