How to Be an Empowering Coach: Ask This Question

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 become an empowering coach? How do you unleash your employees’ potential?

An empowering coach strengthens workplace communication and relationships, creates psychological safety in the workplace, and gives employees wings to soar. The Coaching Habit recommends one particular question that empowering coaches should ask.

Keep reading to learn how to be an empowering coach.

The Question Empowering Coaches Ask

Sometimes, you may be working with a team member who seems to have trouble articulating what they’d like to happen in a certain situation—they may not know, or they may feel afraid to directly ask. 

In these cases, you can use the question that empowering coaches ask: “What do you want?” This question helps your employees operate at their best, creates a sense of trust, and makes your employees feel valued. 

Why This Question Is a Good Coaching Habit

There are three ways that this question strengthens your coaching skills and your relationships with your team members. 

1) You Address Psychological Needs

According to Marshall Rosenberg, psychologist and author of Nonviolent Communication, there are nine universal needs: affection, creation, recreation, freedom, identity, understanding, participation, protection, and subsistence. 

Most of the time, the wants that people express are grounded in one of these needs. When you get someone to talk about what they want, you can use that information to figure out what they actually need—and then provide the most suitable solution possible. 

  • For example, a team member might say, “I want my title to better reflect what I do within the organization.” She’s probably looking to meet the need for a defined work identity. An empowering coach can bring this to the surface.

2) You Create Psychological Safety

Most people don’t express needs or wants directly because they fear saying the wrong thing, being rejected, being misunderstood, or coming across as demanding. When team members feel that they can’t express what they want, the workplace may feel full of uncertainty or underlying tension. This lack of “safety” significantly reduces team members’ ability to think optimally. 

When you ask, “What do you want?” you increase the feeling of psychological safety in the workplace. The question sends a powerful message that makes the team member feel like you’re on his side, that he has some sense of control over his future, that he is valued, and that he is in a position to make a decision. All these signals encourage him to let his defenses down and allow his brain to relax and operate at its best. 

3) You Improve Communication

Asking “What do you want?” also makes the path forward more concrete. Expressed wants focus on outcomes and therefore prevent you from getting bogged down in the details of how to get there. 

How to Make It a Habit 

Unless you’re a mind reader, you shouldn’t assume to know what another person wants; neither should you assume that they know what you want if you haven’t expressly told them. Asking, “What do you want?” instead of making assumptions is especially useful in response to the following triggers:

Trigger 1: The Conversation Seems to Be Losing Steam 

Sometimes a discussion seems to be going around in circles. If you’ve cycled through one solution after another, but nothing feels right, it may be a sign that the other person doesn’t feel safe enough to articulate what he wants. Directly asking, “What do you want?” expresses that he can freely share his desired outcome.

Trigger 2: Conflict

Sometimes you and another person might reach an impasse, whether it’s with a colleague, a boss, or a client. When neither of you wants to budge and you can’t come to an agreement, 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.

In your next session, ask the question that empowering coaches ask, and see where it takes the conversation and the relationship.

How to Be an Empowering Coach: Ask This Question

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  • 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 devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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