The Coaching Habit:  Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way 
By Michael Bungay Stanier

This book marries basic coaching principles with Charles Duhigg’s, The Power of Habit.  Stanier’s effort to make Duhigg’s work come alive in the professional setting should not be overlooked because the breakdown is what makes both of their books useful.  However, without Duhigg’s work, I’m not sure that Stanier offers anything more insightful than what one would find in any book on the fundamentals of coaching.  Stanier offers the following six essential coaching questions:

  1. What’s on your mind?
  2. What the real challenge for you?
  3. What do you want?
  4. How can I help?
  5. If I can’t do exactly what you’ve asked me to do, how else can I help you (in part, in whole, or altogether different)?
  6. If you’re saying yes to this, then, what are you saying no to?

Before addressing the coaching questions, the connection to The Power of Habit is important to address.  If Duhigg’s book had to be boiled down to one statement, it would be this:  the book credibly demonstrates the connection between one’s habits and mindlessness (lack of intent) while presenting tools for aid in behavior/habit change. Stanier took this premise and connected it to what happens in the workplace: managers and leaders jump into advice-giving mode without thinking about the impact it has on their team and their own workload. Further, Stanier tries to make leaders aware of when they should be evaluating their own behaviors and feelings during those times when they notice that they are tempted to fall into the advice giving trap or once they’ve caught themselves waist deep in “fix it” mode. The idea is for people to notice what is going on before they engage (triggers) in the behavior that they want to stop (Duhigg argues that there are five triggers:  location, time, emotional state, immediate preceding action, and other people). The premise of this book is that managers want to stop giving so much advice and start coaching more.

The questions are simple and are designed to insure that the manager does not rob the employee of ownership of the challenge.

  1. What’s on your mind (followed by, “And what else?” to make sure the person has expressed the full challenge)?
    The purpose of this question is to focus the conversation, particularly as a way to cut off small talk that beats around the bush.
  2. What the real challenge for you?
    The goal is to get the employee to go from providing context to identifying his/her specific problem(s). Oftentimes, the problem can be framed in terms of the project itself, people problems, or a pattern of behavior (standing in one’s own way).
  1. Out of curiosity, what do you want?
    The author argues that “why?” questions should be avoided unless you plan to get involved personally. Essentially, Stanier is saying that the why shouldn’t really matter to the coach because the purpose of the question-asking process is to help the person with the problem, not the coach.This question is an attempt to help the employee begin framing the situation in terms of a path forward by determining gaps.When an employee explains what is wanted or needed, try to hear the issue in terms of the nine basic human needs.
  1. How can I help?
    Often, people jump into someone else’s problem as a victim, persecutor, or rescuer (micromanaging falls into the rescuer category). Jumping in also diminishes the agency of the person with the problem while elevating the intruder.
  1. If I can’t do exactly what you’ve asked me to do, how else can I help you (in part, in whole, or altogether different)?
    This question is about strategy and priorities. It helps the employee contextualize their challenge in terms of the team’s or leader’s competing responsibilities.
  1. If you’re saying yes to this, then, what are you saying no to?
    This question is about opportunity cost and embracing the full ramification of one’s choices. While there are rarely “perfect” choices, the ones taken should be evaluated as thoroughly as possible.

These questions are useful and are a useful formula for getting productivity out of conversations between leaders and direct reports. Likewise, these questions are useful for colleagues to use to help each other problem-solve.