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Bola Owoade

Jewish Care

Senior Learning and Development Advisor

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Insights from The Coaching habit


The Coaching Habit subtitled — Say, less, ask more and change the way you lead forever written by Michael Bungay Stanier is one of those books you have in your personal library that you keep going back to. I have written about this book in various forms over the years since I bought it because it is one of the most practical books I’ve read on coaching.

This is a different kind of book on coaching in that it does not go into any theory or models of coaching and it is very practical. The core concepts discussed in the book can be put to use by almost anyone. And plus, it’s easy to read and has a bit of humour too.

But let me share what my key insights from the book are and that hasn’t changed even as I look at the book again and again. They are:

1 — The 3Ps Framework

2 — Principles for asking questions

3 — The seven coaching questions

The 3Ps Framework

According to Michael:

“The 3P model is a framework for choosing what to focus on in a coaching conversation — for deciding which aspect of a challenge might be at the heart of a difficulty that the person is working through. A challenge might typically be centred on a project, a person or a pattern of thinking.”

The 3Ps are, ProjectPerson and Pattern.

  • Project is what is being worked on.
  • People, of course, are those you work with.
  • Pattern refers to patterns of behaviour and ways of working that you like to change.

When you are having a coaching conversation with someone to identify what they want to focus on you can ask a question using the 3Ps such as:

In regard to the issue you want to discuss, there are different aspects of it we could look at which are the actual project or the task itself. Or we can look at the people side, whether there are any issues with working with people or are there any behavioural patterns you have that may be limiting you? Which do you want to focus on or start with?

The 3Ps are very useful with the Kickstart question which is one of the coaching questions discussed below.

Principles for asking questions

One question at a time

When you are asking questions, stick to asking just one question at a time. Ask one question and be quiet to listen to the person’s response. Asking multiple questions will only confuse the person and you are unlikely to get a sensible answer.

Cut the intro and ask the question

If you’ve got a question to ask just ask it. Don’t ramble or go round in circles before asking the question. Go straight to the question and ask it. If you know what question to ask, get to the point and ask it.

Don’t spend time…

…setting it up, framing it, explaining it, warming up to it and generally taking forever to get to the moment…

Should you ask rhetorical questions?

The answer to this is, as much as possible, NO. A rhetorical question is really advice with a question mark attached. You’ve got some advice you want to give someone so you phrase it as a question. If you want to give advice then do so but don’t disguise it as a question by saying something like:

Have you thought of…? Or What about…?

Stick to questions starting with "what"

Instead of using questions starting with “why” make them “what” questions. Whenever you are tempted to use a ‘why’ question rephrase it as a ‘what’ question. Here are some examples:

  • Instead of ‘why did you do that?’ ask — ‘What were you hoping for here?’
  • Instead of ‘why do you think this was a good idea?’ Ask — ‘What made you choose this course of action?’

The reason — why questions can sound judgemental or accusatory and make people defensive.

Get comfortable with silence

This is one I can identify with.

After you ask a question, keep quiet. Let the person answer. Even if the person is taking their time, keep quiet and don’t be quick to jump in with another question or suggestion. Maybe the silence makes you feel uncomfortable, embrace it.

Take a breath, stay open and keep quiet for another three seconds.

Actually, listen to the answer

When you ask any of the seven coaching questions or any type of question for that matter genuinely listen to the answer. Don’t go through the motions or pretend you are listening, actually LISTEN.

Acknowledge the answers get

When someone gives a response to the question you asked, don’t immediately rush to ask the next question. Acknowledge the response you just heard by saying something like, ‘yes, that’s good.’

You don’t need to say much. This isn’t about judging people; it’s about encouraging them and letting them know that you listened and heard what they said.

Use every channel to ask a question

This is the final principle for asking great questions and it’s to use every channel to ask questions. Don’t limit your questions to just verbal conversations. According to Michael, ‘questions work just as well typed as they do spoken.’

Think about it this way — when you get that email and you want to respond quickly with your advice and suggestions, stop, pause and think, then ask one of the seven coaching questions.

The Seven Coaching Questions

The Kickstart Question

The Kickstart question is simply — What’s on your mind? As simple as that.

Michael describes the question this way:

“An almost fail-safe way to start a chat that quickly turns into a real conversation is the question, “what’s on your mind?” It’s something of a goldilocks, walking a fine line so it is neither too open and broad nor too narrow and confining.”

I like this question because it’s great for starting 1:1 meetings. I have often used it at the beginning of a 1:1 meeting by asking a team member:

What’s on your mind that you want to discuss?

It’s a simple question that any of us can use to start a 1:1 conversation.

When using this question you can combine it with the 3Ps framework discussed above. Here’s a quick example:

  • Bola: Hi Jay, so what’s on your mind? What do you want to talk about?
  • Jay: Thanks Bola, please can we talk about the sales return report?
  • Bola: Yes of course. There are three aspects of that we can talk about. We can discuss the task itself if there are any issues there. Or we can talk about the people side. Are there any issues you have on the people side while working on the task. Or patterns of behaviour. Do you think there’s any thing you are doing that’s causing an issue with the task. Which aspect do you want to discuss?
  • Jay: Please can we talk about the people side because I am struggling to get the data I need for the report from the guys in Sales.

As you can see after asking the Kickstart question, Bola has also used the 3Ps model to focus in on what Jay wants to really discuss.

Let’s move on to the next question which is a great follow-on for the Kickstart question.

The AWE question

The AWE question is simply — And What Else?

It’s a great follow-up question to the Kickstart question and here’s how it works. After asking the Kickstart question and you get a response, you may want to find out if the person has anything else they want to discuss so you can ask them that — and what else do you want to discuss?

Of all the seven coaching questions, this is the one I use most both in 1:1 and team sessions. If I’m doing a 1:1 meeting I will often ask the person what they want to discuss and if they answer, I ask a follow up question such as, “anything else you want to discuss”. The person may come up with something else they want to talk about. I may ask it once ot two more times to make sure I capture everything they want to discuss.

Let’s go back to Bola and Jay for an example.

  • Bola: Hi Jay, so what’s on your mind? What do you want to talk about?
  • Jay: Thanks Bola, please can we talk about the sales return report?
  • Bola: Okay, let me note that down. And what else would you like to discuss?
  • Jay: Hmmm, can I discuss some annual leave I want to take please.
  • Bola: Yes, of course. Anything else?
  • Jay: No. that’s everything.

Let’s go to the next question which can also be a good follow-up question for the Kickstart and AWE questions.

The Focus Question

You’ve asked both the Kickstart and AWE questions and the person has told you what they want to discuss but how do you know what the real challenge for them is? How do you know the one thing they would choose to talk about if they had time to discuss just one thing. Or within each discussion point how do you know what the real issue is?

You can ask them the Focus question which is:

What’s the real challenge here for you?

The goal of this question is to identify the real problem you should focus your discussion on. Michael writes that:

“This is the question that will help slow down the rush to action, so you spend time solving the real problem, not just the first problem.”

Among the many challenges that the person wants to discuss this question can help cut through to the most important issue that the person wants to discuss.

Let’s return to our example with Bola and Jay.

  • Bola: Let’s talk about the sales return project. What’s the real challenge for you in this task?
  • Jay: I don’t know how to get the data from the Sales team and it’s slowing down the task and may cause me to miss the deadline.

By using the Focus question, Bola has identified what the real issue for Jay is in regard to the sales return task.

The next question also builds on this one.

The Foundation Question

This question prevents you from making assumptions that you know what someone wants. That’s why the question is:

What do you want?

According to Michael:

"The Foundation Question — ‘what do you want?’ — is direct, rather than indirect. But it has the same effect of pulling people to the outcome, and once you see the destination, the journey often becomes clearer."

In the conversation between Bola and Jay, Bola could assume that he knows what Jay wants and jump into action, but asking Jay the Foundation Question could help Bola clarify what Jay really wants.

Bola: You can’t get the data you need from the sales team and it’s slowing down the task and that may affect your deadline?

  • Jay: Yes, that’s it.
  • Bola: So, what do you really want?
  • Jay: I’m wondering whether you can help me speak to their manager to get things moving.

By asking the Foundation Question Bola has been able to identify what Jay really wants from talking about the issue.

The Lazy Question

Strange name for a coaching question, right?

I thought so too.

This is another simple question and in my mind it’s similar to the Foundation Question because the Lazy Question is:

How can I help?

Michael writes that:

"The power of ‘How can I help?’ is twofold. First, you're forcing your colleague to make a direct and clear request. That may be useful to him. He might not be entirely sure why he started this conversation with you. Sure, he knows he wants something but until you asked the question, he didn't know that he wasn’t exactly clear on what he wanted."

In addition to what Michael said above, another reason why this question is important is that just like the Foundation Question it stops you from thinking that you know how best to help and jumping into action.

In the case of Bola and Jay asking either a Foundation Question or this question would probably lead to a similar result.

  • Jay: Yes, that’s it.
  • Bola: So, how can I help?
  • Jay: I’m wondering whether you can help me speak to their manager to get things moving.

There may be situations when you can use both questions. Let’s look at our example again.

  • Jay: Yes, that’s it.
  • Bola: So, what do you really want?
  • Jay: I just want to get the data from the sales team as soon as possible?
  • Bola: How can I help?
  • Jay: I’m wondering whether you can help me speak to their manager to get things moving.

Let’s move on to the sixth question.

The Strategic Question

The linked-up questions that you can use together seem to have finished because this particular one veers off in a separate direction but that does not make it any less useful.

The Strategic Question is:

If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no too?

I’m sure you will agree with me that this is both a strategic and very important question especially if you are someone who struggles to say no to requests.

If you are dealing with someone who’s just taken on another project or task without thinking about what work they already have then this is an appropriate question for them.

Here’s how Bola used the question with Jay.

  • Bola: I almost forgot. Yesterday I spoke to Leslie in HR. She said you are helping them with designing the new HR reports dashboard.
  • Jay: Oh, yes that’s true. Sorry, I forgot to tell you.
  • Bola: So, if you’re saying yes to this project with HR, which of your current projects are you saying no too. In other words, how will this new task affect your existing work?

The Strategic Question is also one you should ask yourself from time to time to make sure you are not saying yes to what you should be saying no too.

A Yes is nothing without the No that gives it boundaries and form.

And now for the final question.

The Learning Question

In which you discover how to finish any conversation in a way that will make you look like a genius.

The Learning Question is:

What was most useful for you?

This is a great way to end a conversation and it can be used in many different situations.

Michael discusses a number of reasons why this question tops the lists:

  • It assumes the conversation was useful.
  • It asks people to identify the big thing that was most useful.
  • It makes it personal.
  • It gives you feedback.
  • It’s learning not judgement.
  • It reminds people how useful you are to them.
  • Answering that question extracts what was useful, shares the wisdom and embeds the learning.

Those are my lesson from this brilliant book by Michael Bungay Stanier. As I wrote at the beginning, this is a practical book and let me add that it has lots of good applicable lessons which you can certainly apply to your own leadership and management practice.

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Bola Owoade

Senior Learning and Development Advisor

Read more from Bola Owoade

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