“The Coaching Habit” (Michael Bungay Stanier)

In my job working with teams across various worldwide locations, I am often coaching testers and leaders on how to improve their testing. I also specifically mentor a number of testers in our office in China in a one-on-one setting. I really enjoy this aspect of my work and, in the interests of continuously improving, Michael Bungay Stanier’s best-seller The Coaching Habit seemed like a worthy addition to my library.

There are two big ideas in this book. The first is in the subtitle “Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever”, namely that as a coach, it’s important to learn to stop jumping in with advice and instead ask more questions. Michael acknowledges that this is not easy as we tend to naturally assume that responding with advice or solutions is what we’re meant to do: “…the seemingly simple behaviour change of giving a little less advice and asking a few more questions is surprisingly difficult”.

The second key idea is that just seven simple questions can help to break out of the cycle of advice giving and instead move to genuine coaching by seeking more from the person being coached and helping them learn for themselves. The bulk of the book (which is a short and easy read) is given over to detailing these seven questions:

  1. What’s on your mind?
  2. And what else?
  3. What’s the real challenge here for you?
  4. What do you want?
  5. How can I help?
  6. If you are saying Yes to this, what are you saying No to?
  7. What was most useful for you?

The first question is a simple conversation starter and invites the person to share what’s actually important to them right now. The second question helps to stop us leaping to offer advice: “…even though we don’t really know what the issue is, or what’s going on for the person, we’re quite sure we’ve got the answer she needs.” Asking “And what else?” is “…often the simplest way to stay lazy and stay curious. It’s a self-management tool to keep your Advice Monster under restraints.” The author goes as far as suggesting that this second question is “the best coaching question in the world” and I immediately realized how effective this one will be in curbing what I hadn’t recognized was an inclination to jump in with advice before fully understanding the person’s concerns, context and actual problems. I also love this, erm, advice: “stop offering up advice with a question mark attached” (e.g. “Have you thought of…?”).

The third question – “What’s the real challenge here for you?” – acts as an excellent focusing question, especially if there are many issues/challenges exposed by the previous question. The fourth question – “What do you want?” – works as a clarifying question and I like the suggestion to also offer to share what you want when asking the other person this question.

The fifth question – “How can I help?” (or, more bluntly, “What do you want from me?”) – really cuts to the chase and is a potential saviour of falling back into our default helpful, action mode.

The penultimate question – “If you are saying Yes to this, what are you saying No to?” – works to combat over-commitment. Most of us have said “yes” to additional work, knowing that it’s really over-committing and this is ultimately unsustainable. This very clear question helps to clarify priorities and helps people to only say “yes” to more important tasks, knowing they can ditch some other lower priority work in the process. (I can see this working well in sprint planning sessions too!)

The final question – “What was most useful for you?” – feels like a great way to capture feedback and learning from coaching interactions. (Again, I can see value in this question in more general meeting situations too.)

(Note that almost all of the questions are “What?” questions, deliberately contradicting the advice of “Why?” advocates such as Peter Senge and Simon Sinek.)

I particularly liked that each of the questions is supported by some science and there are also videos available to show how to put them into action.

I really enjoyed reading this short, easily digestible book and it’s packed full of great takeaways. The seven questions are already posted visibly at my workspaces to remind me to utilize them in my ongoing coaching and mentoring activities. I have already started to make use of the lessons from this little book right away, a very good indicator of the quality and usefulness of the content.

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