At the risk of sounding too idealistic, there are few things in life that are more rewarding or more meaningful than being instrumental in helping others have better lives. I often refer to coaching as a calling or mission because I believe there is something inside each of us that comes alive when we have an opportunity to be of real service to others. One of the key foundation stones upon which successful coaching is built is conversation – the dialogue you have with the people you are coaching.
But this conversation involves much more than just talking with others about their goals and dreams. As a coach, your job is to create a space in which other people will regularly have conversations that not only uncover new ideas and generate innovative solutions, but that result in entirely new attitudes and behaviors, and that forge commitments to make significant, sustained personal changes.
However, while rich dialogue can uncover new ideas and generate innovative solutions, this kind of interaction alone is not coaching. Where dialogue pursues new ideas, coaching pursues entirely new attitudes and behaviors. Dialogue is the talk; coaching is the walk. How many conversations do you have during an average day? How many of them really matter? The great coach understands why some conversations matter and some conversations do not. Most on-the-job conversations involve the exchange of information, instructions, advice, and opinions and have relatively predictable outcomes. While these conversations are quite suitable for normal business transactions, they are quite ineffectual in the coaching process.
“A coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.” -John Wooden
When I think about a great leader, I inevitably think about someone who is a great coach, understanding my weaknesses, but helping me play to my strengths. From John Wooden to my favorite manager, a coach is someone who unlocks talent.
Share with us the Gregg Thompson definition of a master coach.
A Master Coach is someone who, through their conversations, helps others accelerate their learning and increase their performance. The Master Coach is not an advisor but, rather, a catalyst for sustained personal change in individuals. The Master Coach is a positive and creative force that challenges the person being coached to move from intention to action and holds the person accountable to do that. The Master Coach has highly-tuned interpersonal skills but is much more recognizable by who they are rather than what they do. They are men and women of exceptional integrity, sincere humility, noble intention, and a high degree of emotional intelligence. They take people into uncharted territories, challenge them to consider new perspectives, and help them plot significantly more fruitful paths forward.
“The Master Coach is a catalyst for sustained personal change in individuals.” -Gregg Thompson
What do people get wrong when they think of a great coach?
People often think of the great coach as someone with the expertise and experience to provide great advice and sage wisdom. While occasionally coaches will have valuable perspectives and insights to share with those they coach, this is not their prime role. Their prime role is to help others find their best answers, solutions, and action plans. Some people also make the assumption that a coach is a counselor. Coaching and counseling, both powerful processes that can help to improve lives, are deeply different. Coaching is dedicating time and attention to help the person being coached to be the best version of themselves going forward while counseling usually involves resolving past difficulties and issues.
“The primary role of a coach is to help others find their best answers, solutions, and action plans.” -Gregg Thompson
What’s the difference between a coach and a mentor?
A mentor can function in a coach-like manner, but their role is more of a career advisor than a coach. The mentor is usually someone with deep knowledge and expertise in a particular field and uses this to help more junior individuals accelerate their development and career growth. Coaching, on the other hand, requires no expertise in the discipline of the person being coached. In short, anyone can coach anyone.
“Leadership happens one conversation at a time.” -Gregg Thompson
Michael Bungay Stanier is the founder of Box of Crayons, a company that helps organizations do great work. His latest book, The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever, landed on my desk and intrigued me because coaching is a skill all great leaders must master. I followed up and asked him to share more about his work in this area.
“The essence of coaching lies in helping others unlock their potential.” -Michael Bungay Stanier
What is a coaching habit, and why is it essential to good leadership?
You may know Daniel Goleman as the man who popularized the concept of emotional intelligence. He has written widely on the topic of leadership; in his Harvard Business Review article “Leadership That Gets Results,” he notes that there are six styles of leadership, all of them useful at one time or another and all of them with pros and cons.
Coaching is one of those six styles. It is the most powerful style for employee engagement and impact on culture, and it contributes to the bottom line. It is also the least-utilized leadership style. We need to change that.
We don’t want to turn busy managers and leaders into coaches. But we do want them to be more coach-like. What that means, at its heart, is staying curious a little longer, and rushing to advice-giving and action-taking a little more slowly. That’s easy to say —but hard to do—and it’s what we’re tackling in my new book, The Coaching Habit. The coaching part is straightforward: seven essential questions that every busy manager and leader can use. We then help you put those questions into action with the New Habit Formula, a simple but powerful tool to help you change your behavior by building new habits.
“Saying Yes more slowly means being willing to stay curious before committing.” -Michael Bungay Stanier
Know the Difference Between Being Helpful & Coaching
What’s the difference between being helpful and being a coach?
We all aspire to be helpful. Because you’re reading Skip’s blog, I’m certain you actually care about the people you lead and the difference you and they are making for your organization. You want to encourage great work: work that has more impact, and work that has more meaning.
If you have a tendency to jump in, fix things, take things on, rescue people . . . that’s not helpful.
If you, 20 seconds into a conversation, already have the answer and are just waiting for the other person to stop talking . . . that’s not helpful.
If you and your team are great at being tactical and getting everything done, but not that great at being strategic and figuring out the right things to get done . . . that’s not helpful.
If you are so busy helping everyone else that you don’t have the time to do what Cal Newport would call the Deep Work that your own projects require . . . that’s not helpful.
In short, if you recognize any of the three vicious cycles the busy manager faces — an over-dependent team, a sense of being overwhelmed, and a sense of disconnect from the work that matters — it could be that you’re guilty of being “helpful.”
Being more coach-like isn’t the only way to change this, but it certainly is one of the simplest and fastest ways. As I’ve said, at its essence, being more coach-like means staying curious a little longer and rushing to advice and action a little more slowly.
“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” -Ernest Hemingway
Almost everyone knows the basics of active listening. The problem is that this has given rise to FAL: fake active listening. That’s when you put your head to the side, nod occasionally, look concerned, and make small “nonverbal” noises of encouragement — all the time while thinking of something else completely.
In The Coaching Habit we offer eight “masterclasses” on how to ask a question well, and the notion of listening well is woven through all of them. I suggest that these are the four best places to start:
Ask one question only. It’s all too easy to end up asking three questions plus a few variations, which only leaves the other person confused.
Start to notice how quickly you want to jump in and share a thought, give an idea, offer up advice. See if you can wait another minute before you actually do.
Go deeper by asking the AWE question (more on that below).
“Listen” and stay curious on all channels. You may be able to listen even harder and ask questions better when you’re emailing and IM-ing. That is, these skills aren’t just in play when you’re talking to someone face to face.
Ask the Best Coaching Question in the World
Would you explain for our readers the concept of AWE and how it can transform conversations?
Ah — you’ve picked up on the best coaching question in the world. And what’s perfect is that its acronym is AWE — so it’s literally an awesome question.
AWE is short for “And what else?”
And if this feels a little anticlimactic after the claim that this is the best coaching question in the world, let me explain the two reasons why it is.
To start, AWE supercharges every other question you have. I can promise you that the first answer someone gives you is never their only answer, and it is rarely their best answer. AWE helps mine what is there.
And then, AWE is a powerful self-management tool. You’ve picked up by now that my goal is for you to stay curious a little longer and to rush to advice and action a little more slowly. That’s harder to do than you’d think, because you’ve got a lifetime’s experience of jumping in. “And what else?” is the simplest question to ask to keep you curious. And if you’re asking the question, you’re not giving the answer.
Don’t Start With Why
You take on Peter Senge and Simon Sinek, saying to ignore both authors and not start a question with “Why?” I can’t resist: Why?
Ha! I see what you’re doing here, Skip. Look, questions that begin with “why” can be very powerful, as both Senge and Sinek show. But for most busy managers, Why questions have two particular dangers.
First, you have to get the tone exactly right or your question will come across more as accusatory than simply curious. It can sound like, “Why the heck did you do that?”
Second, why questions are often about getting more details of the story — “Give me the background.” And you want the background information so that you are able to offer some really good advice. But here’s the thing: I want our leaders to be offering up a little less advice. So if you realize that it’s not your job to give advice (or at least, it is much less often than you think) but rather to help people figure things out for themselves, then you’ll also realize that you don’t need to know the details — so you don’t need to ask, “Why?”
“To be on a quest is nothing more or less than to become an asker of questions.” -Sam Keen
Silence is not something most of us are comfortable with. I’ve watched people fill in the empty space in every way possible. Why is it important to be comfortable with silence?
It’s true, isn’t it? One, two seconds of silence happen, and then the words rush in to fill the gap. Becoming comfortable with silence is an extremely powerful tool for a couple of reasons.
One, silence allows those who need a little more time to think things through to do just that. Susan Cain in her book Quiet has really helped wave the flag for the needs of the introvert. So follow the advice in the book’s title: be quiet and allow people to think.
And two, silence is a self-management tool. If you can get comfortable with silence, you’ve found a way to stop yourself from rushing in to fix things, solve things, make things better. The other person will fill that space for you.
“Silence is often a measure of success.” -Michael Bungay Stanier