November 23

Use the Coaching Habit Questions & Coach With Purpose

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Michael Stanier is an author of several management books and CEO of Box of Crayons, a company which helps other managers to build better teams. He’s also the author of The Coaching Habit and founded the coaching habit questions. In this article, we’ll show you the 7 coaching habit questions, and how to use them to get back your time, empower and develop your employees today.

Coaching and the Coaching Habit Questions

Everyone needs a coach. We can all benefit from others helping and guiding us to improve our skills and abilities.

When it comes to your team, regular coaching can help them unlock their true potential. That’s where you come in as their manager. In fact, one of the main drivers to motivation is that most people want autonomy in their roles.

And when you build this coaching habit, you can break free of the three factors that limit growth in the workplace:

  • Over-dependence – The team rely on you too heavily, so you become the bottleneck to output.
  • Overwhelmed – There’s too much to do and people feel pulled in many different directions.
  • Disconnection – The more disconnected from the work that really matters, the less engaged and motivated we are.

The coaching habit framework allows every manager to coach effectively… by asking 7 questions:

The coaching habit questions. 7 questions to use in sequence to coach effectively in the workplace.

We all know that a good story has a solid start, a good body and an interesting closure – and are layered in their approach.

Similarly, when you are coaching, you need to drill down effectively, using a layer-by-layer approach.

Each question builds on the previous one and allows us to keep drilling down, but also driving personal discovery and action.

So, throw out your notebook, desperately trying to take actions from people with problems. Instead, learn to coach and challenge the recipient’s thinking. Allow them to reflect with your guidance. Encourage them to take on new ideas.

Use the coaching habit questions to turbo charge your effectiveness.

And it all starts with the first informative question…


1. The Kick-start Question: What’s on Your mind?

Simply ask: “What’s on your mind?”

There are many situations in which managers are confused as to how to start the conversation. In situations like this, the “What’s on your mind?” question comes to the rescue.

It gets straight to the point – what’s troubling you or exciting you right now?

Once you ask this question you can use the 3P model to focus further on one specific area:

Project – The things that are being worked on right now

People – The relationships with others

Patterns – Patterns of behavior and ways of working that could be improved

Here’s an Example

You: “What’s on your mind?”

Your team member: “I’m trying to get this project completed by the end of the month.”

“Ok, there are 3 different things we can discuss:

  • The project – Any issues relating to what you’re doing
  • People – Any relationship challenges you have with some people in the project
  • Patterns – If you’re getting in your own way and could improve how things are done

Where do you want to start?”

By adopting this, you’ll get into a deeper conversation and have a more rewarding outcome.


2. The AWE Question: (And what else?)

This is the second of the coaching habit questions. And these 3 words have magical properties. Out of nothing, AWE brings in more information, insights, and wisdom. This is because:

  • More options lead to better decisions: Asking the above question leads to the listener opening up more and providing more information to make better decisions
  • You tame the advice monster: Giving advice is often overused and an ineffective way of giving an answer. A better option is to keep asking a question until the listener realises the correct answer.
  • You buy yourself some time as well: There are times when you are not sure about what to say or ask. The ‘and what else’ question allows you to gather yourself, ready for the next questions.

Here are some more tips to asking the what else question

•    Stay curious and genuine: Just because we have a good question, it does not mean that we have the license to push it in every conversation in a dead-beat way. It is important that we stay curious, fresh and genuine when discussing the topic in hand.

•    On average, asking this question at least 3 times works the best, as it deepens the discussion.

•    Recognise success: Many times, in the conversation you may get a response where there is nothing more to share. When you finally get that answer to recognise the success, move on to the next question.

•    Move on, when it is time:  If you sense that the conversation is losing momentum. wrap up the conversation.

Here’s an Example

  • When you’ve asked your team member “what’s on your mind?” and they answer the question… ask “and what else?”
  • When they tell you an action or task they plan to take to counteract their frustration. You could ask, “and what else can you do?”
  • When you ask “What’s on your mind?” and their answer is very weak and tepid. You want to drill down more. You could answer with, “And what else is challenging you?”

3. The Focus question (What’s the Real Challenge Here, For You?):

Many times, when people present their problem and you jump in to find the solution, the following 3 situations arise.

1.    You are solving the wrong problem: You might think that you have an amazing solution to one of the problems your team has on hand, but there is a great chance that it is not a real problem but a symptom…or just a secondary problem.

2.    You are solving the problem yourself: This is a situation when you find that you’re taking on too much work, as well as those of others. This makes your team members co-dependent on you identifying problems and giving them solutions. The coaching habit is about giving solutions back to them, by getting them to identify problems and solutions. Jumping in and giving advice, is not the way forward! (No matter how much you know the answer)

3.    You are not solving the problem: Not only is everyone dependent on you, but now because you are getting overwhelmed you are slowing everyone else down too. You need to stop the temptation of jumping in to fix the first problem on the table. You need to have an insight and see the heart of the situation.

The ‘What’s the real challenge here for you?’ question allows the person or team to cut to the chase and focus on the next thing they feel is important to them. Rather than focusing on the problem as a huge mountain to overcome, it asks you to just pick one thing… the next thing they think is applicable.

By doing this, you allow your team to keep moving forward without being overloaded or defeated.

Here’s an Example

If you’ve asked “What’s on your mind?” and you get a barrage of frustrations and issues, it’s pointless asking “and what else?”

You may skip the question, and simply ask, “So, what’s the real challenge for you?” This will help cut to the big problem they’re facing.

Here are the additional challenges the focus question overcomes:

  • Coaching the ghost: There are times when you are talking about some third person or a project or someone else but in a complaining tone. Here, asking the focus question helps to bring your attention to the real issue which needs time and concentration to get solved. You can only coach the person you’re talking to, so don’t get embroiled into talking about other people and things. The “What’s the real challenge for you here” will allow you to focus things back to them and only them.
  • Abstraction and generalisation: You’ll find situations where the conversation may be very generalised and about us or we… rather than I and me. Asking the “So what’s the real challenge here for you?” brings the topic back on that person and their immediate next step to tackle. It allows us to get into the nitty gritty and not generalise things.

4. The Foundation Question: What do You Want?

This is the fourth of the coaching habit questions. The foundation question allows your employee to think deep. They may give you an answer that’s pretty superficial. But a quick, “so what do you really want?” helps them think even more about the situation and their needs. Each time its asked, you drill down a little more.

What you’re trying to do is get them to push through their wants and find out their deep-rooted needs.

Wants and Needs

Stainer identifies that there are 9 basic needs that really get to the root of why people want what they want:

  • Affection
  • Creation
  • Recreation
  • Freedom
  • Identity
  • Understanding
  • Participation
  • Protection
  • Subsistence

When you ask them “what do you want?” listen attentively and try to work out what they really need behind what they say they want.

Here’s an Example

  • “I need to be able to get this report done by Tuesday” may mean, I need time away from work to relax, or indeed, to get affection from the boss for a job well done
  • “I need people to listen more” may well mean, I want understanding or even, I am seeking an identity in the group
  • “I would like you to come up with a way to overcome this” may mean freedom, whereby they don’t want to get involved

5. The Lazy Question: The “How can I help?” Question

Most of the time, we help people by jumping in and doing things for them. This type of support is not helpful to us – we end up taking too much on and exhausting ourselves.

It’s not good for the person we’re helping – because they don’t learn and often feel undermined, as a result. It’s not good for the organisation – due to the previous 2 points!

There’s a way to identify if we’re doing too much (and stepping in, when we should hold back and coach, instead).

It’s by using the Karpman Drama Triangle. Karpman identified that when we talk to others, we are often playing less than perfect versions of ourselves.

The Drama Triangle identifies these imperfect versions as the 7 dwarfs – we all go through them:

  • Sulky
  • Moany
  • Shouty
  • Crabby
  • Martyr
  • Touchy
  • Petulant

And when we play one of these characters, we end up bouncing around three typical roles, namely:

  • The Victim
  • Persecutor
  • Rescuer

Each role is as dysfunctional as the other.

Victim: You feel life is hard on you and everyone is unfair to you. You complain a lot and attract rescuers. You feel you have no control over your life and it is outside of your control.

Persecutor: You feel superior and have a sense of control. You’re more of a micromanager and you end up handling everything, whilst criticising the action of others. But deep inside, you feel alone and do not trust anyone.

Rescuer: You feel superior but, in a way that you can solve and diffuse situations easily. You create victims and help in perpetuating the drama triangle, by stepping in and fixing things. You often feel overburdened.

The point is, we can bounce around the three roles, depending on the situation we face.

Most of the time, many managers like or default to the position of rescuer. Rescuers are often exhausted because of overworking. The victims are irritated because of the lack of control they have through the constant advice and solutions rescuers give.

The “How can I help?” Question

 The power of this question is extraordinary. By asking it, you do two things:

  • Firstly, you are enforcing the other person to make a clear request, and..
  • Secondly, you are not forcing your solution on the other person, therefore resisting the drama triangle (and acting as the rescuer).

You could also ask, “Out of curiosity, what do you want from me?” This is a bit more direct but gets them thinking about how you can help them.

When they reply, there are two key answers (whilst avoiding direct answers like yes and no…)

  • Say something like, “I can’t do that, but I can do this….” It’s a nice, helpful answer, which offers to support them, whilst presenting some other choices, so they can learn and grow. You take on less actions, as a result.
  • Say “I’m not sure – let me think about that. I need to check a few things, first.” This gives you time to mull things over.

6. The Strategic Question: If You Are Saying Yes to This, What are You Saying No To?

This question is a lot more complicated. It makes people more committed to their agreement to take action. It also allows them to understand the outcome of them agreeing to take the task on, as well as what they won’t being do, too.

The “Yes” also forces them to think about the things they need to drop to make the yes happen.

You can use the 3 P model to help define this.

•    Projects: What projects would you need to stop or postpone. Any meetings that will need postponing or cancelling? Are there any resources that need diverting to this new task?

•    People: What expectations will need to be managed? Any people you will have to step away from?

•    Patterns: What kind of habits would you need to break, to get the job done? Any old goals that need updating? Any limiting beliefs about yourself? What do you need to let go of?


7. The Learning question: What Was Most Useful to You?

The last of the coaching habit questions…

As a leader, you want your people to get stuff done. More importantly, you want them to learn so that they become more competent, successful and dependent on themselves. The most creative way to make them realise this is to ask the learning question.

What Was Most Useful to You?

Chris Argyris coined a term double-loop learning for this, wherein first you focus on the problem at hand and solve it. Then you focus on the learning moment.

This question is amazing for a handful of reasons.

•    It assumes the conversation was useful: The learning question immediately puts the focus on the conversation and makes it more important.

•    It asks people to identify the big thing: The question makes people go through the entire conversation again and find out the best part for them.

•    It makes it personal: You stop yourself from giving advice and being too general by shifting the focus and conversation to them. They are in the spotlight and feel the personal touch to the conversation.

•    It gives you feedback: The learning question is an open question and also acts as a feedback to you, the manager, which then helps you learn, and understand, too.

•    It reminds people how useful you are to them. This creates a bond between the managers and team members.


Tips To Get you Using the Coaching Habit Questions:

Here are some golden nuggets, that Steiner passes on, when using the coaching habit questions:

  1. Use every channel to ask a question. Don’t just think of coaching as something you do when walking about. You can coach via email, via telephone and so on. Avoid the temptation to pile into advice mode. Pick 1 of the 7 questions and fire it back.
  2. Remember to acknowledge the person’s answers, before you jump into the next questions.
  3. You must listen attentively to them and show them you’re listening
  4. Don’t judge. Acknowledge and listen
  5. Choose the questions that drill down as you discuss
  6. Be comfortable with silence during your discussions. Your team member will need time to reflect on your questions and provide an answer. Don’t rush and try to fill in dead space. Pause and let them think.
  7. Try to ask “what”, not “why”. Why can create a negative response. Some people may feel interrogated by why, but with a what, it’s a more easier question. For example, instead of “why did you do that?” Try “What made you choose that option?”
  8. Stop offering advice with a question mark. Avoid “What about….? Or “Have you thought of…..? Ask genuine questions from the 7-question list, and you’ll coach with intent.
  9. Remember to ask questions and not take on more tasks.

Remember, the art of coaching is to use the coaching habit questions as a natural way to converse with your team. Each time you do this, you increase self reflection, open up communication and enable a workforce of self starters.

You can get your copy of the Coaching Habit on Amazon.


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