How can you unlock your team's potential with just seven coaching questions?
Most people define a good leader as being able to delegate, communicate, and inspire. But what does it mean to be a truly great leader? To earn that title, it takes coaching and teaching your team to become better and more effective. So how do you begin to coach your employees when your days are often filled with complicated and oftentimes pressure-filled situations? Is there a simple way to coach even when everything seems to be going wrong?
Michael Bungay-Stanier left Australia 22 years ago to be a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. He's the author of several books, including Do More Great Work, and End Malaria, which is a collection of essays that raised $400,000 for the non-profit Malaria No More. He's the founder and senior partner of Box of Crayons, a company that helps organizations all over the world do more great work. His latest book is The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, and Change the Way You Lead Forever. I recently interviewed Michael for the LEADx Podcast, where we discussed how leaders react in tough times and the questions they can use to begin coaching. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: You talk about the drama triangle, and that we play all three roles in an incident.
Michael Bungay-Stanier: When you think of those three roles: the victim, the persecutor and the rescuer, people instinctively know what those three roles look like. You're either the victim, the whiny, complaining person, the persecutor, the shout-y finger wagger and micro-manager, or the rescuer, that person who jumps in and says, “Give it to me. I'll fix it. I'll take it on.”
All three of them are dysfunctional. They're all equally dysfunctional, but here's what's interesting, Kevin. Which role do you think you play most often? When we teach this, we have people standing around a triangle. I say, “Go and stand by the role that you play most often.”
Ninety to 95% of people will self-identity as the rescuer.
Kruse: I’ve got to admit, that's where I would have gone.
Bungay-Stanier: Then I ask, “How's that working for you?” People go, “It's terrible. I am exhausted. I'm overwhelmed. I'm frustrated. I'm trying to do other people's work and never quite getting to my own.” I'm starting to realize that rescuers create victims and persecutors. Why this is important in this conversation, Kevin, is that one of the challenges of talking about coaching is that a lot of people go, “Yeah, coaching, I've heard of it, of course. It's an HR thing. HR wants me to add it onto my already very busy list of things to do. I'll try and get round to it but I may not.”
What I want people to understand about coaching is that it's not something to add onto what you already do. It's a way of transforming what you currently do so that you're more effective in the work that you do. What's powerful about coaching and being more coach-like, which, when it boils down to it, asks “Can you stay curious a little bit longer and can you rush to action and advice just a little bit more slowly?”
What that does, being more coach-like, is one of the sure fire ways of pulling you out of the drama triangle. If you're nodding your head and recognizing the drama triangle and going, “Oh my God, that's just explained every relationship I've ever had, my parent, my children, my spouse, my boss, my team,” if you want to break the drama triangle, one of the muscles to develop is, “How do I get to be more coach-like?”
That's what this conversation's about and what the book is about.
Kruse: So where's the fine line between being proactive and helpful versus a rescuer?
Bungay-Stanier: It is a fine line, and it's a subtle thing, but one of the fundamental things to be thinking about is when you're in the drama triangle, and the behavior you’re exhibiting—whether it's a rescue or either of the other two roles—it's typically not a mindful choice, but a reaction to the situation. You kind of get triggered into it, so before you know it, you're doing that thing again. Part of you is frustrated, and saying, “This is happening again,” but it's because it's a habit and you haven't really thought about it. You're just suckered into the drama triangle, so that's a big part of it.
In some ways, this work is about, how do you get to be more mindful and thoughtful and “at choice” or in the work that you do. The fourth question in the book is called the foundation question. That question is, “What do you want?” It's foundational because it is an easy question to ask and often a hard question to answer. One of the ways to manage the drama triangle is, when things get dysfunctional, and they always get dysfunctional, ask yourself, “What do I want here?”
Ask yourself, “What might they want?” or, even more, ask them directly, “What do you want here?” Somebody once said, an adult to adult relationship—and I would love our working relationships to be more adult to adult in our workplace—is being able to ask for what you want, knowing that the answer may be “No.”
All of that to say that in that interaction with that senior executive, there's a whole bunch of stuff going on, but part of what determines whether you're in the drama triangle or not is your intention, whether it's a mindful choice or not, whether you got what you wanted from this as well as giving what you wanted from that, whether you did train that person to go, “Excellent, I can leave it until next Friday and Kevin will come and save my backside again,” or whether you're going, “This is me being helpful, and we're clear about that, and we're working it out.” Only you know whether you were triggered into the drama triangle around that.
The other key thing to know about the drama triangle is that it is a self-management tool. It's not about forcing this on somebody else. If you're listening to this podcast, let me tell you what's not going to work: you going home tonight and turning to your spouse and going, “I just learned about this model. You are absolutely a persecutor. That explains everything. You're a nightmare.”
Now you're in the drama triangle again. Now you're the persecutor yourself, right? It's really about, “Am I showing up the way I want to at work? Is this the best version of myself?” I can promise you that when you're in the drama triangle you're not seeing the best version of yourself.
Kruse: You're also saying we need to make it a habit. Explain that a little for us.
Bungay-Stanier: I want coaching to be seen not as an occasional event or an obligation forced onto you by HR or whatever. I want you to understand that coaching is just a foundational leadership behavior. Daniel Goldman, who kind of made emotional intelligence popular. He wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review, 2001, called Leadership That Gets Results.
He says, “Look, there's actually six different styles of leadership and great leaders know how to use all six of those styles.” Coaching was one of them, but it was the least utilized, even though it could be shown to have the most impact on culture, engagement, and second or third on profitability. I'm like, “Okay, so, what's going on here? Everybody knows that coaching's useful.”
There's nobody in this world going, “I'm anti-coaching. I really think command and control is the way to go,” but for some reason, it's hard to make the behavior change to make it work. The design of the book is—you know the agony and the ecstasy, but my goal, when I wrote this book, was to say, “What's the shortest book I could write that would be most useful?”
That's why there's only seven questions in it, because I was like, “I could give people 98 questions but that's not useful. I could give people two questions and that may not be as useful as it could be.” Seven turned out to be the sweet number, but because what I care about is not people knowing the questions, but people asking the questions, the focus is on behavior change.
Here's the thing. Everybody listening to this podcast right now, and I'm going to be bold, but I'm going to say it, you are all advice-giving maniacs. You love it. You don't even know what the problem is but you've got an opinion on what the answer should be. I'm trying to shift that rush to action and advice. I want you to stay curious a little bit longer.
Knowing the questions is a great start, and there's only seven questions, but if you don't know how to start building habits—Habits are the building blocks of behavior change, and there's a ton of made-up stuff out there in the world about habit change, such as: if you do it for 21 days it becomes a habit. That's just wrong. Somebody made that up and now it haunts the internet like a zombie that won't die.
There's also lots of good stuff out there. You look at the work of Charles Duhigg and his book The Power of Habit, BJ Fogg and his great website tinyhabits.com. We've created this thing called The New Habit Formula, it’s a simple three part formula that says, if you understand the habit building, you can build new behaviors. If you build new behaviors, you get to change yourself, as a manager, as a leader, and as a person.
Kruse: Walk us through a few of the seven questions and why you've chosen these to start the coaching conversation.
Bungay-Stanier: Let me do this. Let me give you the first and the last question. You've already got the fourth one, which is the foundation question: “What do you want?” Now you've got the first, the fourth, and the seventh, so it's a nice pattern there. We call the first and the last questions the bookend questions. It's like, how do you start a conversation more quickly, how do you finish it more strongly?
Our fundamental starting point, Kevin, is this. If you can't coach somebody in 10 minutes or less, you don't have time to coach them, so you've got to make sure that these conversations that are more coach-like are fast and to the point. The opening question, the kickstart question, is how do you get into a conversation that's interesting more speedily, rather than the slow, meandering, “Oh, I hope we're going to get to the point some time soon because time's running out. Oh, we didn't, nevermind.”
Here's the opening question: “What's on your mind?” Why it works so well is that it gives them the control of the conversation. You're not telling them what to talk about, you're saying, “You get to choose. I'm giving you autonomy, I'm giving you that powerful thing around picking where we go with this conversation.”
It's a great engagement technique right there. You're not saying to them, “Just tell me anything,” you're saying to them, “Pick the thing that matters, what you're excited about, or worried about, or waking up at four o'clock in the morning about.”
Honestly, if you have direct reports and you do that weekly one-to-one meeting, which, for so many of us, sucks quite badly, because it's like an hour reporting outer stuff, and you're trying to look interested, and they're trying to look interested. You're like, “What is the point of that? You could have just sent me an email and I could have scanned it in three minutes.”
Tweak your one-to-one meetings and tell them you're going to do this beforehand, but say to them, “You've got a lot going on. You're busy. Tell me, of all the stuff that you're working on, what's on your mind?” You're going to go somewhere more challenging and more interesting and it's going to be a better conversation. That's the kickstart question.
The final question, the learning question, because here's your job as a manager, as a leader, and as somebody who's influencing people around you. I think you can frame your job as being a teacher. You should be helping people learn, because when you help people learn, you're helping them become more confident, more competent, more autonomous, smarter, more effective, all those things that not only helps them but, honestly, helps you.
If you've got a bunch of smart, competent, confident, autonomous people working for you, you get to see the fruits of their labors and you all get to enjoy the success of that, but to be a teacher, you have to understand how people learn. Honestly, people don't learn when you tell them stuff. That's a problem, because most of us are advice-giving maniacs. You give most people advice and A) They don't really remember it. It kind of goes in one ear and out the other ear; and B) To be honest, most of your advice isn't nearly as good as you think it is, so there's that.
They don't even really learn when they're doing stuff. They do a little bit, but not so much. They learn when they have a moment to reflect on what just happened. Here's the practical thing you could do. At the end of your team meetings, your one-on-one chats, your emails, and your IMs with your team, with your boss, with your peers, with your customers, with your vendors, at the end of those interactions, pause for a moment and say something like, “This has been great, but before you head off, let me just ask, out of curiosity, what was most useful and most valuable for you here?”
If you want, you can be bold and you can tell them what was most useful or valuable for you in that interaction. What happens is three things. Number one: you get them to figure out and extract the value from the exchange that you've just had. Honestly, you may be thinking that this was a genius conversation. They may be going, “I have no idea what the point of all that was about,” so now you're forcing them to find the value.
Secondly, you're getting feedback on this, so you're actually hearing what was useful, and you'll probably get to adapt and adjust what you do and how you do it.
Thirdly, and more cunningly, you're framing every interaction with you as a useful, valuable interaction, so you become a useful, valued manager, leader, partner, peer, whatever it might be.
Kruse: I like that you say “Out of curiosity,” I think that conversational, non-threatening manner invites an honest answer.
Bungay-Stanier: You've picked up on one of the subtle things that I did that's a great thing for people to hear and build into their own habits, which is the phrase, “Out of curiosity.” When you put that in front of any question, it just makes it feel less significant, less important, that, “You better get the answer right or I'm going to punish you somehow.” So I'd say, “Out of curiosity, what's on your mind? Hey, out of curiosity, what's the real challenge here for you? Just out of curiosity, what was most useful or valuable about this podcast with Kevin and Michael?”
It just makes it lighter, but you still get to ask the question directly.
Kruse: If I see somebody doing something wrong, do I break out the seven questions or is that a different kind of coaching?
Bungay-Stanier: Great question. There are two parts to it. The first part is that I think every interaction you have with somebody has the potential to be more coach-like. You can do this in the email, you can do it by chat, you can do it with casual conversation. It can be a more formal conversation. All of them, you can go, “Hey, maybe I can just be a little bit more curious here,” rather than rushing into action and advice-giving.
What we're looking to do is not add to what's already there. We're not trying to pour water into a full glass. What we're trying to do is put a little bit of food coloring into that water and just transform what you currently do.
To your second point, which is, “What about the feedback moment,” where they're making a mistake. Do you ask them questions, do you do something else, what happens with that?
Coaching and feedback dance together on the same floor. They're a really powerful partnership and you can combine them well. There are times when somebody is making a mistake, what you need to be doing here is not asking them a question but actually giving them some direct feedback.
We don't have time to jump into too much detail about that, but here's what I would say are the four key components of feedback. It's, kind of, derived from something called non-violent communication, Marshall Rosenberg's work. He says, “Everything you do, everything you talk about, communication, has four parts to it: the data, those are the facts, your feelings, your emotional response to what's going on, your judgments, that's your opinion and your interpretation of the data, and then what you want or what you need.”
In most feedback, what happens is there's this unholy combination between data and judgments and we try to make it all sound like it's the truth. Feelings don't get talked about at all because we're all uptight white men, or some variation on that, and then, there's not a clear request for what's wanted or what's needed.
If you see somebody making a mistake and you go, “I've got to start this with feedback,” the fastest thing you can do is go, “What's the data here? What's truly fact? What are my judgments, and which of those judgments are actually useful,” because some judgments won't be. The judgments that, “I've hired a complete loser and they're looking to sabotage my career,” not useful.
Then, “What do I want, what do I need, what's the request I want to make?” The spine of your conversation needs to be the data and “What do you want?” and “What do you need?” What's true, and then what's the request you want to make for what's different? If you get that done, then that often leads into an opportunity to use the coaching questions in some way.
Kruse: I always challenge our listeners to try to become just a little bit better every single day. What is something we can try out today?
Bungay-Stanier: The drum I've been banging throughout this whole conversation with Kevin is, “Stay curious a little bit longer, rush to action and advice just a little bit slower.” Some of you get that already which is fantastic. I've given you three of the seven questions. I'm going to give you the fourth question, and this is the best coaching question in the world. The acronym is AWE, so it's literally an awesome question.
I call it the best coaching question in the world because it's a way of enhancing every other question you ask. The question is, “And what else?” because the first answer anybody gives you to a question is never their only answer, and it's rarely their best answer. When you ask a question follow it up with, “And what else?”
“What was most useful and valuable here for this conversation with Kevin and Me? Fantastic, what else was useful? Fantastic, what else was useful? Love it, was there anything else useful?” Can you see how just imagining that just makes it for a deeper moment of reflection and learning?
I would say, look, if you're going to take one question away to really practice, to use, to make a habit, “And what else?” could be that question.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.