The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier


The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier

Read the summary below and get the key insights in just 10 minutes!



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Despite executive coaching’s high profile, few managers coach well or even at all. Many equate coaching with giving advice and little else. Coaching involves much more than just talking to people; it requires posing intelligent questions that inspire your employees to talk about their thoughts, their work and their concerns. Managers can use a proactive questioning process to learn what’s going on with their employees (or family members, for that matter) and help them upgrade their skills, reach their own solutions and understand their own actions. Michael Bungay Stanier, the first person honored as Coach of the Year in Canada, uses the construct of seven essential coaching questions to teach managers how to coach effectively. getAbstract recommends his manual to all managers, aspiring business coaches and any practitioners who might welcome a refresher.


In this summary, you will learn

  • What good executive coaching entails,
  • Why managers should develop a sustainable “Coaching Habit,” and
  • How to use the “seven essential questions” for coaching.


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Coaching Challenges

Nearly 75% of managers have received training in how to coach their employees, yet 73% of employees never receive coaching. And, when they do, the coaching usually doesn’t help them. In fact, fewer than 25% of employees believe coaching benefited them, and 10% of employees report that the coaching their managers provided actually hurt them.

One problem is that most managers receive inferior coaching training themselves, so most of the coaching they deliver is also inferior.

“As a manager and a leader, you want people to get stuff done. But you want more than that. You want them to learn so that they become more competent, more self-sufficient and more successful.”

Often, coaching training is complex or dull or seems unconnected to the real world of business, so managers find it difficult to understand the relevancy and implementation in their day-to-day lives.

Many managers don’t do much or any coaching because it’s a skill that they must learn. However, even managers who’ve been trained as coaches find themselves overwhelmed by the high-octane work pace at most organizations. As a result, they never get around to coaching employees.

“Conveniently, they want that as well.”

Advice Is Cheap

Giving advice is easy. Because people value good advice, you like to give it and you regard your advice as worth hearing. Dispensing advice helps keep you in charge of the coaching conversation. However, quality coaching depends on asking the right questions, not on dispensing advice.

Asking questions can be disconcerting for the questioner. When you ask questions, you may wonder if you’re really helping your employee in a valuable way.

“Even though we don’t really know what the issue is…we’re quite sure we’ve got the answer.”

Questions make conversations slower. And, asking questions means you are no longer in control of the conversation or situation.

Consider these coaching truths:

“It’s no wonder that we like to give advice. Even if it’s the wrong advice – and it often is – giving it feels more comfortable than the ambiguity of asking a question.”

  • Coaching someone doesn’t take much time. You can coach an employee in “10 minutes or less.”
  • Coaching is not something to do occasionally. Make coaching your employees a routine, daily event.
  • To coach people properly, develop a “Coaching Habit.”

Your Coaching Habit

If you adopt a solid coaching habit, it will sustain you as a coach and help you avoid three common workplace problems that often burden managers:

“You’re going to change the way you have conversations with the people you manage, influence and engage with.

  1. “Creating overdependence” – Employees easily become dependent on managers to do their work for them. This is a common problem for managers who are always ready to step in and help. Coaching prompts employees to handle their responsibilities themselves.
  2. “Getting overwhelmed” – As a busy manager, you have a mountain of work every day. The last thing you need is employees who try to unload their work on you.
  3. “Becoming disconnected” – When employees aren’t confident about their job abilities, they avoid challenging tasks and projects. Coaching enables employees to step up and ask for the toughest assignments.

Developing Your Coaching Habit

According to Duke University research, 45% of what people do is habitual. To become an effective manager and coach, you should build the right habits.

“The change of behavior that’s going to serve you most powerfully is simply this: a little less advice, a little more curiosity.”

Developing the Coaching Habit requires having five elements in place:

  1. “A reason” – You need a motive for changing your behavior.
  2. “A trigger” – To create a new behavior, you must know what triggers your previous behavior. Without this understanding, your current trigger will lead into your old behavior without conscious thought on your part. Be as specific as possible when identifying your triggers. Try to note when you generally default to a negative reaction.
  3. “A micro-habit” – Make sure your new habit “takes less than 60 seconds to complete.”
  4. “Effective practice” – Break down your new habit into small segments and practice each one. This requires “repetition, repetition and repetition.” When you practice, “do it fast, do it slow, do it differently.” Then repeat everything again, again and again until your new habit becomes routine.
  5. “A plan”– Don’t give up when you accidentally revert to an old habit instead of using the new habit you want to inculcate into your daily routine. Create a plan to build a new habit by “identifying the trigger, identifying the old habit and defining the new behavior.”

“You might have come up with a brilliant way to fix the challenge your team is talking about. However, the challenge they’re talking about is most likely not the real challenge that needs to be sorted out.”

Coaching’s “Seven Essential Questions”

Training yourself to ask people you’re coaching seven essential questions is an important new behavior you should develop as a habit. Use these questions with employees you supervise and with “customers, suppliers, colleagues, bosses, and even…spouses and teenage children.” These questions can transform your scheduled one-on-one sessions with employees, your business and team meetings, as well as reshaping unplanned conversations in the hallway.

The seven essential questions are:

“When you’re not entirely sure what’s going on, and you need a just moment or two to figure things out, asking ‘And what else?’ buys you a little extra time.”

1. The “Kick-Start” Question

Ask, “What’s on your mind?” to initiate a focused conversation. This question directs the conversation to the most important issue, as defined by the other party. Asking it puts that person in charge of the direction of the conversation. This question makes it clear that you want to talk about your employee’s most pressing issue, not your own. After opening with this question, use the “3P model” to focus the conversation. The three P’s are:

  • “Projects” – Determine what your employee is working on and discuss current assignments.
  • “People” – Consider the employee’s relationships with “team members, colleagues, other departments, bosses” and “customers.”
  • “Patterns” – Exploring your employees’ habitual behaviors can reveal how you can help them approach and accomplish their jobs more effectively.

“The essence of coaching lies in helping others and unlocking their potential.”

2. The “AWE” Question

Ask, “And what else?” This is the single most effective coaching question. By asking it, you generate greater understanding, improved mindfulness and enhanced self-knowledge, which increase the potential for meaningful two-way communication. The AWE question grants you more time to shape the conversation in a productive way. It enables the employee to discuss candidly whatever is on his or her mind. The AWE question moves you away from turning into an “Advice Monster.” The following haiku explains effective coaching: “Tell less and ask more. / Your advice is not as good / As you think it is.” While this coaching philosophy makes sense, it’s not easy to implement. The AWE question helps you remember to listen before you speak.

3. The “Focus” Question

Ask, “What’s the real challenge here for you?” This question helps you uncover a deeper issue worth addressing, not “just the first problem” your staffer cited. Many managers try to solve problems as soon as they arise. Instead, “tamp down the ‘Advice Monster’ and help people quickly figure out their own paths.”

“There’s being helpful, and then there’s being ‘helpful,’ as in stepping in and taking over.”

However, the way people first characterize a problem often has nothing do with the underlying issue. “Instead of moving into advice-giving, solution-providing mode,” ask the Focus question. Its phrasing conveys your understanding that the employee faces numerous challenges and that one of them matters more than the rest. The words “for you” personalize the issue and make the employee responsible for determining which concern is a priority.

4. The “Foundation” Question

Ask, “What do you want?” Like the focus question, the foundation question – and its companion question, “But what do you really want?” – take you directly to the main challenge. Think of this as the “Goldfish Question,” because it can cause people to react by staring at you while their mouths open and close soundlessly. This question won’t be easy for employees to answer.

“Building a coaching habit will help you and your team reconnect to the work that not only has impact but has meaning as well.”

The foundation question deals directly with the common illusion that those participating in a conversation know what everyone wants to achieve. You and your staffer must determine the need that underlies the want. For example, if a worker wants to leave early one day, try to ascertain why leaving early is important. “Recognizing the need gives you a better understanding of how you might best address the want.”

5. The “Lazy” Question

Ask, “How can I help?” This question saves a great deal of time. It cuts through all the hemming and hawing. It requires your employee to make a direct request of you concerning what matters most to him or her. The lazy question prevents you from immediately jumping into action and trying to solve a problem before you fully understand the situation.

“Coaching can fuel the courage to step out beyond the comfortable and familiar, can help people learn from their experiences, and can literally and metaphorically increase and help fulfill a person’s potential.”

The wording of this question proves critical to its effectiveness. A blunter version is “What do you want from me?” If you decide to use the more direct version, preface it with “Out of curiosity…” You could also start with, “Just so I know…”, “To help me understand better…” or “To make sure that I’m clear…”

6. The “Strategic” Question

Ask, “If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?” This is a complex question. You’re asking the employee to commit to the previous yes. This precludes the popular excuse, “I never said I was going to do that.” The strategic question asks employees to examine the implications of their choices. It can also clarify the “boundaries and form” of the employee’s no.

“People occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.”

Here again, the 3P model of projects, people and patterns can be useful: What projects should you delay or stop working on? What connections with other people should you sever? What lapsed ambitions should you attempt to fulfill? “What habits do you need to break?”

7. The “Learning” Question

Ask, “What was most useful for you?” Along with the initial kick-start question, the learning question is a “Coaching Bookend.” This question guarantees that everyone will find these meetings and sessions meaningful. Asking this question enables the employee to achieve a valuable “learning moment.” It focuses the staffer to pause, think and pay attention to the most important new information that emerges from the conversation.

Better Coaching Conversations

Usually, conversations between managers and their employees contain superfluous detail. They often rest on inappropriate certainty. They veer off course easily, and getting back on track is hard. Such conversations often go nowhere and just exhaust the participants. Quality coaching can put an end to low-wattage, meandering and unproductive conversations.

If you make these seven essential questions the core of your Coaching Habit, they can help “you work less hard and have more impact.” As you enrich your coaching habit, develop a set of questions that work best for you. To be an effective coach, nurture a strong sense of curiosity; it will stand you in greater stead than any advice you may want to dole out to others. Recognize and develop your idiosyncratic voice, the one you feel most comfortable using all the time as a manager and a coach.


About the Author

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Keynote speaker and founder and senior partner of Box of Crayons, Michael Bungay Stanier was the first Canadian Coach of the Year. He also wrote Do More Great Work. For videos and podcasts, visit


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