The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way Your Lead Forever – by Bungay Stanier Michael

How strongly I recommend it: 8/10
See my lists of books for more.

Go to the Amazon page for details.


To build an effective new habit, you need five essential components: a reason, a trigger, a micro-habit, effective practice, and a plan.
One key factor in each hot spot was knowing how to practice well—Coyle calls it “Deep Practice.” The three components of Deep Practice are:

  • Practicing small chunks of the bigger action (for instance, rather than practice the whole tennis serve, you practice just tossing the ball up).
  • Repetition, repetition and repetition… and repetition. Do it fast, do it slow, do it differently. But keep repeating the action.
  • And finally, being mindful and noticing when it goes well. When it does, celebrate success. You don’t have to go buy the bottle of Möet, although you can if you wish. A small fist pump will do just fine.

The New Habit Formula: a simple, straightforward and effective way of articulating and kickstarting the new behaviour you want.
There are three parts to the formula: identifying the trigger, identifying the old habit and defining the new behaviour. Here’s how it works.
Identifying the Trigger: When This Happens…
Define the trigger, the moment when you’re at a crossroads and could go down either the well-trod road of the old way of behaving or the Robert Frost path less trodden. If you don’t know what this moment is, you’re going to continually miss it and, with that, the opportunity to change your behaviour.
The more specific you can make it, the better. Charles Duhigg says that there are just five types of triggers: location, time, emotional state, other people, and the immediately preceding action. You can see how you might use a number of them to define a very specific trigger. For instance, a trigger might be “When I’m feeling frustrated (emotional state) in my weekly meeting (time) with Bob (people) because he says ‘I haven’t really thought about it (action).’”
Identifying the Old Habit: Instead Of…
Articulate the old habit, so you know what you’re trying to stop doing. Again, the more specific you can make it, the more useful it’s going to be. For instance (and to carry on the example above), “I ask Bob, ‘Have you thought about X?’ and hope he’ll get the suggestion that I’ve disguised as a pseudo-question, all the while thinking bad thoughts about Bob.”
Defining the New Behaviour: I Will…
Define the new behaviour, one that will take sixty seconds or less to do. We know that the fundamental shift of behaviour you’re looking to accomplish through this book is to give less advice and show more curiosity. And what’s great about the Seven Essential Questions that you’re about to discover is that you can definitely ask each one in sixty seconds or less.
Start small. Don’t try to incorporate all the ideas in the book all at once. Start somewhere, and try to master one thing and get it “in your bones.” And after that, move on to something else.

Ask One Question at a Time

In which you discover the power of an opening question that gets the conversation happening fast and deep.
Small talk might be a useful way to warm up, but it’s rarely the bridge that leads to a conversation that matters.
The Kickstart Question: “What’s on Your Mind?”
An almost fail-safe way to start a chat that quickly turns into a real conversation is the question, “What’s on your mind?” It’s something of a Goldilocks question, walking a fine line so it is neither too open and broad nor too narrow and confining.
Deepen Focus with the 3Ps
The 3P model is a framework for choosing what to focus on in a coaching conversation—for deciding which aspect of a challenge might be at the heart of a difficulty that the person is working through. A challenge might typically be centred on a project, a person or a pattern of behaviour.
A project is the content of the situation, the stuff that’s being worked on. It’s the easiest place to go to and it will be the most familiar to most of us. We spend our days finding solutions to challenges, and our eyes are almost always on the situation at hand. This realm is where coaching for performance and technical change tends to occur. Often, the art is in knowing how to start here and then seeing whether the conversation would benefit from including one or both of the other two Ps.
Have you ever thought, Work would be easy if it weren’t for all these annoying people? Surely it’s not just me. Certainly, situations are always made more complex when you—in all your imperfect, not-always-rational, messy, biased, hasn’t-fully-obtained-enlightenment glory—have to work with others who, surprisingly, are also imperfect, not always rational, messy, biased, and a few steps short of full wisdom and compassion.
When you’re talking about people, though, you’re not really talking about them. You’re talking about a relationship and, specifically, about what your role is in this relationship that might currently be less than ideal.
Here you’re looking at patterns of behaviour and ways of working that you’d like to change. This area is most likely where coaching-for-development conversations will emerge. They are personal and challenging, and they provide a place where people’s self-knowledge and potential can grow and flourish. And at the moment, these conversations are not nearly common enough in organizations.
It’s not always appropriate to be having a conversation with this focus. Often enough, having only a project-focused conversation is exactly the right thing to do.
Putting the 3Ps to Use
“What’s on your mind?” you ask.
“The [insert name of thing they’re working on],” they say.
“So there are three different facets of that we could look at,” you offer. “The project side—any challenges around the actual content. The people side—any issues with team members/colleagues/other departments/bosses/customers/clients. And patterns—if there’s a way that you’re getting in your own way, and not showing up in the best possible way. Where should we start?”
It doesn’t matter which one they pick—it will be a strong start to the conversation. And when they’re done discussing that P, you can just take them to one of the other two Ps and ask, “If this was a thing, what would the challenge here be for you?”
And you’ll likely have a deeper, more robust and richer conversation.

Cut the Intro and Ask the Question

If you know what question to ask, get to the point and ask it.
(And if you must have a lead-in phrase, try “Out of curiosity.” It lessens the “heaviness” of any question and makes it easier to ask and answer.)
Here’s Your New Habit
When I’ve got a question to ask…
Setting it up, framing it, explaining it, warming up to it and generally taking forever to get to the moment…
Ask the question. (And then shut up to listen to the answer.)

The AWE Question: “And What Else?”

I know they seem innocuous. Three little words. But “And What Else?”—the AWE Question—has magical properties. With seemingly no effort, it creates more—more wisdom, more insights, more self-awareness, more possibilities—out of thin air.
There are three reasons it has the impact that it does: more options can lead to better decisions; you rein yourself in; and you buy yourself time.
“But wait, there’s more…”
While no one here needs you to buy the ShamWow, you do want to remember that the first answer someone gives you is almost never the only answer, and it’s rarely the best answer. You may think that’s obvious, but it’s less so than you realize.
Chip and Dan Heath, in their excellent book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, quote a study by Paul Nutt, a man “who may know more than anyone alive about how managers make decisions.” Using a rigorous protocol, he reviewed the outcomes of 168 decisions made within organizations. He found that in 71 percent of the decisions, the choice preceding the decision was binary. It was simply: Should we do this? Or should we not?
Nutt made the point that this percentage was on par with (actually, slightly worse than) the ability of teenagers to create options before making decisions. Yes, those terrible decisions teenagers tend to make. And at least teenagers have the excuse that their brains aren’t yet fully formed. It’s thus no surprise that Nutt found that decisions made from these binary choices had a failure rate greater than 50 percent.
He then looked at the success rate of decisions that involved more choices. For instance, what would happen if you added just one more option: Should we do this? Or this? Or not? The results were startling. Having at least one more option lowered the failure rate by almost half, down to about 30 percent.
When you use “And what else?” you’ll get more options and often better options. Better options lead to better decisions. Better decisions lead to greater success.
A much-quoted 1984 study by Howard Beckman and Richard Frankel found that the average time to interruption for doctors was eighteen seconds. And while we can all roll our eyes and say “those doctors,” I’ve seen plenty of managers and leaders who bat a similar average.
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.
“And what else?” breaks that cycle. When asking it becomes a habit, it’s often the simplest way to stay lazy and stay curious. It’s a self-management tool to keep your Advice Monster under restraints.
When you’re not entirely sure what’s going on, and you need just a moment or two to figure things out, asking “And what else?” buys you a little extra time.
Four Practical Tips for Asking “And What Else?”
To make sure the magic of AWE happens, follow a few simple guidelines:

  • Stay Curious, Stay Genuine
  • Ask It One More Time
  • Recognize Success
  • Move On When It’s Time: If you can feel the energy going out of the conversation, you know it’s time to move on from this angle. A strong “wrap it up” variation of “And what else?” is “Is there anything else?” That version of “And what else?” invites closure, while still leaving the door open for whatever else needs to be said.

“And what else?” is the quickest and easiest way to uncover and create new possibilities.
Finding the Right Moment
“And what else?” is such a useful question that you can add it into almost every exchange. For example:

  • When you’ve asked someone, “What’s on your mind?” and she answers, ask, “And what else?”
  • When someone’s told you about a course of action she intends to take, challenge her with “And what else could you do?”
  • When you’re trying to find the heart of the issue, and you ask, “What’s the real challenge here for you?” and he offers up a timid or vague or insipid first answer, push deeper by asking, “And what else is a challenge here for you?”
  • When you start your weekly check-in meeting by asking, “What’s important right now?” keep the pressure on by asking, “And what else?”
  • When someone’s nudging a new idea to the fore, exploring new boundaries of courage and possibility, hold the space and deepen the potential by asking, “And what else might be possible?”
  • When you’re brainstorming new ideas and you don’t want to get bogged down, keep the energy up by firing out, “And what else?”

Build Your New Habit Here
Write out the moment, the person and perhaps the feelings that are your trigger.
“And what else?” works so well because it keeps people generating options and keeps you shut up. So the trigger here is the opposite of that. It’s when someone has given you an idea, when you want to give some advice, when you’re sure you know the answer and are desperate to tell him or when he hasn’t yet said, “There is nothing else!”
Write out the old habit you want to stop doing. Be specific.
The old habit will be largely about reverting to advice giving and moving into solution mode sooner than you need to. It could be: going with the first idea, or even the second idea or even the third idea; telling people the brilliant idea you’ve got before they’ve shared all their ideas; assuming you know the problem and/or the solution; or taking control and wrapping up the conversation.
Describe your new habit.
It’s almost certainly something like, “I will ask them, ‘And what else?’”

“Ask the right questions if you’re going to find the right answers.”
—Vanessa Redgrave

Should You Ask Rhetorical Questions?

In your heart you’re pretty sure you know the answer to the problem being discussed. So you’ve mastered the fake question.
“Have you thought of…?”
“What about…?”
“Did you consider…?”
Stop offering up advice with a question mark attached.
That doesn’t count as asking a question. If you’ve got an idea, wait. Ask, “And what else?” and you’ll often find that the person comes up with that very idea that’s burning a hole in your brain. And if she doesn’t, then offer your idea—as an idea, not disguised as a fake question.
Here’s Your New Habit
I’ve got the answer, which I want to suggest…
Asking a fake question such as “Have you thought of…?” or “What about…?” which is just advice with a question mark attached…
Ask one of the Seven Essential Questions. And if I want to present an idea, I’ll offer it up as an option rather than a question.
When people start talking to you about the challenge at hand, what’s essential to remember is that what they’re laying out for you is rarely the actual problem. And when you start jumping in to fix things, things go off the rails in three ways: you work on the wrong problem; you do the work your team should be doing; and the work doesn’t get done.

The Focus Question: What’s the Real Challenge Here for You?

This is the question that will help slow down the rush to action, so you spend time solving the real problem, not just the first problem. It’s no accident that it’s phrased the way it is.
Instead of moving into advice-giving, solution-providing mode, you ask the Focus Question: “What’s the real challenge here for you?”
Symptoms of Proliferation of Challenges
Have you ever made popcorn? One “pop.” Then another. Then another. And then the popping goes crazy. Problems proliferate in the same way.
Solution to Proliferation of Challenges
Resist the temptation to do the work and to pick one of the many challenges as the starting point (even though, no doubt, you’ll have an opinion on which one it should be). Instead, ask something like this:
“If you had to pick one of these to focus on, which one here would be the real challenge for you?”
You can coach only the person in front of you. As tempting as it is to talk about a “third point” (most commonly another person, but it can also be a project or a situation), you need to uncover the challenge for the person to whom you’re talking. So in the example above, it becomes a coaching conversation when it’s a conversation about how this person is managing John, not a conversation about John.
And asking the Focus Question—“So what’s the real challenge here for you?”—will get you there.
“I think I understand some of what’s going on with [insert name of the person or the situation]. What’s the real challenge here for you?”
Solution to Abstractions & Generalizations
If you feel yourself drifting, you need to find a way to ground the challenge and connect it to the person you’re talking to. Just as with Coaching the Ghost, it’s about bringing the focus back to the person at hand. To do that, you’d ask something like this:
“I have a sense of the overall challenge. What’s the real challenge here for you?”
Three Strategies to Make This Question Work for You
Now that you know why the Focus Question works so well, here are a few tips to ensure that it works well—for you.
Trust That You’re Being Useful
When you start shifting your behaviour from giving advice and providing solutions to asking questions, you will feel anxious. “I’m just asking questions. They’re going to see right through this any minute now.”
Learn to recognize the moment when you ask the question and there’s a pause, a heartbeat of silence when you can see the person actually thinking and figuring out the answer. You can almost see new neural connections being made.
To further reassure yourself, master the last of the Seven Essential Questions—“What was most useful here for you?”—so you create a learning moment for the person and for you.
Remember That There Is a Place for Your Advice
When someone pops his head around the door and asks, “Do you know where the folder is?” tell him where the folder is. Don’t ask, “What’s the real challenge here for you?” That’s just annoying. (Although the upside might be that people stop interrupting you, so don’t dismiss this tactic out of hand.) One of your roles as a manager and a leader is to have answers. We’re just trying to slow down the rush to this role as your default behaviour.
Remember the Second Question
Someone once said that everything tastes better with bacon. As a fallen vegetarian, I can attest to that. Equally, every question gets better when you add, “And what else?”
Asking, “What’s the real challenge here for you?” Good.
Adding, “And what else? What else is a real challenge here for you?” Even better.
Build Your New Habit Here
Write out the moment, the person and perhaps the feelings that are your trigger.
The pattern we’re breaking here is overworking the wrong problem, so the trigger is any time you start to focus on a particular challenge. Coming up with ways to fix things feels more comfortable than sitting in the ambiguity of trying to figure out the challenge, but that’s where the power of this question lies. So the trigger could be when your team is discussing a challenge or a project and the conversation has already moved to solutions, or when someone on your team is wrestling with a problem but you’re not really sure if he knows what the challenge is, or when you’re feeling scared or anxious or uncertain about a challenge you’re facing.
Write out the old habit you want to stop doing. Be specific.
Describe your new habit.
I’m pretty sure it will be, “Ask ‘What’s the real challenge here for you?’”
You can take this insight and add it to all of the questions you ask people. Adding “for you” to a question helps people figure out the answers faster and more accurately.

Stick to Questions Starting with “What”

Yes, there’s a place for asking “Why?” in organizational life. And no, it’s not while you’re in a focused conversation with the people you’re managing. Here are two good reasons:

  • You put them on the defensive. Get the tone even slightly wrong and suddenly your “Why… ?” come across as “What the hell were you thinking?” It’s only downhill from there.
  • You’re trying to solve the problem. You ask why because you want more detail. You want more detail because you want to fix the problem. And suddenly you’re back in the vicious circles of overdependence and overwhelm.

If you’re not trying to fix things, you don’t need the backstory.
Stick to questions starting with “What” and avoid questions starting with “Why.” It’s no accident that six of the Seven Essential Questions are What questions.
Here’s Your New Habit
When I’m tempted to ask them why…
Beginning the question with “Why… ”
Reframe the question so it starts with “What.” So, as some examples, instead of “Why did you do that?” ask “What were you hoping for here?” Instead of “Why did you think this was a good idea?” ask “What made you choose this course of action?” Instead of “Why are you bothering with this?” ask “What’s important for you here?”

The first three questions can combine to become a robust script for your coaching conversation.

You’ll be surprised and delighted at just how often these are exactly the right questions to ask.
Open with:
What’s on your mind?
The perfect way to start; the question is open but focused.
Check in:
Is there anything else on your mind?
Give the person an option to share additional concerns.
Then begin to focus:
So what’s the real challenge here for you?
Already the conversation will deepen. Your job now is to find what’s most useful to look at.
And what else (is the real challenge here for you)?
Trust me, the person will have something. And there may be more.
Probe again:
Is there anything else?
You’ll have most of what matters in front of you now.
So get to the heart of it and ask:
So . . . what’s the real challenge here for you?
We often don’t know what we actually want. Even if there’s a first, fast answer, the question “But what do you really want?” will typically stop people in their tracks.
Drawing on the work of economist Manfred Max-Neef, Rosenberg says that there are nine self-explanatory universal needs.   
Recognizing the need gives you a better understanding of how you might best address the want. And there’s a flip side to that as well. As you frame your own request for what you want, see if you can articulate what the need is behind the request.
And there’s the challenge for you as a busy and ambitious manager. You want those you interact with—your team, your boss, your customers, your suppliers—to be engaging rather than retreating. You want your people to feel that working with you is a place of reward, not risk. And you also realize that you want to feel like you’re safe so that you can stay at your smartest, rather than in fight-or-flight mode.
So how do you influence others’ brains and your own so that situations are read as rewarding, not risky?
There are four primary drivers—they spell out the acronym TERA—that influence how the brain reads any situation. TERA is a handy acronym, as it brings to mind “terroir”—the influence that a specific location has on the taste of the wine made from the grapes grown there. When you focus on TERA, you’re thinking about how you can influence the environment that drives engagement.

  • T is for tribe. The brain is asking, “Are you with me, or are you against me?” If it believes that you’re on its side, it increases the TERA Quotient. If you’re seen as the opposition, the TERA Quotient goes down.
  • E is for expectation. The brain is figuring out, “Do I know the future or don’t I?” If what’s going to happen next is clear, the situation feels safe. If not, it feels dangerous.
  • R is for rank. It’s a relative thing, and it depends not on your formal title but on how power is being played out in the moment. “Are you more important or less important than I am?” is the question the brain is asking, and if you’ve diminished my status, the situation feels less secure.
  • A is for autonomy. Dan Pink talks about the importance of this in his excellent book Drive. “Do I get a say or don’t I?” That’s the question the brain is asking as it gauges the degree of autonomy you have in any situation. If you believe you do have a choice, then this environment is more likely to be a place of reward and therefore engagement. If you believe you don’t have a choice so much, then it becomes less safe for you.

Your job is to increase the TERA Quotient whenever you can. That’s good for the person you’re speaking with, and it’s good for you. Asking questions in general, and asking “What do you want?” specifically, will do that.
It increases the sense of tribe-iness, as, rather than dictating what someone should do, you’re helping him solve a challenge. And in doing so, you’re increasing not only his sense of autonomy—you’re assuming that he can come up with answers and encouraging him to do so—but his rank as well, because you’re letting him “have the floor” and go first. The question “What do you want?” strongly affects the drivers of rank and autonomy. Expectation, the other factor, may be a little depressing (a question contains more ambiguity than an answer), but that’s OK. Your goal is to raise the overall TERA Quotient, and by asking questions you do just that.
Build Your New Habit Here
Write out the moment, the person and perhaps the feelings that are your trigger.
The trigger for this habit is when you or he or the conversation feels a little stuck. You may be circling through options and none of them feel quite right or exciting or engaging. It can also be when he is procrastinating on taking action (or you are), and you’re not sure why. Or it can be any time you’re in a slightly fraught conversation with someone—someone on your team, your boss, a customer, a vendor. Perhaps the conversation goes off the rails and hasn’t really got started and you’re wondering how to get things back on track.
Write out the old habit you want to stop doing.
The trap of the old habit is that you think you know what they want. And sometimes, they think they know what they want. So the “instead of…” here is when you’re pretty sure you know what they want but haven’t actually asked them, or when you keep going even though you think you’re missing something. Or when you try to impose your idea, or your opinion, or your course of action. Or when you’re stuck and not taking action on something and you’re not sure why.
Describe your new habit.
It’s simple. Ask “What do you want?” For bonus points, tell the person what you want as well.
“Suppose that tonight, while you’re sleeping, a miracle happens. When you get up in the morning tomorrow, how will you know that things have suddenly got better?”
The miracle question helps people to more courageously imagine what better (and much better) really looks like.
The Foundation Question—“What do you want?”—is direct, rather than indirect. But it has the same effect of pulling people to the outcome, and once you see the destination, the journey often becomes clearer.

Get Comfortable with Silence

Silence is often a measure of success.
It may be that the person you’re coaching is the type who needs a moment or three to formulate the answer in his head before speaking it. In which case you’re giving him that space.
It means he’s thinking, searching for the answer. He’s creating new neural pathways, and in doing so literally increasing his potential and capacity.
Bite your tongue, and don’t fill the silence. I know it will be uncomfortable, and I know it creates space for learning and insight.
Here’s Your New Habit
WHEN THIS HAPPENS… When I’ve asked a question and she doesn’t have an answer ready within the first two seconds…
INSTEAD OF… Filling up the space with another question or the same question just asked a new way or a suggestion or just pointless words…
I WILL… Take a breath, stay open and keep quiet for another three seconds.

In which you discover the question that will make you more useful to those you manage, while working less hard, and you decide that being lazy is a good thing after all.

The (New) Seven Dwarfs & the Karpman Drama Triangle
The Drama Triangle starts by assuming that, at least some of the time, we’re playing less-than-fantastic versions of ourselves with most of the people with whom we interact. If you’ve ever found yourself playing one of the Seven Dysfunctional Dwarfs (Sulky, Moany, Shouty, Crabby, Martyr-y, Touchy and Petulant), even when you know you should know better, you get the point.
When this happens, Karpman says, we’re bouncing around between three archetypal roles—Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer—each one as unhelpful and dysfunctional as the other. As you read the descriptions of each role below, do two things: bring to mind someone who’s particularly adept at each role, and bring to mind the circumstances in which you most commonly play each role.
The core belief: “My life is so hard; my life is so unfair. ‘Poor me.’”
The dynamic: “It’s not my fault (it’s theirs).”
The core belief: “I’m surrounded by fools, idiots or just people less good than me.”
The dynamic: “It’s not my fault (it’s yours).”
The core belief: “Don’t fight, don’t worry, let me jump in and take it on and fix it.”
The dynamic: “It’s my fault/responsibility (not yours).”
The benefits of playing the role: You feel morally superior; you believe you’re indispensable. The price paid for playing the role: People reject your help. You create Victims and perpetuate the Drama Triangle. And no one likes a meddler. Stuck is: “I feel stuck because my rescuing doesn’t work. I feel burdened.”
These three labels aren’t descriptions of who you are. They’re descriptions of how you’re behaving in a given situation. No one is inherently a Victim or a Persecutor or a Rescuer. They are roles we end up playing when we’ve been triggered and, in that state, find a less-than-effective version of ourselves playing out.
“All the World’s a Stage…”
We all play all of these roles all the time. Often, we’ll cycle through all of the roles in a single exchange with someone, lurching from Victim to Rescuer to Persecutor and back again.

“The minute we begin to think we have all the answers, we forget the questions.”
—Madeleine L’Engle

When we’re in Rescuer mode, we’re constantly leaping in to solve problems, jumping in to offer advice, taking over responsibilities that others should rightfully keep for themselves. We do it with good intentions; we’re just trying to help, to “add value” as managers. But you can already see the price that’s being paid by both sides. You’re exhausted—and they’re irritated. You’re limiting opportunities for growth and for expanding the potential of those you’re working with. More provocatively, you might be coming to understand that Rescuers create Victims, though we want to believe that it’s the other way around (which is also true, but not only true).
Are You Doomed? (Yes, You’re Doomed)
Seeing the pattern of the Drama Triangle is a strong first step in breaking the working-too-hard pattern of the time-crunched manager. Once you understand the triggers, you can start to reshape the habit.
The bad news is that you are in fact destined to keep falling into the Drama Triangle for the rest of your life.
The good news is that you’ll get better and better at recognizing it and breaking the pattern, faster and more often.
Samuel Beckett put it best: “Go on failing. Go on. Only next time, try to fail better.”
You’ll fail better by recognizing more quickly that you’re in the Drama Triangle and by asking the Lazy Question—“How can I help?”—to pull yourself out of the triangle faster.
The Lazy Question: How Can I Help?
Be Blunt…
The more direct version of “How can I help?” is “What do you want from me?” If “How can I help?” is James Bond in a tuxedo, then “What do you want from me?” is Bond in bust-out-of-the-baddies’-evil-lair mode. It strips the conversation down to understanding the essential exchange: What do you want? What do I want? And now, what shall we do about that?
…But Be Careful
You can likely guess that how “What do you want from me?” lands will depend in no small part on the tone of voice in which it’s asked. To connect it to the Drama Triangle, if you’re in Persecutor mode, it might come across as aggressive; in Victim mode, as whiny; and in Rescuer mode, as smothering.
A way to soften this question, as with all questions, is to use the phrase “Out of curiosity.” What that does is shift the question from perhaps coming across as an inquisition to being a more noble inquiry. Other phrases that can have a similar softening effect on the question being asked are “Just so I know…” or “To help me understand better…” or even “To make sure that I’m clear…”
The Anxiety of Asking “How Can I Help?” & How to Manage It

“What do you think I should do about…?” is the cheddar on the mousetrap.

Now, there’s a time and a place for giving advice. The goal here isn’t to avoid ever providing an answer. But it is to get better at having people find their own answers. So here’s your new habit:
Someone gives you a call/drops by your cubicle/shouts out across the office/sends you a text message and asks, “How do I [insert query most likely to sucker you in]?”
Giving her the answer…
Say, “That’s a great question. I’ve got some ideas, which I’ll share with you. But before I do, what are your first thoughts?”
And when she answers, which she will, you’ll nod your head and be engaged and interested, and when she finishes, say, “That’s terrific. What else could you do?”
More nodding, more being interested.
Then say, “This is all good. Is there anything else you could try here?”
And then, and only then, you can add your own idea into the mix if you wish. And of course, if the conversation is going well, keep asking “And what else?” until she has run out of ideas.

Actually Listen to the Answer

One of the most compelling things you can do after asking a question is to genuinely listen to the answer.
Here’s Your New Habit
After I’ve asked a question…
Going through the motions of looking like I’m actively listening…
Actually listen. And when I get distracted (which I will), I’ll come back and start listening again.

In which you get to the heart of overwhelm and discover the question at the heart of every good strategy.

The Strategic Question: If You’re Saying Yes to This, What Are You Saying No To?
Ask, “Let’s be clear: What exactly are you saying Yes to?” brings the commitment out of the shadows. If you then ask, “What could being fully committed to this idea look like?” it brings things into even sharper, bolder focus.
But a Yes is nothing without the No that gives it boundaries and form.
You can use the 3P model you read about in the Kickstart Question chapter to make sure you cover all the bases.
What projects do you need to abandon or postpone? What meetings will you no longer attend? What resources do you need to divert to the Yes?
What expectations do you need to manage? From what Drama Triangle dynamics will you extract yourself? What relationships will you let wither?
What habits do you need to break? What old stories or dated ambitions do you need to update? What beliefs about yourself do you need to let go of?
How to Say No When You Can’t Say No (Part 1)
The secret to saying No was to shift the focus and learn how to say Yes more slowly. What gets us into trouble is how quickly we commit, without fully understanding what we’re getting ourselves into or even why we’re being asked.

  • Saying Yes more slowly means being willing to stay curious before committing. Which means asking more questions:
  • Why are you asking me?
  • Whom else have you asked?
  • When you say this is urgent, what do you mean?
  • According to what standard does this need to be completed? By when?
  • If I couldn’t do all of this, but could do just a part, what part would you have me do?
  • What do you want me to take off my plate so I can do this?

Saying Yes more slowly means being willing to stay curious before committing.
In a 2002 Harvard Business Review article, “Beware the Busy Manager,” Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal suggested that only 10 percent of managers had the right focus and energy to work on the stuff that matters. To be frank, 10 percent sounds high to me. But most likely you can think of someone in your organization who seems to be able to “hold the line” and stop that aggregation of small tasks and additional responsibilities that, for the rest of us, eventually consume our lives. That person might not be the best-liked person in the organization—the need to be liked drives that Drama-Triangle Rescuer response of “Yes, I’ll do that”—but she’s likely to be successful, senior and respected.
How to Say No When You Can’t Say No (Part 2)
One secret from the world of facilitation, which we saw in a different context in the discussion about Coaching the Ghost, is to create a “third point”—an object that you can identify as the thing you’re saying No to, which isn’t the person. For instance, if you write down someone’s request on a bit of paper or a flip chart, you can then point to it and say, “I’m afraid I have to say No to this,” which is a little better than “I’m afraid I have to say No to you.”
Say Yes to the person, but say No to the task.
The Other Five Strategic Questions
Book: Roger Martin and A.G. Lafley’s Playing to Win.
These questions are not linear. Answering one will influence the answer to the one that follows and likely to the one that preceded it. It is the process of working back and forth between them, creating alignment between your answers, that is the strength of this process. It was Eisenhower who said, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable,” and while that’s a little black and white, it’s also true that the result of these questions is that they force great planning. Here are the five questions:

  • What is our winning aspiration? Framing the choice as “winning” rules out mediocrity as an option. If you want to win, you need to know what game you’re playing and with (and against) whom. What impact do you want to have in and on the world?
  • Where will we play? “Boiling the ocean” is rarely successful. Choosing a sector, geography, product, channel and customer allows you to focus your resources.
  • How will we win? What’s the defendable difference that will open up the gap between you and the others?
  • What capabilities must be in place? Not just what do you need to do, but how will it become and stay a strength?
  • What management systems are required? It’s easy enough to measure stuff. It’s much harder to figure out what you want to measure that actually matters.

Build Your New Habit Here
Write out the moment, the person and perhaps the feelings that are your trigger.
The trigger here is when you see that someone’s about to move from overwhelmed to really overwhelmed by adding more to their list. Or when they’re wimping out by not making a choice but fudging things by saying Yes to everything. Or when the pace of work is just getting to be too much and you can see scope creep happening for people and their projects. In short, whenever someone’s making a decision to commit to something new.
Write out the old habit you want to stop doing. Be specific. For this question, it could have something to do with taming your Advice Monster.
The “instead of…” is when you hope that you and your team can defy the laws of physics and just keep adding more stuff to your capacity. So it’s when you notice yourself in Rescuer mode (where you say Yes to everything to keep them happy) or Victim mode (when you feel you have no choice but to say Yes), and you want to pull out of that.
Describe your new habit.
Stop the rush to action and towards the Cliffs of Overwhelm, and ask, “What will you say No to, to make this Yes rock-solid and real?”

Acknowledge the Answers You Get

This isn’t about judging people; it’s about encouraging them and letting them know that you listened and heard what they said.
The person gives an answer to a question I’ve asked…
Rushing on to the next question…
Acknowledge the reply by saying, “Yes, that’s good.”

In which you discover how to finish any conversation in a way that will make you look like a genius.

How People Learn
Helping people learn is difficult. Sometimes it feels like even though you’ve hit them across the head repeatedly with an obvious concept (or a shovel perhaps), somehow the point you’ve been trying to make hasn’t stuck. Here’s why:
People don’t really learn when you tell them something.
They don’t even really learn when they do something.
They start learning, start creating new neural pathways, only when they have a chance to recall and reflect on what just happened.
The Learning Question: “What Was Most Useful for You?”
Academic Chris Argyris coined the term for this “double-loop learning” more than forty years ago. If the first loop is trying to fix a problem, the second loop is creating a learning moment about the issue at hand. It’s in the second loop where people pull back and find the insight. New connections get made. Aha moments happen.
Your job as a manager and a leader is to help create the space for people to have those learning moments.
This is why, in a nutshell, advice is overrated. I can tell you something, and it’s got a limited chance of making its way into your brain’s hippocampus, the region that encodes memory. If I can ask you a question and you generate the answer yourself, the odds increase substantially.
The first major tactic they share is harnessing the impact of information retrieval. They put it beautifully: “What’s essential is to interrupt the process of forgetting.” That forgetting starts happening immediately, so even by asking the question at the end of a conversation, you’ve created the first interruption in that slide towards “I’ve never heard that before!”
And if you want to up the ante, you can find a way for this question to pop up in places other than the end of a conversation. The authors say, “Reflection is a form of practice”; create these moments and you find a place for Dan Coyle’s Deep Practice. One option is to ask the question at the start of the team meeting or the regularly scheduled one-on-one. “What have you learned since we last met?” One of the disciplines I (mostly) follow at the end of my day is using an app called iDoneThis, and rather than just writing out what I did, I write down a sentence or two about what I learned and what I’m most proud of.
Why “What Was Most Useful for You?” Tops the List
It Assumes the Conversation Was Useful
It Asks People to Identify the Big Thing That Was Most Useful
It Makes It Personal
It Gives You Feedback
It’s Learning, Not Judgment
You’ll notice that you’re not asking, “Was this useful?” That question sets up a Yes/No answer, and it doesn’t actually prompt insight; it just elicits judgment. “What was most useful?” forces people to extract the value from the conversation.
It Reminds People How Useful You Are to Them
The Coaching Bookends: How to Start Fast & Finish Strong
With this question, you now complete the pair of questions known as the Coaching Bookends.
You start with the Kickstart Question: What’s on your mind?
That takes you quickly into a conversation that matters, rather than meandering through small talk or spinning your wheels on data that’s more distracting than it is useful.
As you look to complete your conversation, before everyone rushes for the door, you ask the Learning Question: What was most useful for you about this conversation?
Answering that question extracts what was useful, shares the wisdom and embeds the learning. If you want to enrich the conversation even further—and build a stronger relationship, too—tell people what you found to be most useful about the exchange. That equal exchange of information strengthens the social contract.

Use Every Channel to Ask a Question

Questions work just as well typed as they do spoken.
When I get an email that triggers the Advice Monster…
Writing out a long, thorough answer full of possible solutions, approaches and ideas, or even a short, terse answer with a single command…
Decide which one of the seven questions would be most appropriate, and ask that question by email. It could sound like:
“Wow, there’s a lot going on here. What’s the real challenge here for you, do you think?”
“I’ve scanned your email. In a sentence or two, what do you want?”
“Before I jump into a longer reply, let me ask you: What’s the real challenge here for you?”