January 25, 2022
In one of my Agile Training courses for leaders, a participant recommended the book The Coaching Habit; Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever by Michael Bungay Stanier. I was excited because I feel that coaching is an area that all of us can benefit from. In particular, I think that coaching is a superpower for leaders of agile teams and those that want to encourage the growth and development of their own people.
So I downloaded the audiobook which was only about 4 hours in length. Later I ordered the hardcopy of the book as well.
Overall I felt like the book was great. It was shorter than I expected. I guess that is good – not a lot of extra or filler material. It is really just focused on building the habit of coaching effectively. And it is focused on managers. It will help you if you are an agile coach but I don’t think it would be in my top 5 recommended agile books for Agile Coaches.[See my related blog post about Coaching, Using Inception as an Agile Coaching Tool]
Read in for what I considered the top 10 Takeaways from the book.
#1 – Coaching is a Habit – I found it really helpful to think of coaching as a habit. For many of us, myself included, we have established other patterns for interacting with others including the not-so-effective habit of giving advice. So seeing it as a habit was helpful – it is a pattern that I can change.
Like all habits, you need to practice it to become effective. You need to understand the existing settings and triggers that you need to interrupt in order to substitute this new behavior.
#2 – Leaders Who Don’t Coach Well Wind Up Busy and Resentful – Prior to reading this book I didn’t connect the dots on this but managers that don’t coach well, wind up solving problems for others and taking on work that others can and should do. It is the hard path!
The easier path is to learn how to coach well. This will result in work being owned by the person who should be doing the work and not by the manager or leader who consistently fails at coaching.
When I reflected on those areas where I felt most resentful, I could take ownership for the fact that I wasn’t coaching well. I was often agreeing to do things that should’ve been done by others. Being resentful can serve as a red flag for me to change this behavior.
#3 – Coaching is About Questions – I already knew this but the book reinforced the idea that to coach effectively, you need to ask questions. The book organizes those into 7 categories of questions:
I won’t go through all these questions in this post – you can read the book after all. But I will talk about the first two questions.
#4 – Start Strong with the Kickstart Question – “What’s on Your Mind?” – This is the first of the 7 powerful coaching questions. An alternative phrasing is “Where should we begin”, or, “where is the best place for us to begin?”
This question encourages the coachee to pick the best place to start the conversation. It helps put the ownership for the coaching conversation in the right place and avoids the coaching discussion turning into an interrogation.
By the way, I liked that the author provided alternative phrasings for the questions. This allowed me to tailor my approach and avoid sounding scripted.
#5 – Follow Up with AWE or “And What Else?” – The follow-up question serves as a 1-2 punch. And What Else prompts the coachee to go further and deeper. They will be encouraged to share something that they may have held back.
It also provides a breather so that the coach doesn’t jump in and start trying to solve problems or give advice. Speaking less and listening more is one of the keys to effective coaching!
#6 – Ask One Question at a Time – This may not even need to be said but coaches should ask only one question at a time and then stop, shut up, and listen.
Sure there are 7 questions to use in a coaching discussion but that doesn’t mean you need to ask all of them. You certainly don’t want to ask all in a row.
#7 – You Don’t Have to Immediately Agree to Help – This was a great tip. When coaching someone and they ask you to do something, you can pause or delay long enough to avoid doing that work.
This delay is critical for those of us who love to think of ourselves as helpful. Many of us who simply can’t resist helping others. I often feel compelled to say YES on the spot rather than asking more questions or saying, “let me think about it”.
Helping is not as altruistic as it may seem. Stanier refers to work done by MIT Stanford Fellow Edgar Schein which exposes the ugly truth about helping others – it puts us up and them in a one-down position. Help is not really what is needed or effective in most situations
#8 – Use the Videos and other Resources from Box of Crayons – An added value of the book are the supporting videos. Stanier’s company, Box of Crayons, produced a series of short videos that accompany and enrich the book. They take the content further and help reinforce the learning. It’s free and you can register here: http://thecoachinghabit.com/videos
#9 – Build Habits with a Habit App – Coaching is a habit. Duh! I know you know that. The point is, habits are difficult to start and stop. If you are not coaching well today it is probably because you are in the habit of giving advice, rather than asking questions. As most of us do.
Stanier mentions in the book that he used an App to build habits. (He actually said he has 3 habit apps). Eureka! I downloaded the iPhone App called “Habit” and have been using it ever since. I am all about stats and numbers and the app helps me to stay on track. I am sure there are other options available wherever you get your apps from. I have found it helpful for coaching habits and I also use it to track daily journaling, stretching and exercise.
#10 – Don’t Forget the Drama Triangle – I learned about the drama triangle in my personal growth counseling years ago. It is a powerful lens for looking at interactions with others. I even wrote about it in this related post, Using the Drama Triangle for Agile Coaching.
The key to the drama triangle is in understanding the 3 roles humans play in the triangle – victim, persecutor and rescuer – and how we play them all the time. They serve as a clue that something is not right and provide us insights into what we should do next.
Overall this was a great, short, focused book. It will help anyone involved in leading and working with others to shift away from advice-giving to asking questions.
Though a great book for coaches and leaders, I don’t think it will make the top 5 Best Agile Books list. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this book and any others you think will be helpful.