“When people come to you with a problem, usually the first thing they tell you isn’t the real problem. So, when you leap in immediately to give advice without stopping to ask more questions, chances are you’re actually giving under-informed advice that’s trying to solve the wrong problem.”
Michael Bungay Stanier is a trained and seasoned questioner, but he’s also a highly energising speaker. Leading a session in London last month on developing a coaching habit, the enthusiasm in the room on an otherwise grey Tuesday morning was palpable.
“I liked that Michael was coaching us to learn to coach,” said Glenda Taylor, Customer Operations GKA Lead at Shell, after the session, “he was actually being quite lazy.”
It’s a strange compliment to pay, as Michael readily admits. “People don’t like being told they’re lazy. They say hang on, we’re working really hard! I say, and how’s that working out for you? People are exhausted, they’re overwhelmed and have an over-dependant team, and the team are feeling stuck as well. So to be lazy is to stop trying to rush in and solve things for other people. Let them fix it for themselves.”
Michael’s mission is not to turn managers into coaches, but rather to give them a set of tools to help their team solve their own problems. It’s a refreshing take, and visibly made a strong impression on the room. And surprisingly, he argues that the key to developing strong coaching skills is primarily about self-management.
One image that particularly resonated with the audience was the Advice Monster. With the best intentions, the truth is that most of us struggle to listen without leaping to offer advice. The problem with this is that we’re usually not as well-informed as the person who’s actually in the predicament. This means that when we jump in with advice, we’re actually shutting down the possibility of gaining potentially valuable insights.
And this is the essence of why coaching is not just a ‘nice thing’ that managers can say they can do. Coaching is not just for working through the hard times with your team: it underpins the process of innovation as well. It’s about questioning to promote learnings that lead to change.
Accordingly, Michael is innovating around the way he delivers sessions too. A problem that he recognises as a facilitator is that people can walk out of the door after an amazing event and go back to work, and let all those learnings slip away. His challenge is to build in sustainability for lasting impact.
Michael’s company Box of Crayons has developed a text message-based solution: attendees of the event can sign up to receive texts three times a week over the following 108 days which will keep nudging them to be more coach-like. “I use the metaphor of drip irrigation versus a flash flood,” he explains. “If you want your crops to grow you need drip irrigation, and that’s what this text-based platform delivers.”
Glenda’s key takeaways from the session echoed this: “I don’t want coaching to be an addition to my job. I want to be a more coach-like person, to slow down and not jump to advice and action. Michael asked the right questions and created the right environment for us to learn.”
As Michael showed us, the real trick is to say less, and encourage others to think more: in other words, to be more lazy.