These 7 Essential Questions will improve your relationships

Everyone is a coach — even you — although it may not say that on your nameplate. You may not have employees, and thus don’t need to coach them to be awesome, but you’re still a coach. You may not be a business coach like me and get paid to help people run an awesome business, but you’re still a coach. You may not have kids that need to grow up to be productive adults, but you’re still a coach.

At some point one of your friends, kids, colleagues, or that person at the coffee shop is going to ask you for some advice on something. While you can simply answer their question and get on with your coffee, that’s likely not the most effective way to help them through whatever challenge they’re facing.

Sure, in your eyes you may have given them an answer, but as the old saying goes:

You can give a man a fish and feed him for the day or you can teach him to fish and feed him for his lifetime.

Answering the immediate question may help, but doesn’t lead them through a process they can use to get the next answer to the next issue life throws their way. Asking good questions does that.

This is where a book like The Coaching Habit becomes useful. Its goal is to teach us the Seven Essential Questions to be good coaches, friends, bosses, and mentors. Using these questions will help us build a habit of coaching those we encounter.

When you build a coaching habit, you can more easily break out of three vicious circles that plague our workplaces: creating over dependence, getting overwhelmed and becoming disconnected.

After the first few introduction chapters which frame the discussion of the book, The Coaching Habit falls into a fairly predictable structure. Author Michael Bungay Stanier gives us the question to ask, expands on how to use it, and then walks us through a chapter that is a ‘master class’ on using the question.

The most interesting bit of the structure is the Master Class chapters, which don’t simply give us examples of how to use the questions in our day, they help us build a habit of asking the question by identifying the triggers that lead us to advice giving instead of question asking.

Here’s a short example of what a master class habit-building sequence looks like on the art of listening (versus jumping in with an answer yourself).

When this happens…
I ask a question.
Instead of…
Continuing to ask questions without waiting for answers because you have good questions.
I will…
Wait for the answer and say nothing until I’ve heard something.

Here he’s identifying the trigger (your question), your regular response (more questions), and your new action (just wait in silence). I highlight this one because I feel it has possibly the biggest impact for every relationship you encounter. It’s getting them comfortable with silence, which is a rare human commodity and yet such a crucial one. Learning to sit in silence instead of continually peppering someone with questions and comments and anecdotes is hard, but out of that will come the deep-down answers you were hoping for in a conversation. And the person sitting across from you will leave feeling like something magical happened. Because someone actually listened.

The change of behaviour at the heart of what this book is about is this: a little more asking people questions and a little less telling people what do to.

This book is all about changing your behaviour from one of advice-giving to one of question-asking and listening. If you’re ready to make that change from advice-giving to question-asking, here are the Seven Essential Questions Stanier says we need to ask.

Question 1: What’s on your mind?

One of the reasons managers don’t coach more often than they do is that they don’t know how to start.

This is where Stanier introduces the first question, “What’s on your mind?” The beauty of this question is that it’s a bit of a transition in your conversation. It’s a question that’s open ended and helps eliminate a chunk of the things you could say at the same time.

Say you start a meeting with an employee and two or three minutes in you’re still deep in ‘small talk’. While small talk is great and is needed to keep a personal connection between people on a team, it’s likely not the purpose of your meeting. By asking the question: “What’s on your mind?” you move the conversation from the easy small talk to the real reason you’re meeting with the employee.

With the base question asked, and with you sitting and listening first, you can focus on the 3P’s which are:

  1. The project side and any challenges with the content of the project.
  2. The people side and any challenges with the people.
  3. The patterns side, which addresses any places that you’re getting in your own way.

Again, these should come across as questions, not as statements of where you see problems. The goal is to walk those around you through the process of seeing the solutions themselves, because if they can see it, they’re much more likely to successfully execute on that solution.

Question 2: And what else?

I think this second question is the most powerful one presented in The Coaching Habit. It’s the most powerful one because it helps us to push past the base level question and the surface and into what is really on the mind of those around us.

In my experience, 90% of the time when someone has a problem the first thing they say is not really the problem. It’s something that’s a problem, but it’s a surface problem that’s easy to talk about. It’s not that deep thing they really want to talk about.

…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.

By asking ‘And what else?’ you’re giving them a chance to empty their brain and dive deeper each time you ask it. This question comes up as an add-on for almost every other question in the book and where it’s not specifically called out by Stanier, it can be added.

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.

Question 3: What’s the real challenge here for you?

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.

This is one of my favourite questions, and reminds me much of the content of the book Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. The focus of the book Boundaries is for you to set boundaries between yourself and the problems that others have. When my kids come to me and say they can’t find their favourite pants I say, “That does sound like a problem for you.” I’m acknowledging that it’s a problem, it’s just not my problem.

Then we work together to see how they can solve it. In our case it’s that they should put their clothes back in the proper drawers instead of randomly stuffing clothes in drawers to get a task done faster. Then they’d be able to find the clothes they want.

With the question here in The Coaching Habit, it’s all about asking them what the problem is there for them — not for every problem under the sun which Stanier calls the proliferation challenge. The proliferation challenge is when a person responds with a never-ending stream of any problem that could happen or is happening with a project.

By focusing on you it frames the boundaries to something they can deal with. Then they can work on developing a strategy to deal with the problem they have in front of them.

As the manager you’re making sure that you don’t move to the solution phase until you’ve correctly identified the problem. Then, you still don’t move to the solution phase. You let those you’re in charge of do that with the next question.

Question 4: What do you want?

The illusion that both parties to the conversation know what the other party wants is pervasive, and it sets the stage for plenty of frustrating exchanges.

Unfortunately many people just want to complain. They want to have problems and have others solve them. They don’t want to take charge of the issue. You need to push them to define the outcome they prefer for those items they’ve identified as problems for them.

The biggest hurdle to jump here is often a quick answer. They have a problem with Bob in accounting and their quick solution is that they never have to deal with Bob again. Well, that may not work if you need to report your financials to Bob monthly. So you use a variation of the ‘what else’ question and say “…and what do you really want?” or “…what else would be a good outcome here?”

With a local non-profit I coach, the chef was a great chef, but was terrible at running a business. His issue was that he had to run a profit as a catering company as well as running the buffet to serve the regulars, and he just always went over the income for a catering job. His initial solution was to drop the catering. Well, that’s not possible, so his second or third solution was to not have to deal with the books of the catering business and have someone give him a budget for each event.

Given the budget he could hit the budget, deliver awesome food and not deal with the business aspects he hated. He was happy again with his job and felt like he was succeeding, where before he felt like a failure because of the issues he had with the financials of the business.

If you can’t get a straight answer from them, then it’s time to be vulnerable to help get the conversation started. Tell them what the ideal solution is and ask them how that solution would work for them. Then dive deeper with some of the questions we’ve already covered to make sure that you’ve got to the bottom of how what you want would mean to them. Once you’ve been vulnerable it’s highly likely that the short, trite answers will cease and you’ll get some vulnerability in return, based on the trust you’ve shown.

Now as you’ve identified what those you’re in charge of want, it’s time to maybe step alongside and help them with the solution.

Question 5: How can I help?

The power of “How can I help?” is twofold. First, you’re forcing your colleague to make a direct and clear request. That may be useful to him. He might not be entirely sure why he started this conversation with you. Sure, he knows he wants something, but until you asked the question, he didn’t know that he wasn’t exactly clear on what he wanted. Unless he was, in which case the question is useful for you, because now you can decide whether you want to honour the request.

This is the no-waffling question — they must make a clear request and you need to answer that request. That doesn’t mean you have to help them in the exact way they’ve requested. You’re free to say “no” to the request or “yes” or “not right now” or “I can’t but how about …”

Remember, you want those around you to take charge of their problems so don’t jump in and be the saviour. Maybe be present for a phone call with that difficult client so that your employee has a numbers advantage, but don’t simply default to being the hero.

Question 6: If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?

This question is more complex than it sounds, which accounts for its potential. To begin with, you’re asking people to be clear and committed to their Yes. Too often, we kinda sorta half-heartedly agree to something, or more likely, there’s a complete misunderstanding in the room as to what’s been agreed to.

Each yes we say is a no to something else, which should be news to no one. When I say yes to a speaking engagement in the evening, I’m saying no to putting my kids to bed. Saying yes to a less-than-ideal client means that I don’t have space for the ideal client when they come along. It’s easy to fall into the trap of not thinking far enough ahead to recognize this. We default to yes and then see what happens.

This question needs to also be applied to the ‘How can I help?’ question. When you agree to be on the phone with the problem client, you’re saying no to any other activity during the call. To reframe the solution in light of what you may be saying no to, a great follow-up is, “What if you can only get part of the solution, which part would you like?”. This similarly applies to yourself as you ask how you can help and evaluate what you’re going to have to say no to by saying yes to helping.

Now, we wrap up our conversation with some more connection.

Question 7: What was most useful for you?

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. Conveniently, they want that as well.

One of the reasons managers and business owners never feel like they can step away from the office is that they’ve simply always provided direction without the WHY behind the decisions made. This has turned those people you manage into robots. Fully capable of following orders but not capable of taking initiative.

Once you can let go of that control freak nature, how do you get people to learn how to make the decisions you want on their own? According to Stanier it comes down to reflection.

They start learning, start creating new neural pathways, only when they have a chance to recall and reflect on what just happened.

In the context of this book it comes down to the seventh question, where you ask them what part of the conversation was the most useful for them. Not only does this provide them time to reflect on the conversation and build those new neural pathways, it gives you as a coach and leader great feedback that you can incorporate into your next meeting.

It also helps remind those around you how useful you are to them in their development because it reinforces their learning with your presence. That means that they’re going to come to you again when they’re struggling and feel like they need some insight. As a leader, you want this as the alternative to finding out about struggles long after it’s a big problem for the team.

Recommendation

As always the question is, should you read The Coaching Habit? Yes, you absolutely should because the questions are not just useful for those you manage, they’re useful for every relationship you have in your life.

I’ve used some of the questions when having particularly difficult talks with my wife, and they’ve opened up new areas in our conversation that needed to be out where we could address them. Adding these questions to your available bank of questions means you’re going to be a much stronger manager.

Get The Coaching Habit on Amazon

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