Coaching: Speaking Is Silver, Asking Is Golden

Forget about guiding your employees with good advice. Instead, ask them the right questions.

"The essence of coaching is to help others liberate their potential." That's beautifully said by Michael Bungay Stanier. But how do I achieve this goal?

Talk Less, Ask More

In his book "The Coaching Habit," respected coaching expert and thought leader Bungay Stanier outlines a simple way to do this. He encourages leaders to talk less and instead ask seven key questions. This gets to the heart of a matter and can coach a person in ten minutes or less.

1. Break the Ice: The Kick-start Question

"Small talk can be a great way to warm up, but it's rarely the segue that leads to meaningful conversation," writes Michael Bungy Stanier. For him, an apt way to start a conversation that leads to a real conversation is to ask, "What's on your mind right now?"

"By being open-ended, this question invites people to get to the heart of the matter and share what is particularly important to them," says Bungay Stanier.

To find out what aspect is at the core of a difficulty, you can focus the conversation on several things:

  • The content of a situation,
  • people, or
  • behavioral patterns and ways of working.

2. Gain Information and Options: The Magic Question

"More options can lead to better decisions," Michael Bungay Stanier is convinced. He therefore finds the question "And what else?" the best of all coaching questions. If you ask it, you get a lot of additional important information – and better options. You also gain time and curb your reflex to give advice.

"The challenge your employees are talking about is probably not the real challenge you have to work with."

Michael Bungay Stanier Coaching Expert

If you ultimately get the answer, "That's all," then you've achieved your goal with the magic question.

3. Solve the Right Problem: The Focus Question

"The challenge your employees are talking about is probably not the real challenge you have to work with," Michael Bungay Stanier often notes. People are easily lured into talking about side issues. For example, talking about a symptom or a secondary issue instead of the main issue.

If you want to know what's really bothering your counterpart, you need to ask the question, "What's your real challenge here?" This will allow you to uncover and discuss the real problem.

4. Get to the Core: The Fundamental Question

"The illusion that both sides of the conversation know what the other wants is widespread, and it's at the root of many frustrating interactions." Because this is so, Michael Bungay Stanier suggests finding out what need is behind a request from a co-worker.

The question to do this is as simple as it gets: "What do you want?" It's a powerful question that provokes a powerful response.

Because a coaching conversation always involves two, Bungay Stanier recommends asking the question not only of others, but also of yourself.

5. Finding out of Useless Roles: The Comfortable Question

According to Michael Bungay Stanier, we constantly play one of these roles in our daily work lives:

  • Victim ("My life here is hard, I'm being treated unfairly")
  • Accuser ("I'm surrounded by idiots and fools")
  • Rescuer ("Let me take over and fix it").

One of these roles may be particularly pronounced in you. However, we all switch back and forth in roles depending on the situation. To get out of this "drama triangle," Bungay Stanier recommends asking, "How can I help?" It forces your counterpart to make a clear request.

"The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do."

Michael Porter Economist

Perhaps even more valuable, the question keeps you from thinking like a typical rescuer: that you know how to help. Instead, you let your interlocutor make suggestions.

6. Gain Clarity: The Strategic Question

Michael Bungay Stanier likes Michael Porter's definition of "strategy": "The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do." It led him to formulate the coaching question, "If you say yes to this, what are you saying no to?"

By doing this, you're asking your counterpart to be clear and decisive about a yes, not half-hearted. The no sets clear limits to the yes.

As with question 1, you can also focus on the content of a situation, on people or on behavioral patterns and ways of working.

7 Achieving a Lasting Effect: The Learning Question

You obviously want your coaching conversation to have a lasting impact. People don't learn by you telling them something, Michael Bungay Stanier knows. They don't even learn by doing something. But rather, "when they have the opportunity to remember and reflect on what just happened."

You can give your coachees the opportunity to do this with the question, "What was most useful to you?" When you ask this question and they have to articulate the answer themselves, their recall rate increases significantly. You'll also learn what was most useful about your coaching.

What You also Need to Consider

In order for your coaching to be successful with the seven core questions, keep these two important points in mind:

  • Ask only one question at a time.
  • Once you have asked the question, wait calmly and patiently for the answer. This may take time. Don't let this tempt you to add one or more questions.

You will find many more useful tips for your coaching using the seven questions in the book "The Coaching Habit" by Michael Bungay Stanier. Employees Switzerland wishes you much success!


Hansjörg Schmid

Hansjörg Schmid