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Book review: The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, and Change the Way You Lead Forever

Tony Yang

 

Coaching is arguably one of the most essential skills leaders can use to successfully develop others, yet many seldom do. And even when they try, they struggle to coach effectively. The author attempts to simplify coaching by offering “seven essential questions”:

  1. Get straight to the point in any conversation with “the Kickstart Question”: What is on your mind?
  2. Stay on track during any interaction with “the Awe Question”: And what else?
  3. Get to the heart of any interpersonal or external challenge with “the Focus Question”: What’s the real challenge here for you?
  4. Understand the basis for any adult relationship with “the Foundation Question”: What do you want?
  5. Save hours of time for yourself with “the Lazy Question”: How can I help?
  6. Save hours of time for others with “the Strategic Question”: If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?
  7. Ensure that your coaching is mutually beneficial with “the Learning Question”: What was most useful for you?

Through these questions—with practical tips and entertaining anecdotes weaved in—Stanier elevates the concept of coaching from a skill to a way of thinking, an attitude, a day-to-day approach to working with people—a coaching habit. “The change of behavior at the heart of what this book is about is this: a little more asking people questions and a little less telling people what to do” (17).

This is contrary to many management theories of leadership commonly applied in business and often based on reward and punishment: “Do what I say, and you’ll be rewarded. Ignore what I say, and you’ll be punished.” Many organizations outside of business—even ministries—are using this approach in an attempt to get results. This book, however, advocates a different approach that mirrors participative theories, which include others in the decision-making process by welcoming and encouraging their input.

Rather than focusing a conversation on a selfish agenda or motive, this coaching habit “invites people to get to the heart of the matter and share what’s most important to them. You’re not telling them or guiding them. You’re showing them the trust and granting them the autonomy to make the choice for themselves” (39, emphasis added).

If leadership is a shared process— not one person controlling or coercing others; but a community conversation that leads to decentralized power and decision-making—what would happen if leaders were to truly “say less and ask more”? “It increases the sense of tribeiness, 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” (123).

The author suggests that many leaders are guilty of desiring control in very subtle ways when they have the urge to be what he calls the “Advice Monster.” Leaders who “say less and ask more,” on the other hand, seek to empower others to think of the answers and solutions themselves rather than to control the outcome.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in working more effectively with others. The concept of “saying less and asking more” can be applied to just about any organizational setting, especially in a coaching relationship (“the coaching habit”). By applying the principles in the book, the “coach”— supervisor, manager, boss, mentor, pastor, elder, parent, insert your title here—shifts the focus away from performance and starts to address development. The dialogue is less about the issues and more about the person dealing with the issues. “This conversation is more rare and significantly more powerful” because it calls others “forward to learn, improve and grow, rather than on just getting something sorted out” (40).

What would leadership look like if it focused less on the tasks and more on empowering the people in charge of those tasks? The author suggests that the results would be a positive shift toward greater engagement and productivity.

—Tony Yang, MBA, MDiv in progress, is a pastor and an author and serves as director of enrollment and strategic marketing at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

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