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Interview with Michael Bungay Stanier, Author of The Coaching Habit

Interview with Michael Bungay Stanier, Author of The Coaching Habit

In this interview, you'll hear who Michael is influenced by, how to balance advice giving while coaching and how think about different coaching business models.


Michael, can you introduce yourself?

If anybody knows me at all, it might be for a book — The Coaching Habit. It came out about six years ago and it's become just this big book in the world of coaching, selling over a million copies.

Which was a surprise because it's self-published after getting rejected by real publishers a bunch of times. I put out some other books since then and I founded a company called Box of Crayons, which teaches practical coaching skills to managers and leaders in big companies, helping organizations move from advice driven to curiosity led.

And about three years ago, I started a company called which is more about helping individuals be a force for change — giving them the courage, ambition and community to make a difference.

People read a lot of abstract stuff about coaching, but they never really reveal how a coaching session happens. The Coaching Habit is the opposite, it’s highly practical.
Can you get into what the 7 Essential Coaching Questions are and why they’re important?

The Coaching Habit, was trying to “un-weird” coaching. I know a lot of people here are coaches, so they're not weirded by it at all.

For me, coaching is a really powerful technology of change, and yet I've always felt that it ran the danger of being a slightly exclusionary, smug, self-centered thing — we've got the magic, you don't have the magic.

So I wrote the book to demystify it and to understand the power of staying curious a little bit longer by asking a good question or two.

It ended up with 7 core questions that will get you a long way down the path a lot of the time, but not every time. And of course, they’re not the only helpful questions.

So you've got the first and the seventh question, which I think of as the bookend questions. You start a conversation with, “What's on your mind?” and finish a conversation by saying, “Hey, what was most useful or valuable here for you?”

Then you've got the focus questions, “What's the real challenge here for you?” and “What else, and what else?”, “So what's the real challenge here for you.”

Then you've got the foundation. I use less often, but it's really good for landing a conversation. If you're feeling a bit stuck in you're kind of circling, “What do you want?”, “What do you really want?” and, “What else do you want?”

Then there's the lazy question (paradoxically called), “How can I help?”, “What you want from me?” That's designed to stop those of us who are wired to be helpful from leaping in and offering.

And then finally the strategy question, which talks about choice and makes the consequences of choice clear. “If I'm going to say yes to this, what must I say no to?”

And that's the seven questions. And if you can take a crack at bringing some of those into your everyday conversations, it's going to build, I think, deeper and more resilient relationships.

With the advice trap, I struggle with this personally as a second-time CEO coaching first-time CEOs.That balance between I know what the job is and I don't tell them exactly how to solve it — how do you manage that?

I have a mantra.

And this is how I think of coaching, which is this, can I stay curious a little bit longer?

Can I rush to action and advice giving a little bit more slowly?

It doesn't exclude advice-giving because honestly, the reason people are hiring you to be a coach is because they want to hear some of your stories and see some of your scars.

You have some guidance and expertise, but you are more empowering and your advice is more powerful and more useful, if you just take a little longer before you offer it up.

Instead, you take a little bit longer to figure out what the real problem is. And actually you are perceived as adding more value because one of the things that people love in a coaching conversation is just the space to sit and stop and think and be listened to. That's a rare gear.


Can you give some advice to people that are trying to figure out their business model? Whether they should sell directly to individuals (B2C) or sell to organizations (B2B)?

There's a guy who's marking advice I follow is called Don Miller. He wrote a book called StoryBrand and, one of the things that I learned from Don was how people buy.

Your ability to sell to anybody, whether it's B2C or B2B as an individual client is what's their problem and what's your medicine.

One of the mistakes, I think a lot of people make when they market coaching is that they don't market a solution to a problem. Coaching is just a means to an end, you've got to fix something.

And honestly, people don't actually care how you do it. Not really. They just care that the thing that is a pain for them, stops being a pain for them.

Specific to B2B, organizations prefer to buy from a single vendor rather than having 8,000 coaches on their books and they're going, you know what, it's more professional, better procurement, better legal, better consistency and the single brand and stuff.

So I would say if you're a life coach and you're going, how do I get some business clients? One of the possibilities is going to a company like Better Up or some of the other aggregators of coaches and going, can I be on your ride?

To do that, to be attracted to them, you have to figure out what your story is, what would you bring to their roster that will allow them to go, I've got a great coach for you, for prospective clients.

And regardless of which model, often word of mouth will help tremendously. So go find your first friend of a friend and say, can I set up a client conversation with you so I can build experience and I can build stories and I can figure out who my right client is.

Who are you influenced by then? Who are the people that you feel like, I've really learned a lot from these people.

If I had to give you one name, it would be a guy called Peter Block. Peter is probably in his seventies now and he wrote a book that was really significant in the 1980s called Flawless Consulting, and it's a great book.

As a consultant, you think your clients are hiring you for advice, but actually, you're there to help your clients figure out solutions.

At the end of your project, when you're doing your presentation, your presentation should take about 30% of the time and the rest should be open to conversation. He has a foundational principle: curiosity and shared ownership.

Peter block is influenced by a guy called Ed Shein. Ed is also an 80 year old dude who was at MIT for a long time. Very well-known around culture and how culture works in organizations, his latest book is called Humble Inquiry.

It’s all very similar, which is: you've got to stay curious before you move to help.

So I'd say Ed Shein and Peter Block are two names that I keep coming back to as big, big shadows.

What’s the next framework that you’re working on? What problem are you excited by?

The next framework, the problem I'm trying to solve is, how do you build the best possible working relationship with somebody in your working life?

Whether it's coach to client or manager to employee or vice versa in any of those.

Sometimes you have good people, sometimes you have complicated people and in your past you sometimes have really great working relationships where you're like my God, we were on fire.

That person brought out the best in me. And then you have other managers or leaders where you’re like, you just suck the life out of me.

I don't know how you did it, but you and I have a bad fit.

And my question is, how do you build the best possible relationship with that person?

All of my books have this kind of practicality to them in a way of going, how do I translate some theory into action so that it will be a way of setting up strong relationships that are more resilient, more repairable and flourish.

Catch the full interview below:

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