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The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier - Book Brief

Updated: Jan 29, 2023

Hello Talent Community! I hope you're faring well. I also hope you're staying curious and making time to read. There are such great books available that will arm you with quality tactics and new ideas for your work in talent development.

To that purpose, I aim to help you with application of key points from some of the books I am reading. That's what Book Briefs are all about. They offer talent development-specific application from business, leadership and sundry books. Not a review. Not a synopsis. A few bullets that you can apply to your daily Talent Dev life. You'll have to actually read the book for the full skinny, but let me help you out with ideas that you can use to make your Talent Dev work that little bit better.

This Book Brief is on The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever by Michael Bungay Stanier. I don't know what took me so long to clue into the greatness that is Michael Bungay Stanier. He's witty. He's light-hearted. He keeps things simple, and he's on point. He provides consulting and training at Box of Crayons and is a coaching expert. There's lots to appreciate about how Michael approaches business, talent dev and life.

In this Book Brief we'll take a look at three of the coaching questions Stanier encourages in The Coaching Habit and apply them to our role as Talent Advisors. These questions are a powerful 1 - 2 - 3 punch that you can use to elevate your coaching practices. As a leader I love them, because they help me be supportive of my team without telling them what to do or taking on their work. As a consultant I love them, because they help me be supportive of my customers without telling them what to do or taking on their work.

The Coaching Habit focuses in on… you guessed it, coaching skills. Whether coaching your team, peers, boss or customers, it centers on seven questions that get you out of the business of providing advice and ups your listening game.

It's a quick and impactful read. I especially like how at the end of each question he provides a guided walkthrough to visualize a familiar scenario and how you would apply the question series to support good habit creation. There are plenty of examples to help you apply the questions to a variety of situations.

Let's get to that powerful 1 - 2 - 3 punch I mentioned.

Punch 1… err, Question 1: The Kickstart Question - "What's on your mind?"

"What's on your mind?" (p 38) is an excellent question to begin any conversation in any situation. We forget our role as a coach is to ask questions. Just ask questions. Sure, there's a time for advice, but really our job is to ask questions that lead to self-discovery. I am not a certified coach, and really, I'm not all that great of a coach. I like to give advice and I find myself going there all too quickly. The 1 - 2 - 3 punch is exactly what I need to be learning and practicing. This first question opens up the conversation and puts the ball in your friend's or client's court. It starts the conversation off on the right topic - them.

Stanier goes on to suggest that once you've asked "What's on your mind?" you can narrow the focus of the discussion with one of the 3Ps: project, people or patterns (p 44).

  • Project focuses the discussion on content challenges

  • People focuses the discussion on colleagues, team members, partners, bosses, customers, etc.

  • Patterns focuses the discussion on personal behaviors

Any direction your friend takes is great; you're following along listening, being present and curious.

Punch 2: The AWE Question - "And what else?"

Not only does asking "What else?" urge your friend or client to keep talking and self-discovering, it cleverly keeps you from not talking - not offering advice.

"You have the best intentions to stay curious and ask a few good questions. But in the moment, just as you are moving to that better way of working, the Advice Monster leaps out of the darkness and hijacks the conversation. Before you realize what's happening, your mind is turned towards finding The Answer and you're leaping in to offer ideas, suggestions and recommended ways forward." (p 60).

Happens to me every time. Stanier calls this tendency the Advice Monster. You'll have to read the book to find out more about the sneaky Advice Monster.

One other great thing about this question (other than it AWEsomely helps you stay curious and quiet), you can keep asking it until you sense there really isn't something else your discussion partner has to share.

Punch 3: The Focus Question - "What's the real challenge here for you?"

The goal of "What's the real challenge here for you?" (p 84) is to determine the real issue underlying the answers to "What's on your mind?" or "And what else?". Have you noticed that when someone asks for your thoughts about a matter, you first have to get the "stuff" out of your head about it. Maybe emotions or tangents or noisy background? I had this situation the other day. My boss asked my opinion about how a project was going and I unloaded a stream of jumbled observations and feelings before getting to the synopsis of what I wanted to share. While I wished I'd been more succinct and worked through the observations and feelings before the question was asked, I also think they needed to be verbalized to clear out space for the material opinions. The Focus Question is an impactful third punch to cut through the noise the other questions may have elicited to solidify what truly should be addressed.

I will be practicing this combination of questions as I support my team members, customers and friends. And I'm hoping to report that my Advice Monster does not hijack the conversation and I do a better job of listening and supporting.

Your Next Steps

Stanier shares some excellent resources on The Coaching Habit website. Specifically, check out the video on How to Help Your Team Find Focus. It's an excellent overview of the concepts in the 1 - 2 - 3 punch of the first three questions in The Coaching Habit.

1 - 2 - 3 Punch Next Steps for You:

  1. Give these three questions a try the next time a customer, friend or peer approaches you about an issue. Tame that Advice Monster and tune in your listening skills.

  2. Buy the book and read it. It's a good investment of time.

  3. Leave us a comment on how this coaching approach worked for you and/or how you've fit these three questions into your role in talent development.

Keep reading and learning! I look forward to hearing how you apply Coach Stanier's advice to increase your talent impact.


Stanier, Michael Bungay. The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. Toronto, Canada: Box of Crayons Press. 2016.

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