As Bill Gates himself says: Everybody needs a coach.
Professional sports are a great example. These elite athletes are literally the best in the world at what they do--but they still need guidance to reach their full potential.
The same is true in business, and even in our personal lives: A little outside perspective goes a long way. If you're responsible to lead a team, refining your coaching skills is vital to developing your people.
But what practice can immediately and drastically improve those skills?
You need to ask more questions.
Why Questions Matter
Why are questions so important to great coaching, and in turn, great leadership?
Think about it: Most of the time, we are in the best position to solve our own problems. We know the most about the situation and context. We simply need a little guidance or a push at the right time to help us figure it out, and then, to execute.
It works the same way for those you are trying to lead.
The inherent value of questions is that they prompt the other person to think. When an individual is trying to solve a problem, it's easy to get lost in the myriad of details. But good questions help provide focus.
The answers to those questions can also give equip the coach with information he or she needs to offer proper guidance.
The Big Four
So, what questions should you ask?
In his new book, The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, & Change the Way You Lead Forever, author Michael Bungay Stanier outlines a framework that is extremely useful when coaching through questions.
Here are my favorites of the questions he recommends:
1. What's on your mind?
Bungay Stanier calls this "the kickstart question"--a fail-safe way to start a chat that quickly turns into a real conversation.
"Because it's open," says Bungay Stanier, "it invites people to...share what's 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."
"It's a question that says, Let's talk about the thing that matters most."
2. And what else?
Bungay Stanier calls this simple, three word question "the best coaching question in the world". "With seemingly no effort," he says, "it creates more wisdom, more insights, more self-awareness, and more possibilities."
What makes this question so great is that it leads to more options...and often, better options. Better options lead to better decisions. And better decisions lead to greater success.
Additionally, "And what else?" keeps us from offering advice before we understand the full issue at hand, or necessary context.
In the author's words, it helps us "tame the advice monster".
3. What's the real challenge here for you?
This question helps slow down the rush to action, so that you and your partner spend time solving the real problem, as opposed to the first problem.
Whereas many questions fall into the trap of being too vague or abstract, this question provides focus. Sure, there are a number of challenges to deal with...but let's concentrate on the one that matters most.
Additionally, phrasing the question this way keeps it personal and centered on the person you're trying to help.
4. What...? (as opposed to "why")
Bungay Stanier acknowledges there's a place for asking "Why?" in organizational life. But he insists that place is "not while you're in a focused conversation with the people you're managing."
Depending on your tone, "Why" can easily put others on the defensive. Additionally, it can imply that you're seeking details because you want to "fix the problem".
Try reframing your "why" questions as "what" questions.
For example, instead of "Why did you do that?", ask "What were you hoping for here?" Instead of "Why did you think this was a good idea?" ask "What made you choose this course of action?"
These subtle changes can mean the difference between getting your partner to open up, and be more receptive.
The Next Steps
Having studied the theme of how to use questions effectively for a number of years, I enjoyed a lot about this book. Bungay Stanier explores more along these lines, including how you can use questions to determine the needs behind an individual's wants, and how careful listening shapes which direction a conversation takes--and which questions to ask next.
The important thing to remember is this:
Like any skill, learning to ask the right questions requires practice. But as you get better, you'll increase your ability to lead, coach, and guide others.
Work to build a "culture of coaching" in your organization, and you'll see the benefits of talking less--and asking more.