Asking More Questions

Michael Bungay Stanier starts one of the chapters in his book The Coaching Habit with a quote from Jonas Salk, “What people think of as the moment of discovery is really the discovery of the question.” This quote is fitting because Bungay Stanier’s premise in The Coaching Habit is that as coaches we too often focus on giving orders, directing people, telling others what should be done, giving advice, or filling up all the meeting time doing the talking. What he suggests we should do more of as coaches is let other people talk while we focus on asking more questions and listening. The job of the coach, in his view, is to get the individual speaking and to constantly ask further probing questions.

Asking more questions is not just about constantly asking why or how come. It is about listening to the individual and getting them to describe the situation more fully to identify what they believe they could have done differently in a given situation to get a better outcome. The individual you are working with is the expert in their life, even if they don’t know it. You, no matter how well you know the other person, are not truly an expert in their life and any advice or direction that you provide will necessarily be short sighted and leave out important factors.

I recently read Robin Hanson’s The Elephant In The Brain in which he argues that much of human behavior is guided by motivations and agendas that we keep secret, even to ourselves. Our behaviors are shaped by goals and desires that we don’t necessarily want to share with others because they are self-serving and potentially break with social norms. If we assume that everyone is acting based on self-interest and hidden motivations at least part of the time, then we have to assume that as coaches we don’t always know the best answer to another’s problem. If we are coaching and working with someone, we can ask questions that get them to think about their true motivations and build self-awareness. It would be defeating to try to force and individual to state their hidden motive, so we should not question it too relentlessly, but we should help kick start the other person’s introspection.

Ultimately, asking questions helps you and the other person better understand themselves. You giving advice does not help the other person because it is advice and direction coming from your limited perspective. A better approach is to ask questions that help expand the scope of consideration and perception for the other person. Your answers are incomplete and don’t lead to growth and development, whereas probing questions force the other person to be more considerate and help them grow and improve future behaviors.

Advertisements

What Coaching Does

Michael Bungay Stanier explains why coaching is such a positive force for those receiving coaching, and why we should invest more of our time and effort into learning to be a great coach. He writes, “Coaching can fuel the courage to step out beyond the comfortable and familiar, can help people learn from their experiences and can literally and metaphorically increase and help fulfill a person’s potential.” The three areas he identifies in which coaching makes an impact on our life are key to growth and development and are some of the hardest areas in life to harness and improve.

 

Bungay Stanier’s book, The Coaching Habit, demonstrates ways to develop other people and outlines the benefits that coaches, teams, and individuals receive from good coaching. As I wrote before, it is not just the individual who benefits from good coaching, but also the coach who develops a stronger team and is able to empower the individual to do and take on more. Good coaching maximizes the individual and helps them take what are often scary steps toward improvement.

 

When I think about the three areas that Bungay Stanier identifies in good coaching, I think about how anyone becomes successful and how often as individuals we fail to take big steps toward our goals and fail to learn from our experiences. Research has shown that many people, particularly people of color, do not actually apply their talents to the best of their ability and do not step out to take on new and larger roles for themselves. I study political science and one of things that researches have found is that there are many good candidates out there from minority populations, but that many of them never think they have a chance and never run for office. A simple invitation and a little coaching to encourage political participation makes a big difference in terms of who runs for office and who steps out of their comfort zone to try running for office. Simply on our own it is hard to step forward and drive toward the things we want when the future is muddy and complicated.

 

I think we also fail to learn well from our experiences. It is not that we are ignorant, self-centered, and think we are flawless, but rather that life is busy and distracting, and pausing to think critically of an event from our past is hard to do. As Bungay Stanier explains, good coaches ask more questions than they provide answers, and their questions are often reflective in nature. Good coaches encourage us to think about our experiences in a way that we normally would not, and they help us make new connections and discoveries from the things we have done and experienced. Encouraging us to take chances and helping us think more critically about our past is what allows us to unlock our potential, and it is why good coaching is so valuable and should be practiced by more people.

Professional Coaching – Its About Them!

I am not currently in a leadership position in my career and I am not currently doing any real long-term coaching in either my career or with colleagues, friends, students, or interns. Nevertheless, Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit, has been helpful for me when thinking about professional growth and development. In the future I expect to be in leadership positions and to have the opportunity to work with people in a coaching capacity. In addition to gaining insight into how I can be a good coach, the book has also helped me learn how to be coachable so that my coaches be successful.

 

Bungay Stanier focuses on aspects of coaching that we often get wrong and fail to approach in the most constructive manner. I think for many people, particularly men in the business world, the kinds of images that come to mind when think about coaches are sports figures like Bill Bilechick (representing the genius strategist who knows how to pull the right levers for success) or Bobby Knight (representing the relentless enthusiast who has a drive that won’t stop or let anything stand in the way of good performances). Bungay Stanier however, has a vision of good coaching that is less about the coach, and marabout helping the individual become the best version of themselves. The first step in Bungay Stanier’s coaching vision, is not lever pulling or inspiring, but more of door opening and aligning. Regarding a successful coaching mindset he writes, “Building a coaching habit will help your team be more self-sufficient by increasing their autonomy and sense of mastery.”

 

Good coaching empowers those who you lead and opens doors for them to think creatively, take on new challenges, and grow and develop with new skills in new situations. The coach in this view is not absent, but the focus of the relationship and coaching is on the individual being coached and not on the skills, strategies, and demonstrations of the coach. Bungay Stanier’s successful coaching relationship gives authority and autonomy to the individual so that they can become independent and grow in the direction that makes sense for them.

 

Coaches who make the coaching relationship about themselves find that they absorb responsibility themselves and create dependent followers rather than more talented teams. Coaches who don’t empower but instead create dependence ultimately end up with poor outcomes, “Everyone loses momentum and motivation. The more you help your people, the more they seem to need your help. The more they need your help, the more time you spend helping them.” Empowering by placing the individual at the center and giving them the guidance necessary to develop skills allows coaches to do more and be more impactful than if the relationship is about the coach.

The Essence of Coaching

While I was working on my undergraduate degree at the University of Nevada I spent some time coaching cross country and track and field at Reno High School. I really enjoyed coaching and had a great time working with the runners, helping them compete for state championships, and compete at their best. What I never really asked myself, however, is what I thought coaching was all about.

I tried to be a good role model for the kids and show them how to work hard and improve their running, but I never thought deeply about what my role as a coach should be. In his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier takes a deep look at coaching (mostly from a professional workplace standpoint rather than a sports standpoint) to understand what coaching is truly all about. “The essence of coaching,” writes Stanier, “lies in helping others and unlocking their potential.” A coach is committed to being helpful and focusing on helping others become the best version of themselves that they can be. This is something I think I understood at an intuitive level, but I never really stepped back to think about my role as a coach in this way, and it certainly was not at the front of my mind ever day when I arrived at practice.

Coaching was partly a way for me to continue getting good workouts in with people I enjoyed. It was partly about me demonstrating something positive about myself in terms of leadership, loyalty to the school form which I graduated, and my ability to serve as a positive role model. These hidden motives were not the only drivers of my coaching decision, I really did enjoy working as part of a team toward a big goal and I appreciated having the chance to help our head coach and help our athletes improve and push themselves. But I am certain that I would have developed a different coaching style if every day before practice I through to myself “the essence of coaching lies in helping others and unlocking their potential.” Everything from my conversations, to how I participated in workouts, and to who I spoke with at practice would have shifted as I tried to unlock the most potential in the most kids.

I don’t think I was a poor coach because I partly participated for my own hidden motives (hidden even to myself). But I certainly don’t think I was the best coach I could have been, and that is because I lacked self-awareness and my coaching focus was not dialed in on what is the most essential element of coaching. What coaches must remember is that while they benefit personally and may have hidden motives of their own, coaching needs to be about another person and about unlocking greater potential in the world.

Writing, Physics, Inspiration, and Life

One of Amanda Gefter’s favorite physicists was John Wheeler, and in her book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, Gefter quotes him numerous times and describes the impact that Wheeler had on her life. What made Wheeler different from other physicists, what entranced Gefter with his work, was his often poetic way of describing the universe and interpreting what the mathematics of the universe told us. In a world of complex physics, daunting mathematics, and mind bending conclusions, Wheeler’s voice cut through with simplicity and his poetic style was elegant yet clear and inviting.

 

One part of Gefter’s book describes a trip she took with her father to Philadelphia to look over Wheeler’s old notebooks after he passed away in 2008. At the American Philosophical Society, Gefter and her father poured over his old notebooks, studying his thoughts, the progression of his studies, and analyzing the conclusions he reached along the way. One of his annotations in a notebook was included in Gefter’s book, and I think it does an excellent job illuminating Wheeler’s poetic style and what it was that drew Gefter to his writing, speaking, and way of describing science.

 

“Still,” Gefter writes, “Wheeler was lost. ‘Not seeing a dramatic clear path ahead,’ he wrote. ‘Now have concluded just have to push in through the undergrowth. ‘Traveler, there are no paths. Paths are made by walking.’”

 

In his personal notebook, describing what appeared to be a dead end in his research, Wheeler turned to a phrase we have probably heard before, but probably not in our science classes. Wheeler was pushing the edge of scientific thought, and he had come to a point where he could no longer rely on the research of others to show him the path forward. The quote was used to describe propositions, yes/no or true/false statements about some reality. Wheeler, like Gefter years later, was searching for some truth to the universe that was not observer dependent, that did not need to change or adjust based on a observer’s position, speed, or quantum composition. Propositions seemed to be a place to start, but even there, the dreaded sentence, “this sentence is false” seemed to break even propositions and seemed to pull apart any basic form of reality.

 

Altogether this short section from Gefter, the lessons she shared about Wheeler, and the scientific challenge which served as the genesis for Wheeler’s note teach us a few things. Often times we want a dramatically clear choice in our life, but for each of us, the path has not been made. We must push through the undergrowth of life, creating our own  path as we go. We must abandon expectations of how things should be and how things ought to turn out for us, because there is no solid truth that we march toward. We are not pushing forward in the universe and in our lives to an inherently perfect and true destiny. The reality we find as we cut through the undergrowth is as observer dependent as gravity and time. How we choose to see it depends on our reference frame, and our reference frame is something we have some choice in. And while we are using that choice, we can be boring, stuffy, and self pitying, or we can be inventive, flourishing, and excited for the new discoveries that know will lie ahead of us.

The Vague and Distant Goals of School

In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats addresses the struggles that young black men growing up in impoverished neighborhoods face in the street, and also in the classroom. Growing up, Coats dealt with fear and insecurity which created an atmosphere of anxiety and stress that was not alleviated at school or in the classroom. Part of his struggle had to do with the challenges of seeing the benefits of school and how the learning strategies and control of the classroom failed to inspire him.
We like to imagine that our schools operate in a way that inspires ever child and encourages every child to grow, expand, and become a better version of who they can be, but not every child has this experience. It is foolish for us to think that every child will have the same experience and that every child will succeed in any given school environment. The human mind is incredibly varied and with different backgrounds, skills, an abilities, we react differently to different environments. We have too many children in schools to be able to customize an individual education for each child, so any system we implement will necessarily not resonate with some kids. Unfortunately for Coats and many other black students, our education system did not connect with him, and racial discrimination creeped into his school experience. The system that Coats found himself within as a school child failed to inspire him and instaed reiterated the idea that being poor and a minority in our country was a bad thing.
Not having the right cultural understanding when entering school can put a child far behind and cause teachers and other adults to look down on the child and his or her family. When students are not culturally aligned and adults avoid them because they are different, we isolate those children and find a way to tell them that their education is not really important. We also set up a system where a lack of parental involvement leads to a failure of children to fully participate and engage in their schooling, which can frustrate children and teachers. Beyond this frustration, we evaluate our teachers in a standard model that does not seem to fit well with low income students and families, driving the cycle of disappointed teachers and the doubling down on the negative imagery of the poor minority child.
In his book Coats writes, “the laws of the schools were aimed at something distant and vague. What did it mean to as our elders told us, ‘grow up and be somebody’? And what precisely did this have to do with an education rendered as rote discipline?” His cultural experiences did not align with the education he was being provided and the distant future he was told to work toward was never clear and never something he could see. Without role models, without inclusive visions of success, we shut young people out and tell them to strive toward something that they are never meant to reach. When education does not align with the way our children think and the actual skills needed to grow and develop in our world today, we are telling them to run toward success, but we are not giving them a map and we are not giving them the things they need to run quickly and smoothly.

Cory Booker on Cynicism

Being Cynical is easy. Being Cynical is also dangerous and damaging. Toward the end of his book United Senator Cory Booker reflects on the cynical state of politics and society today, and what it means for individuals and for the nation to be as cynical as we are today. Booker writes, “cynicism about America’s current state of affairs is ultimately a form of surrender; a toxic state of mind that perpetuates the notion that we don’t have the power to make a difference, that things will never change.” When we don’t take action to be involved in our city, when our knowledge of politics (or anything else) is only cursory, and when we fall into a habit of not looking beyond our own perspective, we begin to think everyone is like us, and we accept the easy cynical story. Booker, in United, challenges inaction, challenges cynicism, and challenges the idea that only bad people are involved in how government and society operates.

 

I study Public Administration at the University of Nevada, Reno and it has forced me to focus on the realities of government, which is that there are a limited number of resources available for society, and somehow we must decide who gets what, when, and how. Any time you think about the way the world operates and begin to consider the world, the word ‘should’ undoubtedly pops up, indicating that you are making a judgement statement about your beliefs of the world. I don’t use belief in the religious sense of the word, your opinion and worldview could be shaped and reformed by objective empirical data to a large degree, but ‘should’ indicates political preference, ideology, and what you think would work best for an individual or collection of individuals in a situation. The important thing about the word “should” is that there is almost never 100% clear evidence that the suggestion following it is the only answer. When dealing with limited resources we must make political decisions, meaning that we must write down our “should” and our perspectives influence how we decide what is the most important.

 

Cynicism fails to recognize what is happening when the word “should” is introduced into discussion. It assumes there is an easy answer, and assumes that resources are not constrained and that we do not have to make difficult decisions that undoubtably give some people more resources or access to resources than others. When we allow ourselves to be cynical we are looking at a shell of any given situation and seeing what we want to see. We look for the negative and criticize what is in front of us. Being cynical is not about finding the errors and problems in a given situation and looking for a solution. Instead it is about propping ourselves up and placing ourselves on the right side of a moral divide, in much the same way that we use outrage to feel better about ourselves.

 

Booker is critical of cynicism, arguing that it takes our power away from us when we need to take more action on our own. Rather than recognize that we can band together to improve the world, cynicism looks at the status quo and assumes that we cannot make a difference. It is the result of what Tyler Cowen calls the “Complacent Class” that does not want to put in the effort and focus needed to make a change in the world. Cynicism allows “should” statements to exist in isolation within the brain, never challenged by new facts, and never actually introduced to the world. When we allow ourselves to be cynical we accept complacency when the world needs action and initiative. Cynicism is self-perpetuating, and fighting it off is a struggle, but if we want to grow individually, and if we want to see the world improve, we must understand that our world view will always be incomplete, that other people will have different motivations and will make mistakes, and that it is only by our actions that we can change the world for the better, even if our actions will be infinitesimally small in the course of history.