How everyone can use powerful coaching questions, with Michael Bungay Stanier

How everyone can use powerful coaching questions, with Michael Bungay Stanier

In this episode of Business Explained, I interview Michael Bungay Stanier, author of “The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More And Change The Way You Lead Forever.” We discuss how to use some truly powerful coaching questions to boost your ability to help others.


How would you know if you’re evil?

It’s almost Halloween, which means it’s time to confront our fears…

The Evil Queen stood in the doorway. The terrifying thing wasn’t the smoke rising from her hair, the sinister red glow emanating from her fingertips, or the half-eaten apple rolling on the ground beside the body of Snow White in the background; it was the look of naked vulnerability on her normally regal face. The source? The crumpled paper clutched in her right hand: the results of her 360-degree evaluation.

The Evil Queen doesn’t think of herself as evil. Neither does the Tasteless In-Law. They may always show up with the best of intentions, but they just don’t seem to “get” that bringing fireworks for the kids’ birthdays is just awkward. Or how about that yearly impression at the Thanksgiving dinner table that, in the words of Avenue Q, is “just a little bit racist?” They can’t fathom that some things are just … inappropriate.

Unfortunately, there are times in our lives where we’re probably the ones with cringe-worthy conversation, only everyone’s too polite to tell us. After all, those fireworks seemed like a perfectly appropriate gift for little 7-year-old Sydney. There’s one way to know if we’re That Inappropriate Person, however, and it’s the scariest thing we can do: ask.

Approach a friend, family member, or colleague. Simple ask, “I want to be the best friend possible. Can you tell me how I’m doing? Please be honest. What can I do better?” If they have hard feedback to hear, it’s probably just as hard for them to say, so take it well! Write it down, smile, and say “Thank you.”

Realize that other people see us differently than we see ourselves. You may think you’re a Superhero fighting for Good, but the people around you find you a bit more of a Monarch of Evil. By finding and closing the gap, you can bring yourself closer to making the outside you match the Superhero You.

So get moving! Use the answers! Read over the list of feedback. Choose one thing to change, and for 90 days, change that one thing. Then when you’ve mastered it, go on to the next thing (trying to accomplish all the goals on the list at once is just too much). Then ask again, to find out if you’ve made the change.

This even works for the Evil Queen. She’s learning. She’s decided to lay off the poison apples and put her efforts into doing good deeds, like finding homes for orphans. She says there’s a gingerbread house just beyond the stream that is happy to take as many orphans as she can send over. It isn’t perfect, but it’s progress.

The Right Conversation will Get You What You Want

If you want to change your life, how do you do it? I used to think it was hard. Then I realized that most of the opportunities in life have come through one simple activity: talking to people…about stuff. Who you talk to, and what you talk about, ends up building your reputation, and gets people thinking of you in ways that lead to new opportunities.

You don’t always have the power to talk to the right people, but you always have the power to talk about the stuff you think is important. Once you start talking about what you care about, you quickly find the other people who care, too.

People Will Self-Select

Start by changing the conversation with your current group of friends and colleagues. They’ll make it clear really quickly if they’re the wrong audience.

A mid-50s postal clerk called for career coaching. She’s close to retirement. In her spare time, she’s designed a low-cost, easy-to-assemble housing unit she believes could revolutionize third world housing. Her co-workers all pooh-pooh her idea: “You should realize you’re just a postal clerk with delusions of grandeur. At your age, you should just be thinking about retirement.”

Those weren’t the people to talk to. Talking to me was a good next step. I don’t have third-world housing connections, but I know people who do and can refer her. She changed her conversation and is already getting closer to people who can help realize her dream.

Jump on Opportunities

Be on the looking during the conversation, and pounce on opportunities as they arise. Last year, I was going through career angst. The only things that seemed exciting: theater and saving the world. Sadly, theater is tough to make pay, and there weren’t any save-the-world job openings on Craigslist.

I was talking with my friend Jason about my desire to save the world. Lo and behold, he had just been tasked with the job of … creating a conference to save the world! Hosted by MIT, the SOLVE conference would convene movers and shakers, technologists and policy makers, and be about initiating real action to solve world problems.

I immediately asked to get involved. I presented my ideas to the SOLVE team, and was given an invitation as an attendee to SOLVE 1.0. Will SOLVE be the right vehicle for me? Who knows. But one way or another, it introduces me to a new community to talk to, who share my concerns and aspirations. And therein lies opportunity.

Change Your Life

Now it’s your turn to change your life by talking to people … about stuff:

  1. What change do you want to make in your life?
  2. When you’ve made the change, who will you be talking to? About what?
  3. If you can reach those people directly, pick up the phone.
  4. Otherwise, start having the right conversations, and let people guide you to the right audience.
  5. If you run out of people and still haven’t found your tribe, try Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, etc.

Targeted Ads are the Worst of all Possible Worlds

The justification used for the incredible invasions of privacy on the part of the internet marketers of the world is that they want to serve us “targeted” ads. Targeted ads are ads that relate to what we’re doing at the moment. Theoretically, if I’m having a discussion about how my child is dying from kidney failure, that’s exactly the moment when I’ll feet eternally grateful to be shown an ad for how to overcome that embarrassing middle aged male incontinence issue.

All joking aside, targeted ads seem worse to me than random ads, even aside from the privacy violations. I am online to get things done (sometimes work things, sometimes social). I am rarely online to buy things, and when I am, I know it.

A “targeted” ad has a much higher probability of successfully distracting me into a purchase experience and completely derailing what I’m trying to do. An untargeted ad, though distracting, is much easier to ignore and far less of a drain on my productivity.

Perhaps if I intrinsically valued purchasing things, I’d welcome targeted ads. But I don’t intrinsically value buying things.

So on the very rare occasions I’m in buying mode, targeted ads are a good thing. But in the rest of my life, which is 99% of the time, targeted ads are downright destructive.

Don’t accidentally say f**k you to your customers!

T-mobile is using the tune of the song F**k You by Cee Lo Green in their latest radio ads. They apparently missed the part of psychology where people recall the words to songs. They sing about how you should switch to T-mobile, which doesn’t require a contract.

Their intent is for you to break up with your current carrier. But communication doesn’t work that way. When we communicate, our audience hears … whatever our audience hears. Anyone who’s ever said to their shmoopie, “would you please pick up your socks?” knows that an innocent question can be heard as an attack on someone’s entire identity1.

Here’s how communication really works: I get my audience to think “f**k you” by listening to a song whose tune makes those lyrics come to mind. Then the lyrics say “T-Mobile” over and over. When my audience hears is “f**k you, T-Mobile.” Over and over. I seriously doubt that was their intent.

When you’re designing ads, public speeches, or even just carrying on a conversation, pay attention to the words you use. Choose words carefully, so they have the greatest chance of unambiguously conveying just the message you want to come across. And if you’re talking to your shmoopie, the only safe words are “yes, dear.” Use them often.

  1. For those of you not yet in relationships, the question “would you please pick up your socks?” is heard as “You are an ignorant slob who doesn’t deserve to live.” A much better way to say the same thing is to say, “Shmoopie? I’m cleaning the apartment. Where would you like me to put your socks?”