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.

Laziness Expands to the Maximum

Are you lazy? How lazy? I think technology is giving us opportunities to take laziness to an entirely new level!

I remember life before the Internet took over. Many things have changed. Now we can buy stuff online. We can watch movies and TV shows on our computer instead of our TV, when we want them. And we have access to an incredible wealth of the world’s information by simply visiting a search engine like and typing a few keywords. We can store infinite photos in our iPhones. We can use templates to quickly create presentations and reports. All that automation should be freeing us up to get smarter than ever. But that isn’t my experience.

Our brains take shortcuts. For example, it’s hard to know if someone is competent. So research shows that we interpret confidence as competence. Our brain substitutes the easy decision for the hard decision. We aren’t even aware of this consciously, however. That’s why certain professions wear suits—to give clients the knee-jerk impression of competence, even if none exists.

In the last two days, I’ve had a few younger people demonstrate a remarkable laziness factor. Whereas someone in my generation wouldn’t look something up because it involved going to a library or calling a reference librarian on the phone, these younger people tell me they did a web search and couldn’t find the information they need. So they stopped trying. Without an answer delivered up instantly, even in the age of the Web, kids who have never known anything else get stopped in their tracks the instant their preferred method requires extra effort.

Of course, if it’s happening to them, it’s probably happening to me, too. Where once I wouldn’t have minded picking up the phone and calling someone to arrange a meeting, now it’s just easier—and lazier—to send them a million emails, even though objectively, it’s far less efficient. That’s because my new standard is twitching a finger and clicking a mouse button. By comparison, lifting a phone to my ear is a huge amount of work.

Be on the lookout! In the long run, our in-the-moment laziness may seriously hamper our ability to get big-stuff-done. Our brains are substituting the question “is this easy to do right this instant?” for the question “will this make reaching my overall goal any easier?” And it’s the latter question—the one our brain skimps on—that is most important. It’s the one that will help you reach you goals.

Want to change yourself? Change the system.

While reading “The Lucifer Effect,” it’s becoming increasingly clear how much of behavior is a product of situations and systems. I think that coaches and psychological change agents are missing this piece, big-time.

I have many people tell me that “if a person just gets clear on their big passion, they’ll make the change they need to make.” Or if they “just have an inspiring vision,” that’s enough. And yet that simply hasn’t been my experience. People go to a change agent, come back all pumped up, and six weeks later are back where they started.

(Besides, do you want a surgeon who has passion, or a surgeon who has training? There really is more to life than just having passion. Indeed, there’s research that says passion often comes from doing something you don’t like and growing to like it.)

Yes, not having an internal change will often keep you stuck. If you sabotage yourself at every turn, you’ll be stuck wherever you are. But my new opinion is internal change only works if it gets you into action. But not just any action; action needs to help create a new situation or new system that will support the new identity or new vision, or the change will eventually die out.

You don’t hear that side of the story, though. When a change agent fails with a client, they don’t trumpet the failure from the mountaintops and examine what happened in detail, to find out if their (the change agents’) models of change are insufficient. And the clients who don’t change don’t trumpet the story for obvious reasons.

My new formula:
change = change in mindset (identity, role) + change in actions + change in systems

In my NLP training and my coach training, identity has been considered a powerful shaper of behavior change. And it is, it just turns out that Situation and System can be even more powerful than identity. It also turns out that identity is shaped by behavior, even if the behavior is undertaken for neutral reasons1.

The Power to Change



  • Changing a system or a situation is the most powerful creator of change, because it forces behavior to change.
  • Changing behavior is the next most powerful, when done in a way that reshapes identity.
  • Changing identity is the least most powerful of the three, but still very powerful, because it can provide intrinsic motivation which can lead someone to change their action and their systems.

  1. see the Social Psychology literature on “commitment and consistency,” in which small behavioral changes produce identity changes. 

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.