Say Less & Ask More: A Conversation With Michael Bungay Stanier

We recently had the pleasure to sit down with acclaimed author and thought leader Michael Bungay Stanier to discuss his new book The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. The book is an invitation to business leaders everywhere to talk less and ask more questions in order to help others get to the root of their problems, and ultimately, overcome them. We had a few questions for Michael that we thought HR professionals could benefit from, and in his typical style, he offered valuable insights packed with wit and charm.

Below we’ve included some of our favorite excerpts from the interview. When you’re done here, go check out Michael’s new book and post a review of it on Amazon. As you’ll see in the fourth question (and answer), Michael is always eager for feedback. As should we all be.

BambooHR (BHR): In The Coaching Habit, a big theme throughout is keeping it simple: you endorse simple conversations and the use of seven simple questions. In our own work, we’ve seen a need for simplicity in performance management. But it’s something a lot of people struggle with. Why do you think businesspeople have such a hard time with simplicity?

Michael Bungay Stanier (MBS): There’s a quote from Oliver Holmes: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” There’s another quote that I love: “Things should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.” So, maybe there’s something about that. It actually takes a lot of work to keep stripping stuff down to go, “What’s essential here?”

One of the philosophies I had when I wrote the book is “What’s the shortest book I can write that would still be the most useful?” And it’s because it’s much easier to say yes than it is to say no. There’s a great quote from Steve Jobs. Focus is not about saying yes to stuff. “It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.” That’s strategy. Strategy is saying no to the stuff you want to say yes to. And it’s hard to say no.

Why do we over-complicate things? Well, because it’s actually hard to say no to stuff. Because when you say no to stuff, you’re saying no to someone. Whether that’s your boss or a colleague or just to yourself. You just say, “What the hell? I’ll just add this on … ‘cause I want to.” The discipline to say no is hard.

BHR: In the book you list seven questions that combine to develop the coaching habit. One of the questions you call the “AWE question”—or “and what else?”—and you say it’s the best coaching question in the world. Why is that the best question?

MBS: For two reasons. The first reason is it supercharges every other question that you’ve asked. So, what we need to know is that the first answer somebody gives you to a question is never their only answer, and it’s rarely their best answer. But because we’re in a hurry and because we’re excited when somebody gives us an answer, and because if their answer is comfortable, we can run with it.

We tend to accept that first answer as being the key thing. There’s a fundamental change of behavior we’re trying to create in this book, and in the programs that we have, to slow down the rush to action and stay curious just a little bit longer. What else? It gets more juice out of the question that you ask them.

The other reason it’s so powerful is that it is itself a great management tool because most managers and leaders I know are desperate to “add value” and they feel they do that by giving the answer, by jumping in, by offering solutions, by contributing at that level. And my belief is that sometimes that’s absolutely the right thing to be doing, but not nearly as often as everybody thinks.

So, asking “And what else?” is a self-management tool to stop you from jumping in and fixing it and solving it and sorting it out. If you’re asking the question, you’re not giving the answer. And that’s a powerful place to be.

BHR: What would you say to someone who legitimately struggles to hold back advice? It’s so hard not to be impulsive about that.

MBS: I would say welcome to humanity. You’re with 98 percent of people who have ever lived who like to give advice. So, that’s normal. We’ve been trained for most of our life to be that person.

The other thing I’d say is it takes practice. One of the insights into why it’s difficult is that giving the answer feels a lot better. Here’s what’s happening: When you’re giving the answer, you are the smart person in the room. You have high status. You’re the big man, right? You’re providing the answer. You’re also in control of the conversation. “I’m adding value, I’m wrapping it up, I’m moving it along the way I want.” So, even though your advice isn’t nearly as good as you think it is, and even though hardly anyone will listen to your advice even if it is good, it feels a good place to play because you feel in control. Everything’s clear.

When you ask a question, things get a lot more ambiguous because suddenly you go, “Was that a good question? Will they be able to answer it? What if they say something that’s crazy, and I don’t know how to respond to it? Where’s the conversation going now?” You’ve handed the control of the conversation to the other person. This is called empowerment. But the really annoying thing with empowerment is that you’re giving up power. It isn’t like there’s more power going around. You’re actually saying to them, “I’m going to give you the opportunity to run with this. I trust you on that.” And that’s hard.

That’s a very natural reaction, and the way you get better at it is you practice. It’s your own discomfort, and you sit there and go, “Oh man. I can just feel myself desperate to give the answer here.” Just take another couple of breaths and see how long you can wait.

BHR: The seventh and final question in Coaching Habit is to ask, “What was most useful for you [the colleague] during the conversation?” How did you come to include this question in the seven?

MBS: When I did my coach training—and that was 15 or 16 years ago—one of the things that I noticed really early on is great coaches had great questions and my notes from my coach training days are literally just lists of questions. And when I started being a coach, I was anxious and wasn’t that experienced at it; I just had post-it notes of questions all over my computer and all over my desk. I had my safety net of questions waiting for me.

So, I’ve been thinking about what questions were for a long time. It would have been easy enough for me to write a book, “Here’re the 270 Questions that Every Coach Should Be Aware Of”, and they all would have been good questions. But for me, I said, “Which ones seem to have the most impact, to make the most difference?”

Some years ago, I saw a writer, Peter Block. I saw him speak, and I was kind of waiting to touch the hem of his robe or get a book signed, and I was in the queue and the person in front of me went, “Oh, Peter, you were fantastic! I loved it! I love you!” And he went, “I appreciate that, but that’s not that useful for me to hear that. What was the most useful for you hear?” He forced the woman to move beyond the kind of bland “Ah, it’s amazing!” to what was really useful.

And the power of that question is it helps a person answering it get the “aha moment” that they would otherwise miss. People learn by reflecting on what just happened. But, really, what’s cool about asking the question is you get feedback about it as well. So, not only are you getting them to figure out what was valuable, but you’re getting them to tell you what was valuable.

BHR: Our audience is primarily HR professionals. What, specifically, would you say to them and how the lessons in this book can help them in their daily interactions?

MBS: The book is written with a nominal audience in mind—busy managers and leaders. And the person I’m thinking of is saying to themselves, “I like my job. I’m doing my best for myself. I’m doing my best for my team (if I have a team). But, honestly, sometimes it feels like I’m overwhelmed with my work. I’ve somehow created a team that’s a little bit dysfunctional. They’re a little bit too dependent on me; I keep giving them the answers. I might have lost that connection to the great work that actually has meaning to me.”

So, if you’re looking to increase your impact in the work that you do, but you’re also looking to create more meaning in your work—and impact and meaning for the people you lead—practicing and mastering some of the questions from the book will take you further down the path towards that.

BHR: You offer an interesting perspective on laziness. Can you talk a little bit about your philosophy on laziness in the workplace and how you came to it?

MBS: HR people are particularly desperate to help. Like, I’m desperate to open my veins and bleed out on the carpet in an attempt to make a difference here, so … One of the key morals at the heart of the book is the Karpman Drama Triangle. The drama triangle has its origins in transactional analysis (TA as it’s called), which is a slightly dated therapeutic model now. It speaks to adult-to-adult relationships and parent-child relationships, which is interesting, but never really works in organizational life—it’s too therapy-esqe.

But the drama triangle says when things get dysfunctional—and things get dysfunctional, everything gets dysfunctional—three roles play out. There’s the victim, the persecutor, and the rescuer. People can guess what those roles look like, feel like, how they show up. Also, what the pros and cons of each role are. But the price you pay for being a rescuer—and lots of HR people will identify that as the role they most often go with—is that, first of all, you perpetuate the drama triangle.

So, a rescuer creates victims. They create persecutors. So, as an HR person, as you keep trying to be useful, and you keep trying to be helpful, often, you’re your own worst enemy because you’re creating people who are overly dependent on you. And you get stuck doing all sorts of other people’s work for them, and rarely get a chance to focus on your work.

So, for me, this piece about being lazy is slowing down the rush to jump in and help. I’m not saying to not be helpful because that’s a really important part of everybody’s role in life, but what people tend to do—and HR people are probably more rather than less guilty in this—is they hear a conversation, and they’re like, “I know what’s needed, and I’m going to start that intervention. We won’t have a conversation about it. I won’t check it out with you; I’ve already begun the intervention. I’ve already called in the jets.”

We’re just trying to slow that down. So, the lazy question is: “How can I help?” And, of course, most people go, “I don’t want to ask that question because what am I about to find out?” And that’s the thing! You don’t have to do everything. You get to say, “No, I can’t do that.” Or “I can’t do that, but I can do this instead.” But, what asking, “How can I help?”—or a kind of blunter version is, “What do you want from me?”—what happens then is people are forced to make a clear request, so you act on that, rather than acting on what you think they need.

BHR: A lot of our readers will have read your previous book Do More Great Work. How would you compare The Coaching Habit with that book?

MBS: It’s lighter, and it’s colored blue rather than colored red. [laughs] Do More Great Work is really written for people to self-manage. It has 15 exercises that people can work through to find and start and sustain their great work. Good work is your job description, but great work is the work that has more impact and the work that has more meaning. Coaching Habit is a really powerful management and leadership tool to help people do more great work. There’s a connection for sure.

But it’s really about, “How do I help others get there?” And, “How do I help myself get there as well?” I mean, you can use these questions to coach yourself, but they’re really designed for you to say, “How do I be more coach-like in the way that I work with people?” And the reason we work together is to try to do a little more great work.

BHR: In Do More Great Work you say great work creates discomfort and uncertainty because it’s often challenging and highly important. Do you think this causes people to avoid doing great work and stick with mediocrity? What do you say to people who have a hard time moving past that discomfort?

MBS: See my previous answer about welcome to humanity. Sit down and practice. That’s what it boils down to. Of course, we like comfort. It’s nice to be in a familiar groove. A friend of mine, Mark Boden, told me that every choice you make has prizes and punishments. And what’s powerful is to understand the choices you’re making and how often and consistently you’re making those choices.

And secondly, it’s to make sure you understand the prices and the punishments of each. There are times when being comfortable is the right choice. You say, “This is what I need. It’s a harvesting year, or a harvesting month, or a harvesting moment where I go through the motions, and that’s great.” And there’s a sense that if all you do is that great work you stagnate a bit. You kind of hit a plateau and you no longer stretch towards your potential.

And one of the things that’s really powerful about asking questions is that when you ask a great question, people have that “aha moment” where you can see them struggling and try to figure out the answer. What you actually see in that moment of silence and reflection are new neural pathways being formed. New connections being made in people’s brains. So I think what’s really powerful about questions and group work is it’s literally a process for creating potential and increasing self-sufficiency in people.

But, it is uncomfortable. We have a choice. Do you want a comfortable, slightly stagnating life? Or do you want to figure out what the right mix is between good work and great work? Because you know from Do More Great Work, I don’t say, “To have a life do 100% great work,” because that’s when you kill over and have a heart attack. It’s unsustainable. The question you want to ask yourself is: “For me, now, what’s the best mix of my good work and my great work? And am I doing that right now?” And for most people, they’re going to be a little short on the amount of great work in their life.

For more information on Michael Bungay Stanier, and to learn more about his work, go to his website.