Habit tip: What's on your mind?

coaching Sep 08, 2022

How to be an effective coach?

An effective coach is directive only when it comes to applying good processes or utilizing effective tools, but never when it comes to providing solutions or making decisions for their coachee. This opening question gets you off to a good start by allowing others to set the focus for the conversation.



Why is it important?

Michael Bungay Stanier is the author of The Coaching Habit, and recently ranked by Thinkers50 as one of the top 8 coaches in the world. According to him, a lot of leaders have trouble with coaching and one of the reasons why is that development-focused conversations can seem forced or awkward, and they rarely get off to a good start. 

When people start to feel uncomfortable, they tend to default to their comfort-zone, which in many cases pushes them back into their role of expert, manager, or solution-provider. They shy away from a more exploratory coaching mindset, and go with what feels most natural, implicitly framing the interaction in terms of output and obligations with a content-related question, something like "So how's that big project going? What are you working on?" In "The Coaching Habit," Stanier talks about the importance of simple, clear, and direct questions in coaching. In his experience (and ours) the ultimate kickstart question is “What’s on your mind?” The reason it works so well is that it's open, and it feels natural. It says to the person, “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on for you?” and sets a tone that helps them feel encouraged to do so. You’re giving them the autonomy, the self-sufficiency, and the empowerment to make their own choice.

What is it, exactly?

In the words of executive coach Marshall Goldsmith, "You’re not saying to them, tell me anything, or tell me everything, you’re saying, what are you worried about? What are you anxious about? What are you excited about? What’s waking you up at five o’clock in the morning? Let’s go somewhere important, somewhere that matters, because time is short. I don’t have a whole bunch of time for a coaching conversation. I’d like to be able to coach you in 10 minutes or less. So, let’s get into it, and let’s get into it fast. What’s on your mind?" Feel free to change the specific wording of the question if you need to, but make sure it captures this essence of open curiosity and excitement.

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