What's on your mind? (and six other useful questions)

The art of asking good questions. That's one way to sum up coaching. Another way would be the art of listening. And yet, for many people coaching is a bit of a nebulous concept. A bit HR-y. Something you might learn a smattering of on a training course and then promptly forget.

I am a huge fan of coaching. But, like many things, practising coaching is a habit that must be formed through repetition and discipline. I think the effort is worth it.


The power of coaching

I was reminded of its power today while cooking my soup and listening to Brene Brown's podcast - Dare To Lead - with author of The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier. What I love about Michael's book is that he boils down coaching into seven essential questions. The first one being 'what's on your mind?'


In our lives, be it at home with our family, at work, or with friends, we rarely spend time really enquiring into someone's thoughts. To really understand what they might be struggling with, before jumping into advice mode. We LOVE to give advice. It makes us feel helpful. If it's at work it makes us feel useful and important, and that we have something to offer.


But, that attitude is so limiting. We've all been in meetings where only a couple of people talk, sucking all the air out of the room, when there are other people bursting with ideas and potential going unheard. And we've all been in situations where people leap into problem-solving mode without taking time to fully understand the problem at hand.


Curiosity and reflection go out of the window. New ideas are stymied. People's confidence goes unnurtured.


What coaching did for me

But asking a question like 'what's on your mind?' and letting someone expand, uninterrupted, is powerful. Then following up with another simple question suggested by Michael Bungay Stanier 'what else?' This recognises that the immediate challenge you are presented with may not be the real root of the problem. 'What else' allows us to peel back the layers, to what's going on underneath the surface.


Last year I spent a couple of months learning coaching skills with the MOE Foundation. I immediately put my newfound skills to work with someone I had been mentoring. Suddenly the conversation we were having changed gear. One of the most striking things was that using coaching techniques put all the power and accountability in the hands of the mentee. As I coached her she had space to work out what it was she wanted to change, and ways she could take action. My job was to ask questions, listen, and reflect back to her what I was hearing.


Taking on a coaching mindset makes you a better listener, and it grows your empathetic muscles. It unlocks people's potential in a very short space of time because it forces them to focus on what's important to them and how to work towards it.


During my coaching training I had the pleasure of being coached by my buddy on the course, the exceptional leader and youth coach, Amani Simpson. It was like discovering a secret sauce. During the summer I did the course I launched my portrait photography business, something I'd been fantasising about for many years. Not only that but I got several paying clients within the first couple of months after being encouraged by my coach to raise my ambition levels.


Everyone should be a coach

I believe everyone in organisations should learn how to do it and be incentivised to practice it because it opens up so many more possibilities and so much creativity. If we listen more, reflect more deeply and consider a wider variety of options BEFORE acting, then we come up with better ideas and, crucially, build deeper and better functioning relationships as we do so.


We've probably all had experiences working in organisations where we spent a lot of time listening, with people much older than us telling us what we should do, or leaving us to ourselves to figure it out. Working with people that don't seem to realise the enormous talent in their teams, that lies unnoticed because they never think to ask. It's frustrating, often extremely boring, and keeps unhelpful power dynamics in play where those with the most influence are always the most visible and audible.


Powerful questions for your back pocket

Let me share the full seven coaching questions from The Coaching Method that I was first introduced to by the folk at Enrol Yourself, pionners in peer-led learning who clearly understand the benefits of this approach:


  1. What's on your mind? (the kick off question)

  2. What else?

  3. What's the real challenge here for you? (the focus question)

  4. What do you want? (the foundation question)

  5. How can I help? (the lazy question)

  6. If you say yes to this, what must you say no to? (the strategic question)

  7. What was most useful here for you? (the learning question)

It's even possible to coach yourself. I LOVE question 6 - 'if you say yes to this, what must you say no to?' As someone who loves new things, starting projects, inserting fingers into pies, it pays to remember that by saying yes to one thing you are implicitly saying no to something else. Often that means saying no to downtime, to the underrated but essential evenings chilling out to some low-key Netflix fodder. Or having time to cook something that didn't begin its life in the freezer.


So, next time someone approaches you to discuss something, resist the urge to advise. If you only pick two questions, make them 'what's on your mind' and 'what else.' Keep digging and see what comes up. And ask them what they think they should do. You may be surprised at the results.