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Michael Bungay Stanier: Be Lazy, Be Curious, Be Often — Transcript

This week's episode of Simplify sees Caitlin dive into the secrets of great coaching with Michael Bungay Stanier. Read the transcript here!
by Natallia Darozhkina | Nov 30 2017

Ben Schuman-Stoler: Welcome to Simplify. I’m Ben Schuman-Stoler.

Caitlin Schiller: And I’m Caitlin Schiller. Simplify is for anybody who’s taken a closer look at their habits, their happiness, their relationships, or their health, and thought there’s got to be a better way to do this.

Ben: In today’s episode, Caitlin talks to Michael Bungay Stanier, coach and listener. I have to say, I’m not the biggest consumer of management, leadership/coaching books. When I hear “coaching” I think of Arsene Wenger or Phil Jackson. But I read Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit a few years back and I have to say that it really stuck with me.

Caitlin: I’m really glad to hear that because I really enjoyed the conversation. I think that’ll stick with me, too.

Ben: I mean, I don’t know how it is for everybody, but for me, the leaders that I have really enjoyed working with over my career is… they’re teachers, they’re cheerleaders. They’ve made me better.

Caitlin: Yeah. Well, being able to ask the right questions – whether that’s in a role of a teacher or a leader, or just to cheer you on – is such a powerful thing.

Ben: Yeah. And I think this is a really good topic for Simplify because there are so many books out there about this. And I’m really excited for today because I think you guys in the interview you take us through coaching, you simplify coaching via a few questions and approaches.

Caitlin: Exactly, and Michael has this really smooth approach. You can tell that he’s built his coaching systems at his organization — which is called Box of Crayons, by the way — over many years and lots of iterations –

Ben: And it’s really cool to see the effect they have on you actually.

Caitlin: Right, he did a little ninja coaching on me. Alright, so let’s get into it. Don’t forget to stick around after the interview, because we will make a book list for anybody who wants to go deeper into coaching and more.

Ben: Alright then, here’s Caitlin Schiller and Michael Bungay Stanier.

Michael Bungay Stanier

Caitlin Interviews Michael Bungay Stanier

Caitlin: Hi Michael. Thanks so much for coming on the podcast. Could you introduce yourself, please?

Michael Bungay Stanier: Sure. So I am Michael Bungay Stanier. I am the founder and I guess, CEO of Box of Crayons, which is a training company based in Toronto, where we teach ten minute coaching, so busy managers can lead stronger teams and have better results. And I’m also the author of a bunch of books. The most recent, and the one that’s done the best, is called The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead‎ Forever. And I’ve got a bunch of other things out there as well.

CS: Great. Thank you. So, to start us off, what’s on your mind?

MBS: I know what you’re doing there. And for what is worth – you’re not the first person who’s done that. But that’s good. And for the folks who are listening in, and going “What are they talking about?!”, The Coaching Habit book says, “Here are the seven questions you need to be more coach-like, more effective as a manager and a leader, and the very first one is “What’s on your mind?” So, perfect.

CS: OK, so then let’s just dive right into it. What is a coaching habit? How is coaching applicable in business and not on a basketball court? Can you just talk a little bit about that?

MBS: Sure. So, it’s a great question, because it’s already drawing distinctions, and pointing to one of the key challenges about this kind of conversation about coaching, which is: Everybody’s heard of coaching, but there’s like a thousand different versions of it. There’s life coaching, there’s sports coaching, there’s executive coaching. But our focus and my focus I guess is actually supporting people who are managers, who are leaders, who are doing their best to run a team, or just work and engage with people around them.

And in my context, in that particular context, coaching is a leadership tool, it’s a leadership behavior. And what it means to me, the snappiest definition I’ve got for it is simply: can you stay curious a little bit longer, and can you rush to action and advice giving just a little bit more slowly. So curious longer, action, and advice-giving more slowly.

Because it turns out that most people are advice-giving maniacs. Like, they love to tell people what to do. And it also turns out that in general, advice-giving is an overdeveloped and less effective way of managing and leading than you might think.

CS: Why is that?

MBS: Well, there’s a number of different things. I mean honestly, there’s times when advice-giving is exactly the right thing to do. I mean, Caitlin, if you come into my office, virtual office, and you go: “Hey, Michael! Where do I find the file?” It’s terrible for me to go: “So Caitlin how are you feeling about the file?” You know, that’s not useful. So, it’s important people hear that I’m not saying “Never give advice”. But here’s why you should move to advice-giving more slowly.

The first is, most of the time you don’t really know what the challenge is. We get seduced into thinking that the first thing somebody tells you is the real challenge and the thing that needs to be solved. So, you’re too quickly solving the wrong challenge.

Secondly, honestly, people’s advice isn’t nearly as good as they think it is. So often now you’re offering up slightly crappy advice to solve the wrong problem.

And thirdly, even if you’ve got the right problem and your advice is amazing, there’s a dynamic that’s playing out: you’re training the people you’re leading and managing and influencing to come to you for advice, rather than helping them become more self-sufficient, more confident, more competent, more capable, more able to work by themselves.

CS: OK, so it’s creating a more self-sufficient… minion, basically, who is not a minion at all but a self-sustaining force who makes good decisions.

MBS: Yeah.

CS: Can we go back to that question, the very first question that I asked you – which was pretty loaded – “What’s on your mind?” — Why is that such a good question to start a coaching session with?

MBS: Right. So our belief is that, in organizational life, if you can’t coach somebody in 10 minutes or less, you probably don’t have time to coach. Because there’s a lot of research out there that says one of the big barriers to people being more coach-like is that they’re like, “Have you seen my inbox? Have you seen my meetings schedule? Have you seen my to-do list? Who has time for this coaching stuff?” And the answer is, none of us do.

Not if you think that coaching is a kind of formal sit-down-“let’s have a 45-minute conversation about your life”. You know, typically we don’t have time to be able to do that consistently, regularly and effectively with the people with whom we work. So, if you buy into this, if you buy into the fact that if coaching is going to work it has to be fast and it has to be an everyday part of how you work. Then you’ve got to figure out how to get into the interesting conversations more quickly.

And I bet most of the folks listening here have been in those conversations where you really want to help, but you’re 20 minutes into the conversation and you’re like, “What are we talking about? Now, where’s the juice here?” You want to get into the juice of the conversation fast and “What’s on your mind?” has a couple of things that make it work. The first is, you’re giving them the choice. And, rather than you rushing in to do the thing, fix the thing, suggest the thing, you’re saying “You do the work here”. So, that’s the first part of it. But you’re not saying to them “OK, talk to me about anything”. You’re saying, tell me, talk to me. Let’s get to the conversation about the thing that is most exciting for you, or most worrying for you, most waking you up at 4 o’clock in the morning for you. Let’s go there.

If you go “Look, I know you’re doing a lot, but of everything that you’re tackling at the moment – what’s on your mind?” And I can promise you, you’re going to get into a more interesting conversation much more quickly.

CS: It seems to me that that’s a really vulnerable conversation, or the question can open it into a really vulnerable place.

MBS: Yeah, it could. But what’s nice about this is that the person on the receiving end of the question has the choice about what they talk about. You’re like “What’s on your mind?” And you give them the choice to go where they want to go. Now what you hope, as a leader, is that as the relationship develops, as they build trust, as you build intimacy, they’re more and more willing to talk about the stuff that might be more and more vulnerable for them.

CS: Alright, so there’s a lot of research out there that says that we need time to really make a change. And anecdotally, people who do it for a living often say that the best interviews happen, when you have time to let the conversation kind of flow and find its own organic paths. And then even from a psychological standpoint, attachment theory would dictate that you need time to be with a coach in order to really gain their trust and let you change them. So, then my question, given all of this, is 10 minutes really enough?

MBS: That’s a really nice question. And the answer is: if it was a one-off ten-minute conversation – probably not.

But the three principles that we have around our approach to coaching are these: be lazy, be curious, be often.

Now “be lazy,” which you’ve kind of hinted at, which is, stop doing all the work for them. Stop jumping in and fixing it and solving it for them. Let them do that work. “Be curious”, we’ve spoken to as well, which is about recognizing that you’re wired to leap in with advice, suggestions, opinions, solutions. And slow down the rush to give advice. And then “be often” is to recognize that every interaction can be a bit more coach-like.

You remember, be curious a little bit longer – rush to action or advice a little bit more slowly. So, you know, in a conversation, a formal conversation, a walk down the hall conversation, an email, a text, or an IM, you can lead with curiosity. And we’re not necessarily asking people to go “OK, now tell me about your traumatic childhood. We’ve only got like 6 minutes on this one, so make it snappy”. This is mostly about focusing on making progress on the work that needs to be done.

But – and this a bit of coaching jargon – we’re trying to think about coaching for performance and coaching for development. Coaching for performance is kind of getting stuff done, and a big part of the questions are about making progress on the stuff that needs to be worked on. But coaching for development is about developing the person who’s doing the stuff. And what you want is both of those things to happen. And even in a fast conversation, you can help people gain insights about themselves and about the situation that leads to that increase in, you know, autonomy, confidence, competence, all of those things we talked about before.

CS: Right. So, what would you say is the central sort of competency of a person who is a good coach? What are some skills that they need to work on, say, you would need to work on in order to effectively coach me, or I would need to work on in myself to coach someone else well? What are some skills people can build?

MBS: Yeah, you know it’s a really juicy question. And it’s an endless quest to become better at this. But for most people there are some really basic starting points, which is, can you practice being curious a little bit longer? Which honestly boils down to, look, get three or four or seven questions and make them part of your repertoire. Make them part of your day-to-day way of working. And if you do that alone your progress towards being more coach-like will be immense.

Now, once you’ve got the seven questions and you’re like committed to ask, you know, “What’s on your mind?” or “What’s the real challenge here for you?” or “What do you want?” – those are all questions from the book – then there’s things you can refine around that, so like learning how to ask a question more powerfully. You know, it’s like, stop with the long lead-in to the question, don’t ask 17 questions all at once and kind of shoot the person down in a drive-by-questioning-incident. Actually, once you’ve asked the question, stop and listen to the answer, rather than worry about what the next question is, that you should be asking. And you’re so busy listening to your own head that you fail to listen to them.

You know, those are all powerful ways to make sure your questions land and are asked in the most powerful way. But a starting point is around, “What are my questions and how can I just build a good habit around asking them?”. And if you get that down – and I bet you have a ton of people listening who feel that they have got that down, which is great –
then there is always more work to do.

And I reckon there’s work in the big things and the small things. The small things are kind of technical, they’re about being more precise about your language. They’re being more courageous around asking the same question more than once to try and get a deeper answer around that. There’s ways of how you kind of physically position yourself if you’re in the same room as the person in terms of having that conversation which can help.

But the deeper things are about, you know, physician heal thyself: Who am I? What drives me? How do I increase my presence? How do I increase my compassion? How to increase my generosity? And that’s the work of a lifetime.

CS: Indeed. So, you say that you are helping people become more coach-like. What is the opposite of being coach-like? What do you see people doing, expending energy on when they want to coach people that they really don’t need to be doing?

MBS: Yeah. Well, interesting question. I haven’t been asked it quite like that before. I think the opposite of coach-like is for most of us business as usual, which is, you know, not being lazy, not being curious, not being consistent and persistent around asking questions. So, the opposite of be lazy, be curious, be often.

So, most of us, because of time pressure, because of training; because of the expectation that if you’re at this level you should be the one with the answers; because of the expectation that the most useful thing I can do is tell the person what they should be doing, we’ve got some very deep habits that we’re trying to shift.

And that’s why in the book, in fact, Caitlin, we start talking about habits as the first chapter. Because it’s all well and good to know the questions, but as many people have said, we typically don’t have a knowing problem, we have a doing problem. So, that’s why we start with this habit piece. Because we’re like, what we care about here is behavior change, not “do you have a list of questions in your head.”

CS: Aha, ok. So, knowing problem vs. doing problem is like saying, easier said than done.

MBS: Yeah. Exactly. Ask people about coaching, ask people about questions – and a ton of people go, “Yeah. Coaching is good” and “Oh yeah, I know some good coaching questions”. Figure out whether they actually do that – not so much.

CS: You know what struck me when you were asking these pretty vulnerable questions – this is from the question a few minutes ago – what would you recommend a coach do, when they come up against, or they’re working with someone who just can’t answer, or doesn’t know how to answer, or maybe has never been presented with this kind of invitation before. How do they deal with that?

MBS: Well, let me ask you, Caitlin, I’ve got an answer to this and I’ll share it for sure, but what’s your instinct? I mean how would you answer your own question?

CS: I would probably think about what that person was doing in their day-to-day, and try to give them a few examples, and say, “But we don’t need to talk about those things, I’m interested in what’s most interesting to you right now.” And assure them that it was a safe place for them to share that and that I was interested. I might even decide to share what was on my mind if they needed an example. I don’t know.

MBS: Cool! Yeah, they’re all good ideas. Let me push you if there’s something else you could do. Someone is coming to you and they’re like, they’ve got that wide-eyed look, like you’ve asked them a question and they’re like, “Ahhh…” and then they have to deal with that.

CS: Been there.

MBS: Yeah exactly. As have we all. What else could you do to make it easy for them to lean into this? Or easier at least?

CS: I might admit to them that I know that this is hard and that I’ve also been there, but past that I’m not really sure. I think I would share that I was also feeling uncertain and that I wanted this to go well for both of us and I was interested and cared.

MBS: Yeah. Fantastic. So, a ton of great suggestions.

CS: You’re so affirming!

MBS: Yeah. Well, what I’m doing is I’m just role modeling a couple of coaching habits here. And one of them is this: One of the most tempting things to have you move into the advice-giving mode is when somebody goes, “Hey how do I…?” Just like you asked me, “When this happens how do I deal with it?” And, of course, every part of me goes, “Oh this is awesome. I know the answer to this, I’m going to look really smart. So, thank you, Caitlin, for setting me up to look awesome here.”

But as a coach, I’m trying to stay curious a little bit longer. And remember what I said before which is like sometimes even if you know what the real problem is and you even have a good answer, it’s not always the right thing to do to answer it. So, how I answered it – and I used a habit, it’s kind of script that’s in my head – and I said that’s a great question and I’m definitely going to answer it because I got some ideas. But before I tell you my idea, what’s your first thought?

And you’re like, “Awkward”. There’s a little bit of silence, which you know to the listeners and maybe even to you, it’s like “Oh my God, there’s three seconds of silence so far. What’s happening here?” But I was like, “OK. I’m comfortable with silence”, so I just sat with the silence for a bit and then you came up with two or three things. That’s great.

But then I asked one of the questions from the book – we call it the best coaching question in the world – I said, “Lovely. Great ideas so far. And what else? What else could you do?” And you’re like, “I’ve got nothing”. And then you gave me two or three good ideas regardless. So now, what that does is, I’m like, you’ve done a great job, but if I wanted to, I can jump in and add just a little bit more, and let me do that.

So, if you know that this is going to be difficult or awkward for a person, you could say to them, “Look, I’ve got a couple of questions I’m really keen to ask you. Here’s what they are.” And e-mail it to them before the meeting happens. Or in the meeting just say to them, “Look, I can see you are working hard on this, but you don’t have an immediate question. Go away and think about it and let’s talk again in an hour, or a half an hour, or a half a day, or tomorrow. And let me know what you come up with in terms of an answer.”

And another is just to be quiet. Let them work. Because sometimes what we make up as “Oh my goodness, they’re under pressure and they don’t have an answer” is actually just somebody processing the question and having a think. And they appreciate you giving them a little space and a little time to actually figure out what an answer might be.

CS: Well, that was masterfully ninja’d. Thank you.

MBS: And part of what I wanted people to see is how being more coach-like can just feel like an everyday conversation. It’s not like I went, “Oh ha! Allow me to do some coaching right here. And I’m just putting on my coaching cloak and my coaching voice and my coaching underwear.” I was like, “Oh look, that’s a great question. And you know, I’ve got some thoughts. But what do you think?” And you’re like, “Oh OK. Even though I’m the interviewer here on this podcast, somehow I’m now answering the question. How did that happen!?”

CS: Well, it was very gentle too. That helps.

MBS: Right. And you know, it comes from, I’m genuinely curious and I’m not trying to make a big deal about it. And I’m also relaxed. And if you said to me, “I have no idea. You know, I’m really drawing a blank here”. I’d be able to go, “That’s fine, no problem. So, here’s some thoughts I’ve got.” So, I’m holding it lightly.

But I’ve got a commitment in being more coach-like to be lazy, be curious and be often. I’m always looking for a chance to, can I ask you a question here rather than give an answer.


BSS: Hey guys, it’s Ben. We’re taking a quick break from Caitlin and Michael Bungay Stanier to hear from one of you. This is Teresa Collins, talking about what she learned was easier than she initially thought it was.

Teresa Collins: Hi, Simplify podcasters! I am coming to you from Evanston, Illinois. Something that I figured out was much simpler than I realized was making a really good-looking, good-tasting, not-at-all-sweaty lemon meringue pie.

And the secret is patience. And really patience makes just about everything simpler, I think, from building a sandcastle to making a perfect meringue, to even having a baby, or living with a teenager, or teaching teenagers – patience really helps. It’s harder to actually utilize it, but that’s what I’ve learned. Love your podcast! Thanks!

BSS: Thanks, Teresa! We’d love to hear from more of you out there, we’re collecting a nice little batch. Let us know what you’ve learned was easier or simpler than you initially thought it was. Just record a voice memo and email it to us at [email protected]. Alright. Let’s get back to the interview with Caitlin and Michael Bungay Stanier.

Interview Contd.

CS: So, how did you get to these 7 questions and 10 minutes? Did you spend more time in the past? How did you come up with this framework?

MBS: Well, there’s almost two questions there, so let me take them one by one. The first is, “How did I come up with the 10-minute thing”. And that came from a frustration of looking at coaching programs, some of which I’d been kind of hired to deliver, some of which were kind of early attempts of my own to develop my own approach to thinking about coach training. And it just felt that most approaches for busy managers and leaders didn’t take in the reality of their lives. And in fact, too much training felt like, “Hey, well here’s our life coaching training course. Why don’t we just add the word ‘organization’ into it and then roll it out to executives, or managers, or leaders?”

So I started trying to be as manager-centric as I could. And the question I asked was: on the assumption that many managers would like to be more coach-like because that would be useful for them and useful for me, what’s the barrier that’s stopping managers being more coach-like? And you know, it comes down to a bunch of things: I don’t have time for this. I’m a bit weirded out by what coaching is. I don’t really know what you’re talking about. I kind of do, but I kind of don’t. I don’t want to be a coach. I’ve met too many coaches and I don’t want to be like that.

And we came up with ways of removing those concerns: 10 minutes or less. Here’s what coaching is: it’s simply be curious a little longer, rush to action and advice a little slower. We’re not trying to be a coach. We want you to be a manager who’s more coach-like.

And then as for the 7 questions. You know, when I became a coach myself and I went through my training, and those early calls. I basically had my desk and my computer kind of covered in “Post-it” notes all with questions written on them. Because I’m like, if I panic, I’ll be able to look and pick a question. And then when I knew this book was kind of bubbling up, I went, “OK. So how many questions am I going to share here?” Because there’s lots and lots of really good questions out in the world. And I wrote one version with like 163 questions and it was a terrible book.

So, then I tried experimenting with 3, and 5, and 9, and in the end you know 7 has got a vibe to it. It’s got a pedigree, you know, the seven habits of something or others. And honestly, seven just felt like the right number. So there was a lot of pruning, and adding, and subtracting, and fine tuning, but we kind of landed on these 7.

CS: So you talked about how you got to the 7 questions. But how did you get here? How did you get to do what you were doing? This is usually the kind of question I would ask you at the top of the interview but we just dove in.

MBS: Yeah. Well, you know when people explain how they got here, it always sounds like a linear thoughtful journey? And I’m like, I don’t typically buy that.

There’s a bunch of stumbling around that got me here. The metaphor I like comes from Jim Collins and one of his – it wasn’t the Good to Great book, but as all of his books sound kind of the same. And it was about – as he would put it – firing bullets and firing cannonballs. And the way this metaphor works is he says, look, when you’re trying to figure out where to go, and you’re not sure yet, you need to fire bullets. Bullets are kind of low-risk experiments. And you’re trying to use the bullets as kind of a rangefinder to hit the target. But once you hit the target, you want to fire your cannonball. That’s the kind of, “OK, I’ve got it. Now I’m going to commit to it.”

And his observation is people either fire the cannonball too soon. You know they’re like, “I’ve got this one idea I’m putting on banking everything on it”, or they fire it too late. You know, they figure out what the thing is to do, but they don’t quite have the courage to commit to it. So they keep their options open and it diminishes the impact that they might have.

So in retrospect, I would say that there’s been a fair degree of bullet firing. You know I’m like, “OK, try this out. I like this bit. I didn’t like this bit. OK, let me do more of that. Oh, OK this is working or this isn’t working”.

So, you know, in my past I’ve done a law degree and a master’s degree in literature. I looked at becoming an academic and realized I’d be a terrible academic. I looked at being a lawyer and actually finished law school being sued by one of my law lecturers for defamation. So that wasn’t going to work.

CS: Awwww. Whoops.

MBS: It’s alright, it’s in the past, it was a good learning experience. I was an executive coach for a while. And then it turns out, I got bored with just the only thing I did was coaching. I spoke in front of crowds, and turns out, I love speaking in front of crowds and I’m good at it. So I do more of that. Turns out I’m really good at taking complex ideas and making them accessible and practical. So I was creating content and intellectual property, and that led to book writing.

So it’s been an accumulation of… It’s been a process of shedding stuff that I’ve tried and had taught me stuff but had made me not go, maybe not that. And then kind of doubling down on the stuff that’s really lit me up, like writing books, like speaking, like building this training company.

CS: Great. The other thing I was going to ask you was, what do you love about this work? But I think you might have just answered that question. If you didn’t, then what do you love about this work? What gets you excited about it every day?

MBS: Well, it has evolved. I’m excited about the big picture which is, “How do I give managers and leaders the skills to be a more coach-like?” Because when they’re more coach-like, they get to be more human, they get to be encouraging people who they’re leading and influencing to be more human. And what I mean by that, in essence, is helping them make braver choices to accept that they have a life where their life is shaped by the choices they make and to make bolder, braver choices.

So I’ve got a big kind of personal and corporate mission that I get lit up by and I’m still excited by. And then the job itself has evolved. So when I started Box of Crayons, it was me and I was off and I was facilitating and I loved facilitating. But now we run three to 400 programs a year, and it would kill me to try and deliver 400 programs a year.

My job has shifted from being that kind of guy with his fingers in all the pies and creating most of the stuff, to trusting others to do that but to play a role of coaching and nurturing and setting a vision and that sort of stuff. So, you know part of what I love about this is it keeps me growing as a person.

CS: Yeah. So, across your innovation, and creativity, and consulting, and coaching projects, what’s something that you’ve learned is actually a lot simpler than you initially thought it was?

MBS: You know, most things are simpler than you think they are. You don’t actually need more information, you just need to start doing something to figure it out. You know, most things can be looked at through a few simple questions. You know, “Should I say yes to this? Should I say no to this? If I said yes to this, would it take me closer to my goal or further away from my goal?”

What it means to show up as a good human being in this world? It’s like be generous, be courageous. Make the best choices you can. It’s like, what are the principles, what’s the fundamental question that you’re wrestling with?

CS: So, getting to that core question instead of letting yourself believe that it’s a big hairy issue. That’s definitely a temptation.

MBS: And that’s not to say things aren’t complex. I mean. So, three days ago, I hit this cool milestone which is randomly I asked myself on the streetcar, I was going to the theater with my wife, I was like “How much of my life have I been with Marcella? What percentage?” So I called up a little app and I went, “OK calculate how many days I’ve been alive”.

And I was like, “OK, 18,200 days.” I’m about to turn 50. And I was like, “Ah that’s cool, so let me calculate how many days have passed since my first date with Marcella” – it was back in 1992. And it turned out, it was 9,101 days. In other words, on the exact day that my life tipped over from less than half, then more than half of my life with Marcella, I chose to calculate it. So it was a really cool moment. Yeah, it was cool.

CS: That’s really lovely.

MBS: Well, thank you. I thought it was one of those cool moments. I was like, “Wow! What a good day to actually ask myself that question.” And it is complex living with another person and it’s complex being a person. Because it’s not like you push a button or you pull a lever and a thing happens, it’s a much more complicated system than that.

But one of the things to know about complexity is complexity is governed by principles rather than rules.

CS: What do you mean by that?

MBS: Yeah. So the model – I can’t remember where I got this model from – basically says, everything has one or three different forms that’s either simple, complicated or complex.

Simple is, “bake a cake”. You know, it’s like, “follow these five instructions: add flour to water, to egg, to milk and butter, blend it all up, put it in the oven for this heat and this time and you get a cake.”

Complicated is like a bigger version of that. And the example I’ve seen is launching a space shuttle. You know, there’s an enormous amount of spreadsheets involved in launching a space shuttle. But if you follow all the instructions, you basically get a space shuttle up into orbit.

Complex is like a relationship or a flock of birds. And when you see a flock of birds, one of those swirling, flocks of sparrows or starlings –

CS: Yeah, it’s a murmuration.

MBS: Yeah, exactly. Love that word. Murmuration. You know, nobody has a list of to–do’s taped to the underside of their wing. They’re operating off three core principles: fly as close as you can to the other birds, fly towards the center, don’t run into any of the other birds. And those three rules are what create those amazing shapes of the murmuration, of the swirling thousands of thousands of birds flying together.

So, we live complex lives. But once you understand what the principles are that govern that life, you get to focus on how I do my best job at living to those principles.

CS: That was a great answer. You just touched upon one of my favorite natural phenomena. So I mean, it was easy from then on out.

MBS: Perfect.

CS: So to close this out, I wanted to ask you a little bit about books and reading, and what you’ve been reading, and what’s been inspirational to you. What are some foundational books that you’ve read that you would recommend to someone who wants to be able to do more great work, for example?

MBS: You know there’s a lot of great books out there. And so much of it depends on who you are and what lights you up. But books that have influenced me include Bill Bryson’s book called A Short History of Nearly Everything which is really kind of making science cool, and accessible, and amazing. And for me the impact is going, “It is amazing. It’s a miracle that I am alive on this planet at this time. So, make the most of it.”

I think Adam Grant’s book Give and Take is really interesting, because it gives you a way of understanding how to show up and be generous in the world, in a way that nourishes you rather than diminishes you.

What else is a good book? If you’re interested in kind of some of the kind of principles around the coaching piece, there’s an academic called Edgar Schein. And his book is called – there’s a combination of books, called Helping and Humble Inquiry which cast great light on why it’s so hard to help people and how to think about being helpful in a way that serves them rather than just serves you.

CS: So, I don’t really think there’s anything else that I need to wrap this up.
MBS: Perfect.

CS: OK, great talking with you. Thanks so much. Have a good one.

MBS: You too, Caitlin.

MBS: Take care. Bye bye.

The Bookend

Ben: Welcome to The Bookend, where we end with books.

So, that was a cool interview.

Caitlin: Yeah!

Ben: He was such a nice guy.

Caitlin: He is SUCH a nice guy! That was a very gentle interrogation. Of me! Which I was not expecting.

Ben: Yeah, he really turned it around on you there with his coaching questions. It was like a live coach. Ninja moves.

Caitlin: Ninja moves, indeed. Canadian ninja moves. Totally. Flingin’ those iron maple leaves of wisdom.

Ben: So, why did you want to talk to Stanier for this season?

Caitlin: Well, really, I like his method of leadership—how it puts the power into the hands of the person executing the task and leads them to make good decisions rather than demands they follow a program. I think that more and more businesses are starting to run this way. The whole top-down thing just doesn’t work anymore.

Ben: Yeah. And we got to the bottom of it, I think. I mean, I think we cut through the buzz. I think you did a really good job of clarifying in the interview why these questions work.

Caitlin: Aww. Thanks, Ben.

Ben: So, the whole top-down thing doesn’t really work anymore. And I think what was cool–and we talked about it a bit in the intro–there’s so many books out there about coaching, but how do we get to the bottom of it? And I like how you guys really narrowed down, like why these questions are powerful, why we give too much advice.

So, what stood out to you in the interview?

Caitlin: Well, I think it was his emphasis on cultivating two things: curiosity—as in approaching a person, or a challenge, you know, whatever, with curiosity rather than an agenda.

And what he refers to as “laziness”, or leaning back and taking it slowly. Jumping to conclusions less quickly, allowing for ideas to develop and breathe – that stuck with me from talking to him.

Ben: Okay, so, let’s get to the books! You picked out 3, right?

Caitlin: Yeah! I did. So, the first one is Humble Inquiry. And I think the subtitle of this book says it all – it’s “The gentle art of asking instead of telling”. I read this one a couple of years ago actually, and it really changed my whole approach on giving feedback. I used what I learned here—what Schein calls diagnostic inquiry and ways to fold my own theories, where appropriate, into a question—in order to become a better editor.

Ben: Can you give a specific example of this diagnostic inquiry?

Caitlin: Yeah. So, for example, the way that I used it when I was editing in G-docs (Google Documents) – because where else would you edit – instead of whenever I caught myself saying, “How about X?”, I would instead rephrase it to say, “What if we… Y?” Instead of making it into, or “Have you thought about…?” or “Can you tell me more about this idea?” rather than “I think you should do X” – it becomes more about like “Tell me about your thinking”, “What led you here?”

Ben: Yeah. Instead of just saying, “Here’s what you should do.”

Caitlin: Just saying like “What do you think of X?”, “What do you think of Y?”, “Why don’t we try talking about X here?” So it becomes a conversation rather than a set of orders.

Ben: Yeah, cool. I don’t know that book. I’ll have to check that one out.

Caitlin: It’s really good. I definitely recommend it.

Ben: What else have you got?

Caitlin: I also have A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Ben: That’s the Bill Bryson book, right?

Caitlin: Yeah, exactly. Right. In the interview, Michael says that this book gave him a keen appreciation for how incredible it is that he’s alive in this moment, in this geographic place, living this specific life.

Ben: I always remember from this book that in the Big Bang, matter expanded so rapidly that the entire universe formed within the time it might take you to make a sandwich or something.

Caitlin: Yeah. You may or may not take the same appreciation away from this book, but one way or another, what you will get is a crash course on all of the major existential questions of life.

Ben: Slight side note. Do you think that being a good leader, you also have to have other interests, other than business also, or like, other than work? Because, you know, like he’s saying, he has a law degree, he has got a master’s in Literature… And I think of some other leaders that I work with, they also have, like, passions and they tend to see work in perspective also.

Caitlin: I completely agree with that, yeah. Because if a leader brings their whole self with their idiosyncrasies, and interests, and personality to the job, then that frees the employees, or the trainees, or the mentees, or whatever, to do that too. And that only creates, I think, a better environment to get work done because you connect on a personal level rather than just a work-bot level. And also take some of the pressure off of interacting only in a work way. And I think put to work, as you said, in perspective. I think that’s definitely true.

Ben: That’s interesting. That’s cool.

Caitlin: Work-bot.

Ben: What else? One more book?

Caitlin: Alright, last one. This one is The Silent Language of Leaders by Carol Kinsey Gorman.

So, the thing that struck me while talking with Michael is that asking questions the way that he suggests requires a lot of awareness of what you’re saying and how you’re framing questions, of course, but carrying all of that off really demands that you have an exquisitely high awareness of your own body language—how you’re coming off to the person you’re coaching.

Ben: It’s more than like self-awareness of like “Oh crap, I’m slouching again?” But also like “How can I use this in a way that’s more effective?” Can you give another specific example of this?

Caitlin: So one of the things that I read in this book was about – and this is a thing that I think a lot of the people know instinctively, when you’re talking to someone you want to connect with– your talk with your body open: your shoulders back, your legs facing toward them. Crossing your legs is OK, if the other person is crossing their legs, but it’s good to create a better empathetic connection, it’s good to lean toward them, it’s good to tilt your head the way they do. But the most important thing that you do is demonstrate to them by giving them open body language, facing toward them that you have given them all of your attention and what they’re saying to you matters.

Ben: Have you ever been in like an interview or a meeting when somebody’s mirroring your body language too much?

Caitlin: Yes!

Ben: It’s kinda weird.

Caitlin: And it was really obvious. It was actually a Tinder date.

Ben: Oh God! Alright. That’s an amazing book. So we have The Silent Language of Leaders by Carol Kinsey Gorman, we have A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson – shout out to the Big Bang – and we have Humble Inquiry by Edgar Schein.

Caitlin: Shout out to sandwiches.

Ben: Shout out to the universe. That’s great! That’s such a cool list of like diverse interests, body language, asking questions – that’s cool.

Caitlin: I feel that list aligns really well with Michael as an interviewee.

Ben: Yeah, alright. Then let’s get into the credits.

Caitlin: Cool.

Ben: Thanks for listening to this episode of Simplify. It was produced by me, Ben Schuman-Stoler, Caitlin Schiller, Nat Darozhkina, Ben Jackson and Ody Constantinou, who makes his own chairs out of materials he finds at the farmer’s market.

Caitlin: Ooh, intriguing! Alright, so if you enjoyed this episode or feel that you learned something cool, could you, please, do us a favor and send it to one person you like. Especially if this person would particularly get something out of this. Just send it to one person, spread the word, we really want to have more people get in touch with us and to hear what we’re doing over here. So yeah, send it to one person, we’d really appreciate it!

Ben: And a big shout out already to the people who’ve subscribed to us on Google Play, Overcast, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Pocket Casts, wherever you listen. And if you wouldn’t mind taking a moment to add a review or rating – a star, a heart, or a thumb, or a face or whatever – we’d be really appreciative, it helps us.

Caitlin: Fire emojis – also fine!

BS: We want to also remind you guys that you can tweet at us. I’m @bsto, and you’re at…

Caitlin: @CaitlinSchiller.

So, last thing – maybe you already know this, maybe you don’t, but – Simplify is made by the same people who make Blinkist. Blinkist, if you don’t know, is a learning app that takes the world’s bestselling nonfiction books, like The Coaching Habit, and condenses them into these focused little capsules of knowledge available in audio or text that you can listen to or read in just about 15 minutes.

Ben: And we made another voucher code for this episode. You can get 14 days free if you go to and type in the voucher code: coachless.

Although you could also think of it as like “coach less”, like don’t coach that much, which is one of the messages we were trying to get from this interview.

Meanwhile, thanks so much for sending in Voice Memos about the answer to the question “What have you learned was much easier than you thought it was?” If you haven’t done it yet, record a Voice Memo and email it to me and Caitlin at [email protected] or just let us know a good coaching experience you have, that’s cool too.

Caitlin: Yeah, we’d love to hear good stories like that. Alright so, we’ll be back next week with another episode of Simplify. In the meantime, be awesome. This is Caitlin…

Ben: And Ben checking out. See you guys!

Caitlin: Bye.

Read the show notes for this episode here!

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