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555: Why We Fail to Empower, Inspire, and Engage: Unmasking the The Advice Trap with Michael Bungay Stanier

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Michael Bungay Stanier explains why we need to stop giving advice and start asking questions instead.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Three reasons why advice is overrated
  2. A step-by-step process for breaking your advice-giving habit
  3. How to ask more insightful questions

About Michael:

Michael Bungay Stanier is an author and the founder of Box of Crayons, a company best known for teaching 10-minute coaching so that busy managers can build stronger teams and get better results. He was named the first Canadian Coach of the Year. He left Australia 25 years ago to be a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University.

Michael has been featured in several publications such as Business Insider, Forbes, The Globe & Mail, Fast Company, and The Huffington Post. He has held senior positions in the corporate, consultancy, and agency worlds. He has lived and worked in Australia, the UK, the US, and Canada. He currently lives in Toronto.

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Michael Bungay Stanier Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Michael, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast again.

Michael Bungay Stanier
I know. Thank you for having me back, Pete. It’s really nice to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. Well, I was having a lot of fun during chats because you’re not afraid, again, putting the pressure and expectation on, not afraid to get a little silly and neither am I.

Michael Bungay Stanier
I strive to be hilarious yet useful at the same time.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s a winning combo in my book. So, we’re going to talk about advice. And you’ve got a fun turn of a phrase, the advice monster. Can you tell us what is that? And can you maybe give us a wild example, like if you’ve got one or two, of the advice monster in action?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Oh, the examples are a legion. People are going to know this right away. So, when I wrote the last book, The Coaching Habit, as a throwaway line, I’m like, “You’ve got to learn how to tame your advice monster.” And people have loved that idea, they’re like, “Oh, I know what an advice monster is. I know my advice monster. I have it.” And, in fact, you all do. As soon as somebody starts talking, and even though they’re telling you about a situation you don’t really understand, involving people you haven’t properly met, with a context you don’t know at all, and technical specifications that you don’t get, after about 10 seconds in your brain, you’re like, “Oh, I’ve got some ideas here. Step aside, I’ve got something to say to you.” And that’s our advice monster. We’ve had to train for years, we spend our lifetime nurturing, feeding this insatiable part of ourselves.

And in this new book, The Advice Trap, I’m like, “You know what, the barrier to staying curious turns out not that we don’t know what a good question is, not that we don’t know the value of staying curious and being more coach-like. The barrier to actually making this behavior change is our advice monster. We’ve got to learn to tame our advice monster.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so you’ve got examples are legion. But could you give us one or two that made you go, “Wow, that is not what to do textbook”?

Michael Bungay Stanier
It’s like, do you want me to just talk about the ones that have happened over the last three hours for me or should I go back to the rest of my life? So, let’s talk about my marriage.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, this is getting good.

Michael Bungay Stanier
I have been happily married for almost 30 years. I met Marcella, my wife, when we were studying at Oxford together. It was one of the two great outcomes for me being a Rhode Scholar. But there’s nothing like a spouse just to drive you nuts. You know, somebody once said, “Your soulmate is the person who pushes all your buttons.” And Marcella does that for me. She has all the right things as well but she also has a way of me going, “Right. If I’m going to give anybody advice, it’s going to be her.”

So, she starts telling me something that she’s up against, and I’m like, “Okay, just stop talking. Just let me tell you what to do.” And if any of your listeners are married, or in a longer-term relationship, or you’ve been in a relationship, or maybe you have kids, or maybe you have parents, you will recognize that need to kind of go, “Okay, with this person I’m close to, or this person that I love, this person I actually like and I want to support, part of what I default to is this, ‘Let me rush in and try and fix it and solve it for you.’”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. So, that sort of the impulse, the inclination there, “Let me fix this and solve this for you.” And so, I can see that, hey, that’s not sort of fun on the receiving end frequently. But could you make the fuller case for how that’s really problematic and just what can be at stake if we let our advice monster roam wild?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah, advice is overrated for three reasons. The first thing to say, Pete, is, look, don’t think that I’m saying never give advice because that’s obviously ridiculous. I mean, the podcast is actually this moment of advice-giving so it’d be ridiculous to say never give advice. The problem isn’t with advice, the problem is when giving advice becomes your default response, and we have this ingrained way of behavior. And it turns out that advice kind of goes bad in three ways.

So, here are the three ways. Number one, you’re often trying to solve the wrong problem. We get seduced into thinking there’s all the time that we believe that the first challenge that shows up is the real challenge. It almost never is. It’s the best guess, it’s the stab in the dark, it’s an early hypothesis. But almost never is the first challenge the real challenge.

But let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that actually you are working on the real problem, the real issue that needs to be fixed. Here’s the second issue with advice, your advice is not nearly as good as you think it is. Now, there’s all these cognitive biases that are wiring us to make us believe that we’re smarter, wiser, more able, more insightful than we actually are, and so often our advice is just our projection around, “This is what I did once or what I thought of once. This should work for you as well.” So, there’s your second issue which is not only is often solving the wrong problem but, secondly, even if you’re solving the right problem, the advice you’re offering up isn’t nearly as good as you think it is.

But let’s just say, for the sake of argument, the knowledge you have the right challenge at hand but you have this awesome piece of advice, I mean, it’s brilliant, it’s gold dust, it’s pearls of wisdom, you’re like, “This is amazing.” The third challenge with advice is, “Is this the right form of leadership? Is this the right way of showing up and supporting the person you’re in conversation with right now?” Because there’s a deep insight to say that the idea, the solution, the advice that a person gives themselves is a much more powerful intervention than the advice that you give them.

Even if their idea isn’t quite as good as your idea, and our cognitive biases will have us believe that that’s almost always the case, but there’s something really powerful as a leader, and by a leader it doesn’t mean that you’re actually literally managing a team or if you just interact with other human beings, if you show up with other people and you help people figure out their own stuff. What you’re doing is you’re empowering them to get smarter, to own the idea, to get the wisdom, rather than having it coming down from you because, honestly, when you have somebody giving you an idea, your natural reaction is just to push back against the idea even if it’s well-meant, as it so often is.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s the advice monster and what is problematic about just letting it roam. So, your book is called The Advice Trap. Is it fair to say the trap is just that you have a temptation to give advice and then you fall into it and that’s a bad thing? Okay.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah, basically, again, advice, fine. The default response to going, “Look, my job here is to give advice.” That’s the advice trap, into seducing to thinking that that’s your role. In fact, it goes a little deeper than that. So, the double-click on this whole advice monster thing, it turns out the advice monster has three different personas, and each one of it kind of feeds a deeper need for us, which makes it hard for us to step into this way of behaving which is around the power of being more curious.

So, I’ll take you through the three advice monster personas because people like this. And for the folks listening in, listen up because you’ll hear the advice monster persona that resonates most for you. So, number one is tell-it, and tell-it has convinced you that the way you add value, in fact, the only way you add value is to have the answers. In fact, you need to have all the answers. In fact, you probably need to have all the answers to all the problems all the time. And if you don’t have all the answers, you fail. So, that’s the first one, that sort of sense of that weight, that obligation of, “I’ve got to know everything. I’ve got to always be providing answers or else I’m not adding value.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s a persona, “My persona is tell-it and I’m telling it.” Okay.

Michael Bungay Stanier
You’ve got it. Number two, save-it. So, save-it, a little more subtle than tell-it which is a noisy one. Save-it, you put a time around you, “Pete, your job is to keep everybody safe at all times. You can’t let anybody stumble, you can’t let them struggle, you can’t let them fail, you can’t make them sweat. Your job is to keep everybody protected, keep everybody safe, keep everybody comfortable. If they struggle, if they stumble, if they fail at all, you fail.” So, that’s that second piece, that kind of that weight of going, “I’ve got to make sure everybody is okay all the time.”

And then the third advice monster, which is the slipperiest, the sneakiest of the three, is control-it. So, control-it has convinced you that your job, the only way you win, is to maintain control, keep control at all times. Don’t give up control. Don’t let others have control because if that happens, you fail. You’ll definitely fail. So, you got those three different advice monsters: the tell-it, the save-it, and the control-it. And each one of them speaks to a deeper need that we hold onto that keeps us stuck in the advice-giving mode because we’re like, “You know what, I feel obliged to have the answer. I feel obliged to save the person. I feel obliged to control the situation.” And when you do that, you don’t let curiosity really blossom.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, certainly. And so, you call these personas because…well, I guess, I think of them as verbs, “So, I want to tell it, I want to save it, I want to control it.” So, it’s a persona in so far as there’s kind of like a personality or a character associated with the kind of person who feels the need to tell it, to save it, to control it?

Michael Bungay Stanier
That’s a really good question. On the website TheAdviceTrap.com, we’ve actually got a questionnaire which is like 20 questions or so, five minutes to do, and you can follow it through and you’ll actually end up with the advice monster that kind of is your go-to, your default, the one that you’re kind of most familiar with. When I was writing the book, I’m like, “Do we have three advice monsters, and each of them is a different advice monster? Or is it one advice monster but kind of shows up in different ways with different traits depending on who you are and depending on the situation?” In the end, I was like, “No, I think it’s better as a persona. We all have the advice monster. How it shows up, the clothes it wears, the behavior it has, is different for different people.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, then let’s see, we’ve got three personas but we’ve all got an advice monster. So, I imagine you probably have some universal solutions and some particular prescriptions, given which persona you fall into. So, yeah, what do we do? So, someone is telling us something, we’ve got that urge, the impulse, to pour forth the advice, so what’s the appropriate response?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Well, you can guess that the easy solution here is to just stay curious a little bit longer because curiosity is the light that holds back the advice monster. I mean, questions are the kindling of curiosity. So, the easy, fast answer for people is go, “Look, just ask them good questions. Stay curious a little bit longer.” But, Pete, this is actually what took me to writing The Advice Trap because the first book, the one we talked about when we did the previous interview is called The Coaching Habit. Well, The Coaching Habit is like, “Here we go, I’m trying to unweird coaching for you. I’m trying to make curiosity feel like a useful everyday skill. Seven good questions can take you a long way down the path.”

And we’ve had a lot of people go, “These questions are fantastic. I’ve started using them with my spouse, with my kids, with the people I work with, with the team that I lead, and things are getting better.” And I’m like, “I love that.”

There’s also a lot of people out there who go, “You know, Michael, I like your questions, I like your book, I like the podcast you did with Pete, it’s all great, and I’m finding it really hard to change my behavior. I’m finding it really hard to shift from being advice-driven to being curiosity-led.” And so, there’s kind of a deeper piece of work that’s required.

In the book, this is kind of the opening part of the book, I talk about this difference between easy change and hard change. We are all good at easy change, that’s why it’s called easy change. And the metaphor I’d give you is it’s a little bit like downloading an app on your phone, it’s adding a little bit of knowledge to the current version of you. So, easy change, anytime you get a new phone, or walk into a new hotel room, like I’m in at the moment, or show up in a new place, you’re like, “Okay, I’ve just got to figure this stuff out.” And you do. You listen to a podcast, you watch a video, you read a book, you go and talk to a teenager who explains it to you, and you’re like, “Okay, I kind of get it.”

Pete Mockaitis
I go to Amazon.com and buy a little something. Well, this problem’s solved for $15. Thank you. All right.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Exactly. So, you kind of figure it out and you start off and you’re a little bit incompetent when you do it the first time, but you quickly get competent, and then you quickly get to a point where you’re like, “Yeah, I’ve got it. I’m fine with it.” So, that’s easy change. No problem with that.

Hard change, obviously, is trickier, harder, slipperier, and we all know this because we’ve all tried to take on something where you’re like, “This should be relatively straightforward,” and for some reason it’s really difficult. For some reason, it just seems to be elusive for you. You keep trying, you keep reading more books, you listen to more podcasts, you watch more videos, you buy some more stuff from Amazon, and it just isn’t enough to help you crack this dilemma, this piece around, “I’m trying to figure out how to do this.”

If you’ve ever had a New Year’s resolution where you’re like, “Okay, I’ve made this resolution for the last seven years, but I’m going to make it again this year because, damn it, I’m actually going to get it sorted out this time around.” Well, this is what hard change is. And if easy change is downloading the app on your phone, hard change is when you realize that an app won’t do it. You need a new operating system. The other way of talking about this, Pete, is like if easy change is about tweaking current you, present you, hard change is a commitment to future you. It’s like, “You know what, to do this, I need to become a bigger, different, better version of myself. So, what needs to change so that I can actually step into that way of doing it?”

And that’s a very long answer around your question around, “Okay, we notice your advice monster, what do you do about that?” Well, for some of us, it’s easy change, which is like just ask some questions, and some of us it’s hard change, which is like, “Oh, you’ve got to learn to tame your advice monster.” And that can be tricky, that can be difficult, and that’s absolutely worth the battle because you get to show up in a whole different way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, it’s going to take some hard change, and it’s not a matter of downloading the app. So, what is it a matter of doing?

Michael Bungay Stanier
So, step number one is going, “Are you up for this? Are you actually committed for actually going to do this?” Because some people are like, “Yeah, in theory, I kind of wouldn’t mind being a bit more curious, but in practice, I can’t be bothered.” So, the first step is to go, “You know what, it’s really worth it. It’s now irritating me how much I give advice. It’s irritating the people I work with how much I give advice. I want to do this change.”

Step number two is to actually say to yourself, “Look, I’ve got to start recognizing my advice monster because until I start seeing it, until I start knowing how it shows up, then it’s really hard to tame something that you’re not quite sure where and how it exists in the world.” So, there’s a way for you to actually take the time and going, “So, when does my advice monster really get loose where they go crazy? What’s the situation and with whom is the person?”

So, it might be when I have my weekly check-in with Pete, “Oh, that man drives me crazy. He starts talking and my advice monster is absolutely loose.” So, the next step is for you to identify when your advice monster is on the loose, so you’re not trying to do a generic, “I’m just trying to be more curious.” You’re like, “No, this is the moment where I’m trying to change my behavior.” And, Pete, this comes from our last conversation, actually, which this ties in with what it takes to build a new habit, which is like be specific, be singular, be focused, don’t be generic but actually pick a moment, pick a new behavior, pick a context, so that you can actually change your behavior in this way.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Michael Bungay Stanier
So, step number one, declare the battle is on. Step number two, identify the moment where your advice monster shows up. Step number three, it gets a little more personal. It’s a little deeper dive. And it’s to understand the prizes and the punishments of your current behavior. This is the thing. You give advice because you get something from it. It’s actually a win for you. So, there’s a way of actually identifying how you’re showing up, “What do I get out of that?” And it’s like, “You know what, I feel smart. I feel in control. I get them out of my office faster. I feel like I’m adding value to the conversation. I feel like I’m in control of what’s going on.” It speaks to some of those three different types of advice monsters that we talked about before.

Pete Mockaitis
Or there’s like this pressure, I feel this in my brain sometimes. It’s like if I don’t somehow capture what’s in my head, either by saying it out loud, or writing it down, or sticking it somewhere, then it’s just going to have a piece of me, and that’s uncomfortable, and it’s like I need the resolution and breadth and peace associated with knowing that it’s been captured, otherwise it might disappear forever, and it’s a treasure trove that I can’t allow to just run away, Michael.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Exactly. I love that. That’s pretty powerful insight, Pete. That sense of, “Oh, no, no. What I’ve got is essential and it’s vital, and it’s like, honestly, it’s genius, so I can’t not offer that up to the world, that would be irresponsible.” So, it’s really helpful to see that. And, actually, I love how you talked about that because you can see, in you saying it, there’s an honesty and a kind of vulnerability and a self-awareness around, “I can see how this is a little bit ego-driven, but it’s also true. It’s kind of what’s there for me.”

Pete Mockaitis
And it’s just so fun, it’s like, “Ooh, this is a really interesting idea. It’d be fun to explore it and maybe we’re going to do that right now with the person since they brought it up or maybe we’ll do it later. It’s a little uncomfortable for me to imagine. Well, maybe we’ll just never get to explore, and that fun thought is just going to run away because I put all my attention back towards listening and being curious.”

Michael Bungay Stanier
And miss that moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Well, understanding the benefits you get from it sets you up for the next piece, which is, “What’s the price that you and others pay for your need to share this little piece of genius?” And all parts of equation kind of can suffer as part of this. You can pay the price of being the person who feels that they have to always have the answer, or they always have to have the little genius idea, or they’ve become the bottleneck to the conversation, or they disempower the other people because they’re like, “You know what, is there a point in coming to Pete with ideas because he’s always got his own little genius idea that he always has to share with us and he’s always telling, well, that’s kind of the thing we should be doing?” So, there’s a way that both you and the other person can pay a price around that.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Michael Bungay Stanier
And having done that, you’re actually at a bit of a crossroads, which is to go, “You know what, do the prizes outweigh the punishments, or is it vice versa?” And until you get to a point where you’re like, “The punishment of my advice monster, the price I pay and the price other people pay, are now sufficiently significant enough that they outweigh the more short-term,” you know, in the book we call them winds not wins, that short term, “Oh, I get to be genius, I get to be smart, I get to have the answers.” When you see the punishment outweigh the prizes, you’re like, “Okay, I’m up for the change here because the current equation isn’t working as well as it used to.”

Then you go a little deeper. And I will say, Pete, at TheAdviceTrap.com, there’s actually a way, a little video of me facilitating people through this process. So, if people are going, “Yeah, I’m kind of following this but I would like it a bit more.” There’s a video and there’s a worksheet and stuff that people can grab at TheAdviceTrap.com.

We get to that next level down where you’re like, okay, so if what you’ve done with prizes and punishments is kind of figure out the equation for present you, let’s go down to future you and kind of go, “All right, two things to look at here. If you were to tame your advice monster, if you were to stay curious a bit longer, what would you be worried about? What would make you anxious about that?” Because you’ve got to acknowledge which is like, and you’ve got to talk about it, which is like, “I don’t feel like I’m adding value. My little bits of genius might never see the light of day and a little bit of me dies if I don’t get to be a genius every time I show up. That other person might struggle. I might lose control of the conversation. I might not get to be the smart person in the room.”

You get to see all of those kinds of anxieties that you have but then you weigh that against them. But what would future you gain from this new way of behaving? What would you find? It’s like, “Oh, I get to allow other people to be brilliant. I get other people to share their genius with me. And I’m a catalyst and a space for them to be brilliant rather than me to be brilliant. I get to not be a bottleneck. I get to have other people be more confident and more competent and more self-sufficient and more autonomous so I, honestly, I work less hard because they’re all doing their own stuff without having to come to me for their blessing or the idea or whatever it might be.”

And then when you kind of weigh that up, you’re like going, “Okay, I see the choice now.” And it’s actually only when you do that, people work, Peter, that you kind of go, “Right. Now, this is setting me up for a place where I can go. It’s worth me asking a question because I’ve actually kind of gone deeper into the kind of the complexity of the behavior change that’s required.” And you’re going, “You know what, now is the time for me to invest in this future-you state so that I can have more impact as a human being in the life that I live.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I really like that process, that framework, in terms of I think you can use that anytime you think about a behavior change or a should, “Oh, I should work out more,” or, “I should eat better.” It’s like, “Well, maybe, but I think what’s probably most appropriate is rather than just sort of have a kneejerk reaction if you’re guilty for doing or not doing all the things, to really zero in on, all right, a true sense of the cost and benefit and opportunity that is awaiting you if you embark upon that kind of a change.” And so, I think that’s super handy that a lot of things you think maybe that you should do, you can realize, “Hey, you know what, actually not worth it. Not worth the cost so I can just sort of let go of that peacefully and move onto something else.”

At the same time, let’s say maybe you do get that perfect clarity and conviction that, “Yes, this is the thing. It needs to happen. I can absolutely see it’s worth doing. The benefits massively justify that investment.” And, nonetheless, much like a diet exercise, temptations arise. What do you recommend for in the moment, you’re committed and yet, ooh, you’re feeling it? What do you do there?

Michael Bungay Stanier
I would go back to some of the stuff I talked about in the opening chapter of The Coaching Habit book. I’m like, “You know what, pick a person, pick a moment, pick a question. Don’t go, ‘Look, I’m just trying to be more coach-like. I’m committed to being more curious in every aspect of my life.’” All that does is set you up for failure.

What I’m saying instead is like, you know what, pick a question and go, “I’m going to try and ask that a few more times per day than I currently do.” And if you’re going to pick one of the seven questions I talked about in The Coaching Habit book, I might go for number two, which is the shortest and the most powerful of the seven questions, which is “And what else?” Like, “What else?” So, the acronym of that is AWE, so it’s literally an awesome question which I love.

And what I found is that what that question has is it kind of built within it is the insight that the person’s first answer is never their only answer and it’s rarely their best answer. But what happens in this is our advice monsters, you ask a question, somebody comes up with an idea, and you’re like, “Nailed it. We’ve got something. Let’s go with it. Let’s run with it. Let’s implement it. Let’s make it actionable,” or whatever it might be.

And what I would encourage people to go is like, “You know what, their first answer is almost never their only answer.” So, ask “And what else?” because it will mean that you get more, you squeeze more out of the lemon of any question that you’ve asked them, and you’ll get better and more diverse answers from the person that you’re working with. So, I think there’s my generic piece of advice on how not to give advice, which is like, “Hey, if you only got one question, make it ‘And what else?’” Because you know what, you can slip that into almost any kind conversation. People won’t even notice.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. I think that I’ve been using a lot of the questions that’s come up with a few guests, it’s comparable although you’ve got a knack, Michael, for identifying the nuances between how one question is, in fact, quite different from another given the words and the triggers that it does for people, so let me put you on the spot with this. I’ve been loving “Tell me more about that.” Let’s compare or contrast. Are those interchangeable or do those have some nuances that you’d like to discuss?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Well, “Tell me more about that” has some inherent landmines built into it.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Michael Bungay Stanier
I’ll tell you why. So, if I go, “All right, Pete, what’s on your mind?” And you give me something, I go, “Great.”

Pete Mockaitis
This coffee, I’ve been so engaged, I have barely sipped it.

Michael Bungay Stanier
I know about that. And you go, “Okay, here, Michael, here’s a thing that’s on my mind.” And I go, “Oh, interesting. Tell me more about that.” Now, this question feels like it’s in service of me rather than you because I’m going, “I want to find out more about what’s going on secretly because the more I know about that situation, probably the better advice I can give you when it comes to actually my time to give you advice.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Michael Bungay Stanier
And one of the nuances about asking questions, and this is kind of a real step towards mastery, is to go, “In whose service is this question? Is this more for me or is it more for them?” Because if I go, “Well, tell me more about that,” you’re like, “Well, I already know a bunch about it, but sure, now I’m helping you out by telling you more.”

Pete Mockaitis
I see.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Whereas, if I go, “All right, that’s interesting. I hear what’s on your mind. Tell me what’s the real challenge here for you.” Now this question is in service of you. It’s for you to go, “Well, what is the hard thing here? What is the challenge? Where am I struggling with this?” And then I go, “What else is a challenge here for you?” You’re like, “Oh, yeah, what else?” And as you go deeper, then I go, “Great. So, Pete, of all of that stuff, what’s the real challenge here for you?” Now you’re working and you’re figuring stuff out, because the stance I hold is, look, if I’m in a conversation with you or I’m asking you questions, I don’t need to know a whole lot about what’s going on.

I mean, when we finish this conversation, I’m in Anaheim at the moment to speak at a big tech conference for a big tech company, and I’m going to coach a very senior leader on stage in front of about, I think it’s 1500 people. Now, what do I know about the impossible job of being an executive vice president of one the top three tech companies in the world? The answer is I know nothing. I know absolutely nothing. So, if I sit down with this person, and I go, “What’s on your mind?” and they tell me, and I go, “Well, tell me more about that.” Now, they’re like, “Okay. Well, you don’t know anything about this anyway, and I’m not sure that this covered under our NDA, but I’ll give you some topline stuff.” And I’m like, “Okay, tell me more about that. What else can you tell me about that?”

And now he’s explaining to me what the situation is so I can try and figure out a solution. But if I go, “Yeah, okay, I don’t even know what that means. But what’s the real challenge here for you around this?” And they’re like, “Oh, yeah, it’s this.” I’m like, “Great. What else is a challenge here for you around this?” And they’re like, “Amazing.” It’s them, they’re in the spotlight, I’m in service to them. And “Tell me more about that” is often in service to me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s a powerful distinction there in terms of who’s the question in service to. And, also, when we’re reviewing coaching contexts in terms of, hey, on stage and such, that’s really handy. I think in previous contexts, “Tell me more about that” was handy in terms of someone said something to you that made you kind of angry, like they’re volunteering some feedback or they’re about to let you know just how you’ve screwed up. “Tell me more about that” is great for disarming versus “And what else?” It’s sort of like, “Oh, really? You’re going to dismiss what I’ve just said?” So, that’s perfect in terms of the different contexts, making one versus the other a bullseye.

Michael Bungay Stanier
So, in the context of somebody said something, feedback, or aggravating, or something like that, the power of “Tell me more about that” is it’s a self-management tool to stop you leaping…

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that too, yeah.

Michael Bungay Stanier
You know, strangling, you’re like, “You’re triggering me here. I want to kill you.” Here’s a nuance then in that context, which is like, “Tell me more about that” is a pretty broad question. There’s a way that you might direct that conversation to become more useful for you. And here’s how it could look like. You could say, “What’s the data for this?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Because when people give you feedback, it tends to be a mix of a little bit of fact and a whole bunch of judgment, and a whole bunch of unspoken feeling, and an unspoken want or need, and there’s a way that “Tell me more about that” you may get a bit more of a repeat of what you’ve already heard, which is the same kind of mess of all of that stuff. But you could take it in different ways, you go, “Okay, I hear there’s something going on here. Tell me what the data is. Tell me what the facts are around this because I’m curious to know what’s making you think that.”

You could say, “I hear what’s going on. Just so I’m clear, what do you want here? What do you want from me? What do you want from this conversation? What do you want from this outcome?” Because sometimes actually everything they’ve told you is entirely separate from what they’re really trying to get out of this, and knowing what they want is a much more specific and useful question to actually figure out.

And then the third question that you could ask around that, you could ask, I mean, I love putting feelings and judgments together. In my head, I’ve got this model which is like every conversation has four parts to it: data, feelings, judgments, and the wants and the needs. And the context of like a tough conversation, I’m like, I’m trying to get clear on what falls into what bucket.  So, it’s like I’m just trying to find the right articulation of the question, Pete. It’s like, “If that’s the fact, if that’s the data, what are your assumptions based on that? What do you assume to be true about me, about you, about this situation at hand?”

And what you’re doing is you’re effectively asking the same question you’re asking, which is “Tell me more about that” but you’re being a little more direct, it’s like, “I want to find out about the data. I want to find out what you want. I want to find out what you assume to be true.” And all of those questions can be helpful but one in particular might particularly serve you in the moment.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s great. And so then, maybe could you give us an example of disaggregating those four components there in terms of let’s just say I’m saying…? Okay, I just looked at your hotel room, so I’ll just say, “You go up to the front desk and you tell them that your bed is unacceptable.” Can you disaggregate that for us?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah. And if they go, “I can hear you’re frustrated there, sir. What is it that you want?” “You know what, I just need a bed, a pillow.” And they’re like, “Oh, that’s easy. We’ll just send over there a pillow.” Or I’m like, “I’ve got a colony of bedbugs.” And they’re like, “Oh, okay. Well, we’ll move you to a different room.” Or, it’s a hammock and I don’t sleep in hammocks, “I thought I was getting a king-sized bed and you put me in the nautical-themed room, and there’s like pictures of pirates on the wall, and it smells of brine, and I don’t like hammocks.” So, that curiosity can help.

Now, it might be for them, they’re like, “Tell us more. What seems to be the issue, sir?” But you’re like, the bigger insight in all of this is that piece around curiosity and the power of it, because “Tell me more about that” is an invitation to stay curious. And that’s the big win around that.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Well, I’m thinking like a more complex situation because with the hotel and the hotel bed, it’s a transactional relationship, like, “We’re just talking about a bed and then we’re never going to talk to each other again.” If it’s somebody I have a relationship, like it’s my wife, and I go, “Well, I’m just curious. What makes you think that? What’s the data behind what you’ve just said?” And she goes, “Well, I just saw the rubbish bins, the trash cans, out on the pavement, and they were this and they were that.” And I’m like, “Oh, yeah, actually those aren’t our trash cans. Our trash cans are on the back. I brought them in.” And she’s like, “Oh, all right. My mistake.” And that data diffuses the whole situation.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Michael Bungay Stanier
But if I’m like, “Tell me more about that,” she’s like, “I never liked you. You’ve never been good at household chores. You’ve been a burden to the family for 30 years,” and I’m like, “Okay, this has gone really dark really quickly.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oops.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, in that trash can example, that’s actually really handy because if we look at those four components, so the data are “I witnessed some trash cans that were askew.” Their feelings are “That’s gross and I hate looking at it and it’s very unpleasant.” The judgment is “You’re unresponsive in doing your chores, Michael, and my need is for you to fix that.”

Michael Bungay Stanier
It actually goes deeper than that, which is that, “You’re bad at your chores. You’re a roundabout lazy man. You’re a parasite. You’re sucking me dry. You never carry your weight in this relationship. You don’t love me.” That stuff can kind of escalate pretty quickly.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Understood. And so then, Michael, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things here?

Michael Bungay Stanier
No, I think that’s it. There’s a bunch of good resources at TheAdviceTrap.com, there’s a questionnaire around which of the three advice monsters is the one that you’re most familiar with, there’s that process around going into hard change versus easy change. All that resources that people can make the most of it they’d like.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Michael Bungay Stanier
I have so many good quotes. I will point to that I’m sitting with at the moment is from Muhammad Ali, and somebody once said this is the shortest poem ever written. And it is, “Me, we.” And I love the profundity of that which is to say we are all connected. There’s no me without the context of us. And what you do here for you is in service to us, and remember that connection. So, me, we. Muhammad Ali.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And could you share with us a favorite book?

Michael Bungay Stanier
The book that I keep coming to because it’s an amazing combination of science and just the kind of celebration of the miracle of this planet, being a planet that we can live on, is Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything. It’s hilarious. That man can write a metaphor better than anybody else I know. And, really, it just opens up the kind of the unlikelihood of being this life on this planet at this time where you and I are able to do a podcast together. It’s like spectacularly unlikely that this could ever happen, and yet here we are.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

 

Michael Bungay Stanier
The thing that I am enjoying most is a pen given to me by the people that are helping me publish the book, it’s by a company called Baronfig, which are a New York stationary cover. And it just is a beautiful pen.

Pete Mockaitis
Great. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch with you, where would you point them?

Michael Bungay Stanier
TheAdviceTrap.com is a place to find out about the book. But if you’re going to go to a singular place, basically, a newish website called MBS.works, and that’s kind of a collection of my works, all the stuff that I’m working on, so you can access the books I’ve written. So, MBS.works is a good place to go.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Michael Bungay Stanier
Yeah, add a question, just one question per day to your conversation. Make it “And what else?” Make it any other question but I would love you to take one small step in the direction of curiosity.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Michael, this has been fun. I wish you lots of luck with The Advice Trap and all your adventures.

Michael Bungay Stanier
Pete, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks for the great conversation. I appreciate we kind of went deep and interesting, and you threw yourself in the mix there as well, so thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, well, thank you. It’s my pleasure.