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Parenting: Manager or Coach? Lessons from a Business Book

Ella Herlihy

Responsibilities & Values

Parenting and business management have a fair amount in common. Both roles require oversight of behavior to get the best outcomes. However, as a parent you will want to eventually transform from the boss-like management where you are the one in charge of all of your child’s problems, to a coach that will guide your teens into having them make their own decisions.

In Michael Bungay Stanier’s book, ”The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever,” he teaches managers and coaches essential questions to help people work through their most difficult challenges in the corporate world. 

Who has more difficult day-to-day challenges than teenagers? 

Almost everything a teenager comes in contact with challenges in terms of relationships, stress from school, and social pressures. These problems are a brand new experience for them. Each situation presents an opportunity to contemplate a solution, try to solve an issue, and to learn from a success or failure. How are we as parents allowing our kids to face these learning moments? How can we be more like a coach, rather than a manager, to lead and support our teens through this season ripe with opportunities to grow.

The questions Bungay Stanier suggests do not only apply to coaching in the business world. It can also provide the perfect formula for transitioning our parenting from the telling and rule-based phase of the elementary years to the coaching phase of the teen years and beyond. The goal is to help teens move from always needing advice to being able to make wise decisions on their own.

How can we use these questions to lead our children to become more independent?

  1. The Kickstart Question: “What’s on your mind”?

Just as you have probably already learned, open ended questions give more room for interesting answers. If you want to actually know about what is going on at school, you have probably learned not to ask, “How was your day?” The one word teen answer to this question almost never leaves room for further discussion; it simply closes the door. Alternatively, “What’s on your mind?” opens the door to discovering not just the logistics of his day, but what is important to your son. This question helps you move immediately to what’s top on his list. Even better, it makes it super easy to jump from small talk right into what matters to your teen. 

  1. The AWE Question: “And what else?”

This seems so logical, yet so hard to do as a parent. If you are at all like me, you love solving problems. There are just so many as a parent. However, if we want our kids to be able to solve their own problems (isn’t this the long-range goal of parenting?), we have to step aside and let them do the work necessary to figure out what needs to be solved and how to solve it. The AWE question draws out double what you get from the Kickstart question. Sometimes teens just don’t know when they answer the first question. The second question helps to clarify things for them and for you too. Bonus: it builds the trust you need early in the conversation.

  1. The Focus Question: “What’s the real challenge here for you?

This is the meat and potatoes. Be patient. Do you hear the wheels in your daughter’s head turning? This is where you coach yourself to not open your mouth and shout out an obvious answer. Right here is the hard work we have to do so our thirty year old daughter is not calling us to solve a problem at her job. The answer to this question helps drill down to what the real issue is. Wait for it.

  1. The Foundation Question: “What do you want?”

Finally! This is what matters to them! If your teen trusts you, this answer is from their heart. If they don’t trust you, duct tape your mouth, open your ears, and test your patience by waiting for the answer. If they truly believe you want to help them, affirming their answer to this question is a huge deposit in your relationship bank account. The first three questions lead your teen to the place where she can answer this question well.

When asking these questions to your teen, it is key to approach it as a coach (as opposed to manager). Ask one question at a time and wait for the answer. With some kids, you may have to take a break and ask them to think about it and get back to you when they have an answer. Your bringing it back up and having a patient but relentless pursuit of getting to the last question and answer will build trust. It will also instill confidence in your teen to know that you are on his team and are truly seeking what is best for him, not just a pat answer or quick solution. 

Whether you memorize them, store them on your phone for reference, or write them on an index card, these questions will serve you well. Having a goal of transitioning from a manager to a coach will keep you focused when you would rather solve the problem for your teen than let him solve it. Remember, it’s not what you know, it’s how you execute what you know.

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Ella Herlihy

Being a mom to five children has given Ella Herlihy enough mistakes and victories to fuel her passion for guiding other parents along the road to raising responsible children without losing their minds in the process. She writes to help others learn from her many mistakes and victories, and what she has gleaned from all the books and seminars it takes to raise five children in today’s world. She is currently working on a book to encourage parents to choose to step back so their kids can move forward on the path to unentitled adulthood. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram @ Ella Herlihy.