How Can I Help?: One of Seven Ways to Manage Like a Coach

Imagine you are sitting in a meeting and your manager walks in. Does she or he walk in and take over? Or maybe listen for a little while, then offer input? If a manager wants to lead by coaching and empowering, then most of us can guess that taking over isn’t the right approach. Instead, she or he could pause, listen and then ask:

How can I help?

This question is my favorite of the seven questions that Michael Bungay Stanier offers in “The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever.” It’s a book written to help managers develop their skills as coaches. It was also assigned reading for my session of Seth Godin’s altMBA that I have already written about.


“How can I help?” It’s so simple – yet skillful and powerful. If you are the manager consider the benefits of this question:

  1. It requires others to articulate what they need. To do that, they need to assess where they are, evaluate any weaknesses on the team or in the project, and identify what resources or support they need to address the weakness. Brilliant — let them think it through
  2. It empowers others. This question shows that you (the manager) trust them. The question assumes that they know what they’re doing, and who among us doesn’t want to be trusted? With that empowerment, people tend to take ownership and step up their game. Another win-win
  3. It shifts the dynamic from top-down management to a team approach. The manager is really saying: “my job is to help you be the best at your job.” And those being managed have a say in the process. This is not empty management-speak but a true team approach
  4. It can tap into under-utilized resources of a diverse team. If the question is addressed to the thoughtful introvert who might not dream of telling his manager what he thinks, the answer might be surprising and insightful. Directly asking several people for their input, including the quiet off-to-the-side employee, could uncover new ideas and contributions that might otherwise have gone unsaid.
  5. It makes your job easier. You don’t have to figure everything out and have all the answers. By simply asking what you can do to help, you are putting the onus to make the necessary decisions on them, creating less stress for you (albeit the manager does bear ultimate responsibility).


So, instead of telling people how to fix a problem, try asking:

How can I help?

And if you’re going to get the book, I recommend reading the whole thing — not just skimming. It’s a helpful read with six more questions you can ask.