The Coaching Habit Podcast

The Coaching Habit Podcast

The best strategies for leading yourself and others by tapping into the wisdom of thinkers, leaders, writers and coaches.

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Jim Knight’s One Best Question

In this episode, Jim Knight shares a powerful coaching question, aimed at helping teachers get a clear view of the current reality of their performance. Tune in above or bookmark it here to listen to later. And don’t forget to rate it on iTunes.


In this interview, Jim also mentions:

Steve Barkley

Michael Pantalon

Full Transcript

Michael: I am Michael Bungay Stanier. This is the Coaching Habit podcast, and this is one of the, I don’t know what you’d call it, offshoot interview pieces I’ve already done, or released. A main interview with my guest, Jim Knight. This one’s going to be focused on the one best question and I’m excited to dig into that. If you missed the main interview, make sure you catch that.

But you may not know who Jim Knight is. I’ll give you the quick overview. He is a mover and a shaker, particularly in the world of education. That is where his great work lies, where his commitment to ensuring every child has outstanding instruction in every classroom. He’s the author of ‘Instructional Coaching’, which popularized the idea and enabled teachers to be instructional coaches. He is a partner at the Instructional Coaching Group, which provides support for teachers and training for teachers, and he’s worked with 100,000 coaches from around the world, so if anybody’s going to know a good question or two I think it’s going to be, Jim Knight.

So Jim Knight, welcome.

Jim Knight: Hey. It’s great to be here and I’m loving our conversations.

Michael: Yeah, me too Jim. We’ve had the pleasure of hanging out and geeking out a bit on coaching before, so to kind of put it on tape, not that it’s actually tape … put it on bits and bites, perfect.

I know you’ve got a billion questions to draw upon, but if you had to pick one question that you thought was a powerful coaching question, which one would you point to?

Jim Knight: First off, I just want to take it down another road briefly to say that, initially, we were just terrible questioners. We went out and I interviewed about 10 different people who are coaching experts about the questions they used. Then using our research we went back and we, for about three years, using our approach to research called LEAN design research we did multiple iterations and kept changing and refining. I think the question that’s become most important is one that Steve Barkley, another coaching expert, shared with me and it comes from Solution-Focused Coaching.

Michael: Brilliant.

Jim Knight: Sort of. And it’s a scale-

Michael: Just to say quickly, that’s solution focused coaching is something that’s influenced my work as well, so I love that we’re … I feel like I’m going to agree violently with you, whatever this question is.

Jim Knight: Good. I like violent agreement. So first the person we’re working with needs to get a clear picture of current reality in some way. We find video to be really powerful. But it could be interviewing students, getting a picture of the class. If it was a leader doing this, they’d have to somehow get it to maybe 360 evaluation. Somehow you need a clear picture. You have to start with a clear picture of current reality.

And so the question we ask of teachers is on a scale of one to ten, how close was this class to your ideal? With ten being ideal and one being the opposite of that. And so that scale question, what I like about it is, it puts the ball in the person’s court. They realize we’re not doing a number to them, we’re trying to figure out where they are. They give us a starting point. For me it really works well.

The one thing I’d say is so far nobody has said it’s a 10, but if somebody did say it’s a 10 I would say, “Well, when it’s not a 10 what’s it like?” And once that’s started, then the coaching process is off to the races and it’s being driven by the person’s concerns, not your concerns.

Michael: Is there something about the way you phrase it? I mean what caught my ear was one to ten compared to your ideal … is that what you said, ideal scenario or ideal situation?

Jim Knight: Yeah, how close is that class to your ideal class on a scale of one to ten?

Michael: And what’s powerful about framing it as an ideal?

Jim Knight: Well, you start with the positive not the negative. We don’t say to the person, “Tell me what you didn’t like about that class.” And it’s specific, so people … I’ve never had somebody say, “I really don’t know.” People have always got things to say. But it positions it as an opportunity not a … Not too general either, because when we started out we used to say, “How do you think things went?”

Michael: Right.

Jim Knight: And the response was always, “Fine.”

Michael: Yeah it’s okay.

Jim Knight: But now that we’ve moved to a scale question and we have this positive thing it’s made a big difference.

Michael: Yeah. Part of why I’m probing around the ideal piece is it holds them to their highest possible standard, kind of it sneaks it in there without them really realizing. It’s not like how do you think this rates against people’s expectations? How does this rate against how you should be performing as a teacher? It’s like, I assume that you as a teacher, as a leader in the classroom, hold the highest possible standard for yourself, how did it compare to that? It’s cunning like that.

Jim Knight: I like that answer better than mine. I think the other thing too is it assumes that they want to have an ideal class. It assumes positive intent on their part.

Michael: Got it.

Jim Knight: The reality is most people do have positive intent in my experience. When they’re respected, when they have a voice, when they have a structure that helps them move forward, teachers will blow you away with what they accomplish. But if you dehumanize them and you bully them, like anybody else they’re going to back off.

Michael: Where do you go after they give you an answer? After they’ve given you a number, do you have a kind of a follow-up question that you typically ask?

Jim Knight: Well we sort of have 10 questions that we run through. They’re in the new book ‘The Impact Cycle’ but if you look up the identify questions Jim Knight on the website, on the Google, I’m sure you could find it. But there’s two questions that kind of come next. And the second one is well you didn’t give yourself a one, so what are you pleased with? What are you happy about? I didn’t have that one in there right away, but friends on mine in Australia really advocated for it and so I think it’s a good one. And then the next thing is okay what would have to change to make it closer to a 10?

Michael: Love it.

Jim Knight: And that becomes the next sort of focusing of the conversation. And then we say, “Okay what would your students be doing differently? How would we measure it?” And a little later on we just zone down to how we’re going to say what the goal is, and then we have a really important question is well if you hit that goal, would it really matter to you?

Michael: Nice.

Jim Knight: And sometimes, and we had a conversation about this a while back where the teacher said, “You know, no. It doesn’t matter to me.” And they went back and rethought and came up with a much better goal when they asked that question.

Michael: That’s a great reality check, because it’s so easy to assume that … you know you heard me say often that the first answer to a question is rarely the best answer. I reckon you could put some good money down on it, like the first goal they come up to isn’t the real goal. It’s just the first goal that comes to mind. So it can be seductive and going okay we’ve got something, let’s run with that.

Jim Knight: Well it’s scary, you’re like, I need something to move forward with, I’ll take that. If you’ve got anything it’s a lot better than nothing is how it feels.

Michael: I remember interviewing, for the Great Work podcast, the previous podcast, a guy called, I think his name is Michael Pantalon. He’s a psychologist maybe in Yale, and he had a really wonderful follow-up question after a scale question. And his question was … he’s like, “So how close was that to your ideal classroom?” “I’m going to say six.” His follow-up question would be why didn’t you give yourself a lower number?

Jim Knight: Oh that’s better than ours. Ours is what are you pleased with?

Michael: Right.

Jim Knight: That’s really good.

Michael: It’s cunning isn’t it? Because it forces them to … it’s one of those … I love questions that kind of sneak in sideways. And I think that’s one of those questions that sneaks in sideways because it gets people talking about the strengths. And it’s particularly powerful even if they give themselves a two out of 10. It’s like, why didn’t you give yourself a lower number? And they start finding the power or what worked well. So it’s very much in that appreciative inquiry kind of mode.

Jim Knight: No, I like that better than our question. I’ve always felt the question, why did you give yourself a six? Felt a little funny.

Michael: Yeah. Because they don’t know.

Jim Knight: So this one, I think-

Michael: People won’t know. They’ll just go, “The number felt right. I don’t have a rational reason.”

Jim Knight: Too bad I just published the book.

Michael: Yeah. Dammit. There you go, here’s the updated new version of the book coming out.

Jim Knight: That’s right, that’s right. Next edition will have this question in it instead.

Michael: And you could almost balance it, I wonder … I’m just hypothesizing, but it’s like, you could ask so why didn’t you give yourself a lower number? You could ask so why didn’t you give yourself a higher number? And that takes them into the places where they were like this is what I could have done better.

Jim Knight: Well, I think that’s there in the question, what would have to change to make it higher?

Michael: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right.

Jim Knight: And I like that question. But this is an improvement I think, why didn’t you give yourself a lower number is a great question.

Michael: Alright. I’m just going to drop the mic and walk off the stage. My work here is done. Jim, for people who want to find out more about your work, where can they find you on the web?

Jim Knight: Okay, so there’s a blog, it’s Excuse me, not a blog but our main website is Instructional Coaching. There is an awful lot, a ton of resources you can download from that website. Videos of coaching conversations. And it’s all free, and you don’t have to type in your password, just go there, click on it. If you can download it and use it, we want you to have it.

Michael: Pillage that website people.

Jim Knight: And then I have a blog, and there are a lot of videos on there, especially about coaching and conversations. And that’s

Michael: Brilliant.

Jim Knight: Either of those places would give you a start.

Michael: Jim, it’s always a pleasure, thank you.

Jim Knight: Thank you.

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