Ask, don’t tell

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Ask, don't tell

Coaching could be captured in three words:

Ask, don’t tell.

It’s all about asking questions but as we move into exploring this on my training courses I often see my participants eyes glaze over because they think they’ve covered everything there is to know about open and closed questions on a thousand other courses.

However, the reason for asking questions in a coaching conversation is subtly different.

The main point to clarify is that coaches do not ask questions to get answers. Instead they ask questions so that the coachee has to think before providing their response. If everything we do is preceded by thought, then it follows that if we increase the quality of thinking then we’ll increase the quality of action or decision.

Asking questions encourages thinking and recognizes that the people whom we coach have ideas and input and more importantly, demonstrates that those ideas are welcomed and people’s input valued. Telling or instructing does none of these things; it stifles creativity and innovation and encourages a culture of dependency on the manager; as seeing them as the person with all the answers. If you’ve ever found yourself saying (or thinking) ‘How many times must I tell you?’ or ‘If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times!’ you’ll know this to be true.

Asking questions will mean that coachees achieve a much greater level of understanding about the work they do and the tasks they complete. You can ask questions in advance of the task to encourage the coachee to think about how they might go about things and the obstacles they might encounter or you can ask questions after the task to find out what went well or badly, what was learnt and what could be done differently next time. Of course this will demand an investment of time up front from the coach – time that won’t always be available – but like any sound investment there will be a significant pay back over time. As the people you coach become more capable and confident because they’re thinking so well, they’ll become less reliant on you to solve problems and give direction. Where the coachee’s work involves repetition, a coaching style that makes good use of thought-provoking questions can save hours of going over the same ground and repeating the same instructions.

Asking questions will promote a level of learning unavailable from the more controlling, tell and instruct approach. Kolb’s learning cycle suggests that learning occurs once we’ve planned an experience, had the experience, reflected on the experience and drawn conclusions from the experience. In the frenetic world of work these days we mostly just plan and do (and sometimes the planning bit gets missed!) a few judicious coaching questions will ensure we reflect and conclude without making more formal arrangements to do so. All of this is going to lead to a much more involved and therefore motivated employee and so most importantly of all will promote a much higher quality of task completion which can be measured and quantified in terms of money spent or saved should you wish to prove coaching’s worth.

Matt Somers

Matt Somers

Matt Somers is the UK’s leading trainer of managers as coaches. His coaching skills training programmes, books, articles and seminars have helped thousands of managers achieve outstanding results through their people.

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