Thou Shalt Ask, Not Tell

What do you do when a member of your team comes to you with a problem?

Do you instantly give them an answer? Or quickly provide them with a solution? Or immediately offer them advice?

Yes, on the outside that means that the individual can move on, you feel useful and competent and it’s something else ticked off your ‘never-ending’ list, but have you ever considered the downside of being a manager or colleague who does this?

Telling rather than asking.

Reading this, you’re probably thinking that there’s more questions than answers at the start of this blog, but looking at the subject of coaching isn’t that what it’s all about?

Sir John Whitmore was a leading thinker in leadership development and organisational change. He wrote five books on leadership, coaching and sports, of which Coaching for Performance is the best known having sold over a million copies in more than 20 languages. He states that:

“Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential

to maximise their own performance.

It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.”

And here at PeopleUnboxed, rather than giving answers all the time, we see a great question as a key that can unlock and lead to so many great benefits including:

  • Improvements in individual and team performance
  • Improvements in self-confidence and self-awareness
  • Improvements in relationships
  • Increased motivation and empowerment
  • Increased levels of resilience

All of these benefits are easily accessible from simply changing a knee-jerk answer or solution, to a thought-provoking question.

Yes, the individual needs to have a level of competence that allows you to ask these questions in the first place, but coaching and questions accelerate learning and unlocks a person’s potential.

So coaching is not:

  • Problem solving for the other person
  • Giving advice and telling the other person what they should do
  • Leading the other person into the answer or solution you want, or think is best

Rather, coaching is about:

  • Helping them to learn rather than teaching them
  • Empowering them by developing self-awareness
  • Enabling them to take more responsibility and thus be more accountable for their performance

To help get the right approach there is a tried and tested coaching recipe that will help you to unlock someone’s true potential.

Mindset, plus skillset, plus toolset. Let’s explore each of these…

text reads: Mindset + Skillset + Toolset = Potential. Each word is demonstrated by an icon in a circle and different colour
Text reads: Mindset + Skillset + Toolset = Potential. This is demonstrated by icons.


This is relevant to both you as the coach and the person being coached, and there is three mindsets we need to be aware of.

  • Firstly, an open mindset, so both parties are open to coaching and being challenged to thinking differently.
  • Secondly, a growth mindset, so both parties are looking to grow from every opportunity that is presented.
  • Finally, an accountable mindset. It is a key role of a coach to create an accountable mindset in the person being coached. We want them to move from a victim mindset where things happen to them, to an accountable mindset where things happen because of them. A great question to encourage self-accountability is ‘what more can I do?’

These three mindsets of open, growth and accountable allow the person being coached to take ownership of their development and performance.


The right skillset is critical to a coaching approach. There are numerous skills need to be an effective coach, but let’s focus on three:

  • Listening – When it comes to coaching, experts recommend a 30/70 split. 30% of the time you are talking and 70% of the time you are listening. Meaning the emphasis is on the person being coached, using silence effectively to elicit more answers and information from them. A great tip is to count to five in your head once the person finishes speaking to make sure they have truly finished. Often, given this extra time, people will reveal something else they may have been holding back. This helps us to get all the information from them and gives them permission to explore more deeply.
  • Questioning – alongside listening is questioning. It allows us to probe in an objective and effective way, encouraging the person to think more deeply and raise self-awareness. These questions should be clean and concise, many experts recommend a maximum of 5-10 words. Try to avoid ‘why’ questions, as they have a tendency to create a defensive response. Instead, try using TED (Tell, Explain, Describe) questions to get the other person thinking. For example: “Tell me about your approach. Explain what you think the best option is. Describe how that made you feel”. The master skill of coaching is the ability to ask great questions, so put some thought and practice into this.
  • Rapport – for them to trust you, and you to trust them, a rapport is crucial. To help with this, use body language effectively. Be impartial, non-judgemental and empathetic. Create a safe and supportive environment where the person can be their true self. Keep to commitments and finally, make it about them. As Stephen Covey said in his book ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People,’ “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”


The final part of the coaching recipe is around the tools you have at your disposal, in particular questions.

Looking at more formal coaching we’re going to use Sir John Whitmore’s GROW model, but these questions can also help with ‘in the moment’ coaching too. GROW stands for Goal, Reality, Options, and Will:

  • Goal – Setting clear goals for what the person wants to happen
  • Reality – Checking and raising awareness of the situation as it currently is
  • Options – Finding alternatives, new ideas, different solutions and possible answers
  • Will – Testing commitments; building concrete plans to reach the goal
Text reads: GROW model questions. Boxes for each section: Grow, Reality, Will and Options include a list of proposed questions to ask.
Text reads: GROW model questions. Boxes for each section: Grow, Reality, Options and Will, include a list of proposed questions to ask. For example: Goal: “What do you want to achieve?”. Reality: “What is actually happening right now?”. Options: “What else might you do?”. Will: “When exactly will you start and finish each step?”.

Before we finish, it is worth exploring two common blockers and pitfalls that stop us from coaching.

Firstly, time is often a big reason, but think of the long-term gain and how empowered the person could be as a result of investing the time into coaching. Protect the time to allow you the opportunity to coach.

Secondly, old habits die hard. It is quite easy to give someone an answer when they come to you, telling rather than asking. To help us with this, try to give yourself 5-10 seconds before responding and instead ask two simple yet powerful questions: What have you already tried? What else could you try? These two golden questions allow the person to learn, rather than you either teaching or doing it for them. Powerful stuff.

So the next time a colleague comes to you with a problem look to ask rather than tell. Give them the permission to find an answer, and let’s listen to see what they think. As the great basketball player Michael Jordan said,

A coach is someone that sees beyond your limits

and guides you to greatness!”

If you enjoyed this blog, why not watch our Coaching Culture webinar, hosted by myself and Arlene, to explore this subject in more depth. or you could find out more about our leadership programmes that can genuinely help you ask and not tell.

The 4Ps of Candid Conversations


The “Four Ps” model can help us to plan for a difficult or candid conversation so that both parties find it beneficial.

Learning Outcomes

  • Learn how to plan for a difficult or candid conversation so that both parties find it beneficial
  • Understand how to use the 4Ps to deliver a difficult message
  • Consider how this can help manage under-performance in a structured manner

Assertive Disagreement


When you disagree with someone, it is often best to be direct and clear, as it avoids an unfortunate misunderstanding. People can shy away from disagreement as it can sometimes feel confrontational. The assertive approach introduced in this module helps you to express your disagreement in a professional, constructive manner.

Learning Outcomes

  • Learn what assertiveness is
  • Learn a process to put your case across without getting emotional
  • Provide context for how to use the model in a real-world environment

Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument


Because no two individuals have exactly the same expectations and desires, conflict is a natural part of our interactions with others. This self-test assessment will tell you more about your predominant style of handling conflict and what this means.

Learning Outcomes

  • Provide a starting point for your development
  • Identify your conflict handling style
  • Learn about the five conflict handling modes

AID Feedback Model


Providing feedback that encourages open dialogue and communication enhances your credibility as both a teammate and as a leader. AID is a simple feedback model that can be used for positive moments and those that need corrective action.

Learning Outcomes

  • Learn a simple model for providing feedback
  • Identify your own role in each of the stages
  • Discover the benefits of creating a feedback culture

Action-Centred Leadership


Good managers and leaders should have full command of the three main areas of the Action-Centred Leadership model and should use each of the elements according to the situation.

Learning Outcomes

  • Discover John Adair’s action-centred leadership model
  • Learn how to adapt the model for your own work situation
  • Investigate the danger of becoming out of balance

Question Types


Asking the right question is at the heart of effective communication and information exchange. Using the right questions can improve a whole range of communication skills; the information we receive back (the answer) will depend very much on the type of question we ask.

Learning Outcomes

  • Learn why asking the right question is at the heart of effective communication and information exchange
  • Discover why the right questions in a particular situation can improve a whole range of communication skills

Dr. Mehrabian’s Communication Model


We are always communicating, even when we are not speaking. Other factors communicate what we really think and feel, which can be explained by looking at Albert Mehrabian’s communication model.

Learning Outcomes

  • Learn the impact of mixed messages when communicating
  • Understand that communication is a blend of words, body language and tone

Situational Leadership


Leaders need to tailor their approach based on the person they are coaching, their experience at the task and their level of enthusiasm for completing it.

The ability to adapt your leadership style to cater to different tasks and your people’s needs is called situational leadership.

Learning Outcomes

  • Understand Hersey and Blanchard’s situational leadership model
  • Recognise directive and supportive behaviours
  • Understand the four leadership styles in line with situational leadership
  • Understand the development levels of team members, based on competence and commitment
  • Become confident with flexing your leadership style to the individual and the situation