Ask Not Tell (i.e, Coach)

Ask not Tell

If someone comes to you with a situation, think before telling him or her what to do. Find out why it might be better to use the ‘Ask Not Tell’ approach instead.

Yesterday I had the privilege of working with a middle manager that had direct report (also a leader – let’s call her Sue) that came to my client for help with one of her team members that was not fitting very well into the team.

In our session he said that Sue did not know what to do and that she would likely prefer just to be told what to do. Some options for the non-fitting team member included reducing her hours or putting her on a performance plan. In fact when I probed further I found out that he wanted to control the outcome, another reason to tell her what to do.

I turned the tables on him and let him know that if he told his direct report, Sue, what to do, she would not learn, be empowered or be excited about moving forward with their own decision. After all, Sue was the expert off her own team.

‘Ask Not Tell’ approach

Instead, I suggested that we try another approach, one that involved an ‘Ask’ rather than ‘Tell’ approach. In our session we did a role-play together, with him initially playing the role of Sue and then reversing the roles.

As part of the coaching approach, I asked questions to more fully understand the situation, paraphrased back words and feelings, and asked about various options and their consequences. The deal breaker came, when I asked him what he thought about taking Sue’s part and being coached, that is, being asked questions rather than being told what to do.

Here were his exact words on the approach:

“I felt really supported by that coaching conversation. It felt good to be heard and it helped me process my thoughts. I am now excited to move forward with my own ideas.

Later, I asked him how it went in person with Sue.

Here was some of his feedback with the new ‘Ask Not Tell’ approach:

“She came up with her own goals and ideas”.

“She felt really good, she knew what to do and felt confident”.

Her final words “Thanks so much for listening and supporting me”.

So the next time that you are thinking of telling someone what to do. Instead, take a deep breath and count to three. Be a mentor, help them learn,  and listen. Only if they are totally stuck, you could ask them if they would like to hear some of your thoughts.



Nicola McCrabbe, is a Leadership Coach, Workshop Facilitator and Agile Meet-up group co-organizer. Reach her at

She works with newly appointed and established leaders who want to “up their game” and bring their teams to the next level.