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. Instead, it might be better to use a different approach, the ‘Ask Not Tell’ approach.

Recovering from the problem-solving addiction

According to Lynda Atkins and her work related to agile coaching, the core mindset shift is  “recovering from the problem-solving addiction.” Many people are promoted as a result of their problem-solving strength. Yet when they become managers, their success suddenly shifts from their success as an individual star performer to the success of the team and the team members therein. This can be a big mindset shift, yet it is a really important and necessary shift if you are going to be successful as a leader.

Solving someone problems will not help them to learn and grow. It will not add to their success; something you need as their manager. So how do we recover from the problem-solving addiction? Let me tell you about a conversation I had with a coaching client.

Conversation with Coaching Client

Yesterday I had the privilege of working with a middle manager, Shaun that had a direct report (also a leader, Sue). Sue came to Shaun her manager with a problem about one of her own direct reports, Anne.

Anne, was not fitting very well into Sue’s team. Shaun, my coaching client and also Sue’s manager,  felt he should tell Sue what to do including how to proceed with her team member Anne. Options included reducing Anne’s hours or putting her on a performance plan. Indeed Shaun felt confident that his direct report Sue wanted him to tell her what to do about her own direct report Anne.  When I probed further, I found out that Shaun wished to control the outcome with Sue’s team member Anne. He wanted to have a say in the operations of Sue’s team.

I asked Shaun if this approach would empower Sue to execute the decision or help her to learn for her advancement about managing members of her own team. He was not sure, so I asked him if he would be willing to role-play the situation with me.

‘Ask Not Tell’ approach

In our session, we did a role play together, with him initially playing the role of Sue and myself playing his part of the middle manager. In essence in switched roles for the sake of putting ourselves into someone else’s shoes.

As part of the coaching approach, I asked Shaun questions to more fully understand the situation, paraphrased back words and thoughts, and asked about various options and their consequences. In essence, I coached him as if he was Sue, the person coming to her manager with an issue.

The mindset shift came when we debriefed the role play.  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 supported by that coaching conversation. It felt good to be heard, and it helped me process my thoughts and decide how to move forward. Likewise, I believe I will use this approach with Sue. After all, Sue is the expert on her team”.

To help Shaun, finalize his approach and feel confident in coaching Sue, we switched roles. Shaun went back to being himself as a middle manager, and I played the role of Sue, his direct report.


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 confident, knowing how to move forward with clarity.”

Sue’s final words to Shaun were, “Thanks so much for listening,  and for 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 coach, help them learn, and listen, rather than tell them what to do.

Exceptions to the rule

If they are stuck, you could ask them if they would like to hear some of your thoughts. This is known as the “Ask and Drain” concept. That is draining all their thoughts, before adding some of your own. In this case, i like to frame it as an experiment, by asking “Are you open to experimenting with something?”.

Another exception is an emergency where time is at a premium. In this situation, proceed with telling rather than taking a coaching approach.

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.