Questions not advice

Please don’t read any further.Listen

I see you‘ve chosen to ignore me. That’s because, in general, we don’t like being told what to do. And as we gather knowledge and experience, promotions and responsibility, we like being told what to do even less.  

However many of us can’t resist the urge to tell others how to run their lives. And as we rise through the tiers of management, we find ourselves increasingly in the position where we can impose our way of doing things. This may be in an SME, where line managers have worked hard to build success with a small team, and therefore believe they know the only way to run their business, or it can be in a large, blue-chip organisation, where there are pressures from matrix management structures and ever-changing priorities.

How many times have you heard yourself say, “If I were you..” Well you’re not, are you? Therein lies the problem with giving orders, advice and instruction. Despite good intentions, the recipient has to find their own way to do things. And that’s where coaching comes in.

I’ve found that some line managers just don’t get what coaching is all about. They are guilty of seeing it as a time-consuming and somewhat vague process. I explain it as expecting  and allowing people to behave like they are resourceful adults. Done well, it leads to:

  • Employees becoming more competent and willing to take ownership of issues.
  • Managers’ time being freed up.
  • People who can be trusted to do well, even when the manager isn’t there.

Coaching, in its purest form, is simply asking insightful questions and listening carefully to the answers. It is respectfully allowing the ‘coachee’ to say whatever they want to say, to explore whatever they want to explore, and to get to their own conclusions. This is rather difficult to do! We want to help – offer advice. We think of our next question while we are ‘listening’. We are composing our thoughts on the matter as the other person speaks.  This is all perfectly normal, and so good coaching takes practice. It is a skill as well as an intent.

In the working world, we are all busy. I’ve heard  line management colleagues say it’s easier to tell, or to do things themselves, rather than delegate or coach someone else. And it may be in the short term. However, individuals will never learn to do it themselves if this approach is continued. We also often have high standards that we worry might be compromised if we allow someone else to do it their way. Standards are good – standard ways of achieving them are not.

In fact, in the business world, a more common sense approach to coaching is often needed. It’s okay for  managers to set goals and monitor performance. That’s our job. In certain situations, direction, teaching and prescription are appropriate. The point is, these are far more limited than some of us seem to believe.

In fact a blend of styles is required depending on the situation and the individual involved. Sometimes use of a simple model, like Conscious Competence Learning Framework, helps managers to get to grips with what is required when. After all, there would be no point in a manager asking a new start, “What do you think you should do today?” Direction and teaching is required at this point.









Coaching with low direction




Mixture of direction, encouragement  and coaching





Agreement on goals and coaching if asked for




Mainly direction needed


In large, blue-chip organisations, line managers have often had extensive management  training where coaching is mentioned frequently as a vital part of the management toolkit. They may even have been on a bespoke coaching course. In one of my previous jobs, we had ‘supercoaches’ –  line managers throughout the organisation who had been chosen to champion the case for coaching, and train others. This led to coaching having a credibility that might have been lacking if it were just yet another HR-driven initiative. These supercoaches had also been through a selection process, to ensure they had the right set of personality traits and skills to be great champions of the approach. It underlined the need for an interest and skill in being a coach.

In SMEs, there is likely to be less scope for specialised roles or training. It is probably going to be the line manager who is doing the coaching. Recognition needs to be given to the fact that the manager is ultimately responsible for judging performance and controlling pay rises, which may inhibit some coachees.
Managers have a vested interest in getting the job done, and it’s vital that there is a division between the goal and the responsibility for achieving it. Managers need to be persuaded that coaching is there to increase productivity in the long run, not provide them with an opportunity to look for weaknesses.

So how is it done well?

One of the bonuses of using coaching, in my view, is being released from responsibility for the outcome. You are simply the catalyst for someone else’s achievement. If managers can keep in mind these principles, coaching can be powerful:

  • Assume the coachee is a resourceful adult, and release yourself from the responsibility for the outcome.
  • Practise great questions – open and short.
  • Listen like you’ve never listened before – this is an active process!
  • Encourage progress towards goals, but don’t offer to do it for them.

Sample coaching conversation


Coachee I’m having some problems getting Brian to give me the stats on time for my report.
Manager What have you tried?
Coachee I’ve tried asking him, and telling him how important it is to me.
Manager What do you think the issue is?
Coachee I dunno – maybe I could ask him how much notice he needs?
Manager Okay. How do you think he sees it?
Coachee Oh – I didn’t think of that. It’s probably just a hassle. Maybe I could offer to give him a template to make it easier? Or I could send a note of thanks to his manager?
Manager Which one will you try first? Let me know how you get on.


Great Coaching Questions

What do you want to achieve?

What have you tried so far?

What do you think the real issue is?

Who else could help?

How do you think he/she sees it?

What do you need to have to move this forward?

Could you do anything differently?

If there was an ideal answer, what would it be?

When are you going to do this by?

Another part of coaching, especially in the business world, is management of the coaching discussion, and this may help managers see it more as a business process. There will be a timeframe to any coaching process, and there will need to be a result. There are various coaching models in the business world, which help define a process, and with research and practice each organisation finds the right one for them.

Below are two of the more commonly used models


GROW* Meaning SCORE# Meaning
G Goals – what do you want to achieve? S Symptoms – what proves that there is an issue?
R Reality – what is the situation just now? C Causes – what is at the root of the issue?
O Options – what can you do differently? O Outcomes – what do you want to achieve?
W What’s next? What will you do? R Resources – what do you have at your disposal or what do you need to get?

*Developed by Sir John Whitmore in his book “Coaching for Performance”

E Effects – what will success look like?
#Not strictly a coaching model but can successfully be used in this context. Developed by Robert Dilts and Todd Epstein as an NLP model for personal change.


In each case, you can start and move through the models in any order, as long as the end game is action.

Whichever one is chosen, the coach’s responsibility extends to managing the process so that the coachee achieves progress. Think of it as a burger in a roll. The meat of the sandwich is the coachee’s responsibility –  they own the content. The coach is the bread – the bottom is the process, the top is questioning and listening.

Great coaching is an excellent way to help others to grow – to find their own solutions, and to be able to do whatever it is again, even better. So next time you are asked for advice, bite your tongue and ask a question instead.

If you’re still reading this article, you obviously came to your own decision that it was the right thing to do. And that is exactly what coaching is all about.


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