Ask or tell? Which works best?

One of the first things that any decent coaching course will cover is the ‘ask-tell’ continuum. Over on the far right we tell people things – from a straightforward answer through to details of what to do and how to do it. On the left we ask them.

Both have their uses; each has times when they’re more appropriate. If you want to have a team of people who are happy to follow you, it’s worth checking that you’re doing enough asking.

Ask or tell? Which works best?

Why? Just think about how you feel when you’re told to do something. Your answers may range from “good, got it thanks”, “thanks for clearing that up” to “feeling pretty patronised right now” or “still not much wiser”.

Now think about how you feel when you’re asked about something. You get to respond, you actually get the mic. How do you feel? Your answers may include “listened to”, “respected” and even “helped me to think it through aloud”.

Managers with a coaching style will tend to ask more; those with a more directive style will tell more. Most managers spend far too much of their conversations with those they manage rooted at the ‘Tell’ end of the continuum. Don’t just take my word for it: research by CIPD (Employee Outlook, Winter 2014-15) found that three quarters of managers say they ‘always or usually’ coach their direct reports when talking to them. However, the same survey found that less than a third of employees report this being the case.

Sure, there are times when you’ll need to be more directive – explaining a task someone’s tackling for the first time, for example. But even then you could end the discussion by asking coaching questions. Pay attention to how much you’re telling v asking. Get in the habit of pausing for breath before you tell, and turning it round to a question, as in these examples:

Tell

“Here’s how you do this.”
“When I had your job and that happened, here’s what I did…”
“What you need to do next time is…”

Ask

“How could you do that?”
“What steps can you take?”
“What options do you have for getting this done?”
“What have you tried in a similar situation?”
“What have you learned from this?”
“How will you handle it next time?”

If you want to add coaching skills to your manager’s toolkit, get in the habit of asking more than telling.

Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’

 

 

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