Do ask, don’t tell

Two colleagues at very different stages of their careers asked me for advice recently.  Both had the same problem, though they didn’t realize it.

One manages hundreds of people.  He’s concerned because his efforts to coach people can turn into intimidation.  He tells his people what he thinks is important. They then do what they think he wants, not what they think is right.  People tell him what they think he wants to hear, not what he needs to hear.

The other manages no one, but deals with senior corporate officers frequently.  His problem is that he is asked for his advice but no one seems to take it.  He tells people what he thinks, they nod, and then do something entirely different.

Both share the same problem.  They tell people what they think should happen.  Then they’re surprised that they don’t get the right outcomes. Maybe that’s the problem.  They tell.  They don’t ask.

What would happen if they asked more and told less?  It sounds so simple, but ask yourself: Which do you do more often in conversation? Do you ask or tell?

Why do the questions matter so much?

  • Logically, questions force you to think about what you’re doing, not just defend it.  A recent article described this as forcing people to “unpack” their preconceptions
  • Emotionally, questions create a very different experience for the person on the receiving end.  A good question makes you feel like you’re being challenged to think, not told what to do.  A good question makes you respond to the question; a statement makes you respond to the role and standing of the person making the statement.

I recently ran a class on sustainability for a group of mid-level consultants.  This was not a group of practitioners of practical, sustainable strategy.  These folks were very bright and well educated, but mostly in more technical areas crucial to delivering good sustainability results.  Predictably, they wanted to hear a definition of sustainability.  I wouldn’t tell them what mine was.  Telling them would only have introduced them to the world of sustainable confusion, not helped them sort it out.  Instead, I asked them to imagine they were about to meet with a very important client.  In preparation for that meeting, I asked the students to take five minutes to write out their own definitions of sustainability.  Then I had them break out and role-play the client conversations with each other.

When we reconvened, I surprised them again.  I didn’t want them to tell me what they told each other.  Instead, I asked what they had heard when they played the client role, what made sense, and what didn’t. They had no chance to salute, parrot or reject my thoughts.  They had to “unpack” their own thoughts.

Of course, “do ask, don’t tell” requires us to ask good questions and respond appropriately to the answers.  Asking good questions matters: A series of piercing, focused questions, for example, creates a great interrogation scene in some detective film noir, but a poor conversation.  As my friend and colleague Andrew Sobel notes:

Most people don’t ask enough questions, and they often ask lousy ones. For example, they use closed-ended questions to which the other person can give a yes or no answer, or a short factual reply. That’s okay up to a point, but closed-ended questions rarely make people reflect and they don’t get to the heart of the matter the way thoughtful, open-ended questions do.

Even when I start out asking the right question, I still catch myself responding in ways that tell more than ask.  Having asked a good question, did I really listen to the answer? Did I even wait for the answer before I started talking? Did I follow up with more questions?  Or did I just listen for the next cue for what I wanted to say all along?

You might want to try it yourself. Listen to your next few conversations.  Listen for your own mix of ask and tell.  Then ask yourself a question: “What did I just hear?”

[Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of ERM, its partners or clients.]

One thought on “Do ask, don’t tell

  1. You point out one of the clear distinctions I’ve recently discovered between the role of a coach vs. the role of a mentor. Mentors add value via “show and tell” with their apprentices, but coaches are not in a comparable “parent-child” relationship. They must ask, listen, reflect, and ask again – to be valued colleagues.

    Coaching skills are especially relevant to those of us who practice the art of “sustainability”, because —

    “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
    -Ernest Hemingway

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