A participant in a coaching workshop I was running recently asked me what they could do when confronted with a team member who clearly had a major skill gap in the area they were trying to coach them on.

When we’ve truly reached the edge of someone’s understanding – and we’re the subject matter expert in that area – do we remain a coaching purist and leave them hanging? Of course not!

Coaching is simply a mode that leaders adopt. Sometimes it is appropriate to switch modes to training, mentoring, managing or directing.

Max Landsberg in The Tao of Coaching wrote about a repertoire of response options along the Ask vs Tell continuum. Between asking questions and paraphrasing (which is more empowering), there is suggesting, then demonstrating, then giving advice; before ultimately telling what and how (which is more directive).

The Ask vs Tell Continuum:

  1. Ask questions and paraphrase
  2. Suggest
  3. Demonstrate
  4. Give Advice
  5. Tell what and how.

So how can we tell when coaching is the right mode, and when to switch to other modes?

Start by asking; and build on it.

Explore what someone already knows. Find the edge of their knowledge and skill. Like adding layers to a cake, or building on an existing frame, strengthen their existing neural network by extending what they already know.

This is how a coaching conversation could move down the ask vs tell continuum:

  1. Ask & explore fully: “What options & ideas do you already have?” “What else?”
  2. Suggest: “Can I suggest some options for you to consider?”
  3. Demonstrate: “Can I show you an option?”
  4. Give Advice: “The option I would choose in this situation is…”
  5. Tell what and how: “The way I see it, your best option is to….”

In my experience – many leaders default straight to tell mode. It’s a powerful impulse to help others and speed up our efforts by telling. But this mode slows down learning and innovation – two factors critical to growth.

Starting by asking puts you in coach mode, at least initially, and gives you the insight you need to build the capabilities of people around you and, through time, build a high performing team.


Reference: Landsberg, M. (1996). The Tao of Coaching. Harper Collins. London

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