Don’t Tell … Ask


“Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be.” — Thomas Kempis

If you coach others or you need to encourage change or if you need to change yourself, the key is to use questions.

Lead others to their own insight or your advice may fall on deaf ears.

Lead People to Their Own “Ah-Has”

You know the saying, “you can lead the horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.”  Part of the reason is, asking questions puts people into a more receptive state.

When people have their own “ah has” it actually creates an emotional link.  This helps the insight stick.  The key of course is to ask the right questions.

Are They Motivated

Another reason for asking versus telling is motivation.  Sometimes it’s about skills, but sometimes it’s about motivation.

A way to check motivation is simply to ask, “do you want to ….?” (yeah, it sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how often that can be revealing.)

Another way to check is to ask, “what do you want to accomplish?”

Asking Questions Helps Them Be Resourceful

Another reason for asking questions is you can actually help put people into a more resourceful state.

I use solution focused questions with my teams and myself to get unstuck.  Rather than ask why questions, it’s about shifting to what or how questions … “how can we accomplish that?” … “what would good look like?”

The key to solution focused questions is they are forward looking and they shift tense.  The past is about blame, present is about values, but the future is about opportunity. (See Shift Tense to Resolve Conflict)

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Photo by mush2274


  1. I think there is another key reason to lead with questions vs. just give the answer. Your answer may not actually be the optimal answer! By asking the questions and going through the process you turn what may have been just an order into a real opportunity. The horse you are leading may find a waterfall when you were just going to give them a bucket of old well water :).

    The other benefits are great too:
    – Increased attachement to the solution, that emotional connection
    – Increased learning and retention of the information/solution
    – Empowerment and ownership

  2. JD,

    “Don’t tell, ask” is a great leadership habit. There are only two types of people anyway – those who don’t like being told what to do, and those who do. The first group will resent it if you tell, and the second group learns nothing by simply following orders. Either way, your strategy works better!

  3. This is very true. Also if you’re trying to implement a procedure people are more likely to follow it if they understand why it’s necessary to follow each step.

  4. Hi J.D.

    Asking question is the key help someone see the true. I totally agreed with you on getting the person to a motivation and resourceful state. Plus I am a big believer of “people support what they create.” So anytime if we can have a person answer question in the way that they are creating their solution, they are much more likely to support that solution. Instead of some else telling them what the solution should be.
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  5. Too true – with colleagues, customers, kids. If you tell them all the answers their motivation to learn and do it themselves goes down, they know they always can ping you, or are they?
    I explain to my kids that one day they will be on their own so it’s better to learn how to do things on their own, with customers it is the matter of knowledge transfer – i transfer not the answers but the know-how. It build better trust.

  6. @ Jason

    Great point on turning orders into opportunities and I like your take aways.

    @ Daphne

    I like the way you grouped it and that matches my experience.

    @ Louisa

    I’m a fan of knowing the why. Motivation can often matter more than skill.

    @ Giovanna

    That’s a good way to put it. I think of it as “buy in” or having them “on board.” When people aren’t part of the solution, they can decide to become part of the resistance.

    @ Alik

    I like teaching people to fish and I like your point on building trust. Involving people is a key way to accomplish both.

  7. And then you wonder why parents are frustrated with their kids, same goes with teachers, etc.

    All they do is tell them to do this and dont do that, without giving them both sides, the consequences and the ability to choose and learn.

    Why is it that people seem to know what is best for us, better then what we know what is best for ourselves?

  8. St. Therese of Lisieux…

    You will also want to constantly re- fuel your thirst for motivation by using the power of visualization. For example, by using desktop wallpapers with quotes and sayings, you are giving yourself the visual stimulation and motivation you need to overco…

  9. @ Tom

    There’s a lot to be said for the power of choice.

    @ St. Therese of Lisieux

    Visualization and the right words are powerful motivators.

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