Guest Post by Mike McGervey

“Ask, don’t tell” is the underlying theme of coaching. It is the fuel that drives empowerment.  Asking open-ended probing, expanding, and closure questions increases self-awareness and enables the person you are coaching to discover their capacity to face issues and solve problems. That equips them to begin taking greater responsibility for the choices they make and the actions they take.

The caveat in all this is letting go of our habit of giving advice, of telling those we coach what we believe they could and should do. It even sneaks into our efforts to ask – in the form of leading questions. Why go through all that open-ended question stuff; why not simply give advice?  If you want a clearer answer to that question, please read on.

In his blog Communication Matters, Christopher Witt reflected on his experience with giving advice:

“I often think that the world would be a happier, saner place if everyone followed my advice. Sadly, I’ve learned over the years that an alarming number of people disregard the advice I give so freely. Then I recall all of the advice people have given me and how much of it I’ve resented, rejected, or ignored. The meaning of advice, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘the way things are looked at or regarded.’ That’s what I have to keep telling myself: the advice I offer is simply how I see things.”

Robert Bolton, author of People Skills, describes the advice-giving problem this way:

“Advice is often a basic insult to the intelligence of the other person. It implies a lack of confidence in the capacity of the person with the problem to understand and cope with his or her own difficulties.  The advisor seldom understands the full implications of the problem.  When people share their concerns with us, they often display only the ‘tip of the iceberg.’ The advisor is unaware of the complexities, feelings, and the many other factors that lie hidden beneath the surface.”

David Rock, CEO and author of Your Brain at Work, explains why the brain’s threat system gets activated when receiving advice:

Status: We constantly assess how social encounters either enhance or diminish our sense of status. When someone, and especially a superior, offers advice, our limbic system focuses on their perceived superior knowledge and experience – not on how we can benefit from the advice.

•Certainty: We all crave a degree of certainty. When unsure how to resolve a problem, our memory decreases. We disengage from the present moment and focus on what could go wrong in the future. At that point, we are less likely to hear and neutrally appraise advice.

•Autonomy: We need to feel some control over our lives and thus be able to choose. When offered advice, the limbic system can trigger an emotional threat response, making us feel that our options are being narrowed to only what the advisor is telling us.

•Fairness: When someone, especially a superior, gives advice, it triggers an inner dialogue that sounds something like this: “What, you don’t trust me to figure it out? I bet you wouldn’t tell (name) what to do.”

The opposite of all that occurs when you take a coach approach to helping people deal with issues and solve problems. Your questions help them become more aware of what they are experiencing, and what is going on around them. You help them tap into their knowledge and experience to set goals and search for options. You significantly reduce their emotional threat response as their options expand. You show and communicate complete trust in their ability to figure things out.

What’s wrong with unsolicited advice? In addition to all of the above, it often comes across as judgmental.  It says, “You’re obviously not as savvy as me because if you were, you’d have already figured out what I ‘m telling you.”

And consider this. If you supervise others and constantly tell them what they should do, they will keep coming back to ask you the same “What should I do?” questions over and over again. Coaching, however, empowers them to unlock their potential, take greater responsibility and come up with their own solutions.

Special Note:  You’ve just read an Applied Coaching Strategies whitepaper from the Grace Bible College Center for Empowerment Coaching, 1011 Aldon SW, Grand Rapids, MI 49525    616-443-9190

Mike McGervey is the Program Director – Center for Empowerment Coaching.  Mike directs all of the program development for the Center and is the co-author of Coaching Based Ministry – Transforming Ministry Through Empowerment Coaching.  He wrote and designed the 2-day workshop: Empowerment Coaching: Developing the Heart and Skills of a Coach, and is also the author and designer of the Center’s online Certified Professional Empowerment Coaching program.  You can reach Mike at:

The Center for Empowerment Coaching is a ministry of Grace Bible College with the mission of creating and sustaining cultures of empowerment through coaching.  Grace Bible College: where every graduate will know how to coach.

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