Be a Better Performance Coach – Ask, Don’t Tell

If you’re like most leaders, you have a picture in your head about the performance you want from your people, and you want to get them closer to that picture. When faced with a gap between how they actually perform and what you want, what do you do?  It’s likely that your first inclination is to tell the person – about how you see the situation, or what you believe they should be doing differently.  Of course you tell, right? You have a perspective you want them to get, and you see the opportunities for different approaches that you believe would be more effective. Furthermore, you probably believe that this is your role – that  others need and expect the answer from you.


What’s the downside of telling people what they should do to be more effective?

Most of the time, the areas where you want to see growth and change in your people are not areas that can change with the flip of a switch – or with simply setting a clear expectation. (If it were so simple, it’s likely they would have improved by now.) Rather, the changes you want to see are likely to relate either to higher-order skills, or, with the person’s mindset – what they believe and assume, how they see the world and themselves in relation to it. Telling would result in little learning.
Telling as a coaching strategy has two downsides.

  • You are not dealing with the cause of the performance gap because you have not understood it. In fact, you probably have made assumptions about the cause without even realizing it (They don’t get it. They don’t care.)
  • Even if you do understand the cause, telling is unlikely to result in the change you want. You might possibly get short-term behavior change ­­– the person doing what you tell them to – but next week or next month you will face the same situation again.


Asking questions as an alternative to telling

Asking accomplishes two things that are essential in this situation.


One, it helps you better understand the cause of the performance gap so that you can better target your help.

  • Did they not understand your criteria for an effective outcome?
  • Did they run into a roadblock?
  • Do they lack a skill that is key to performing this?
  • Are they resisting approaching the situation in the way you’d like them to, because that approach is anxiety-provoking to them?
  • Do they have a different picture in mind of what would constitute effectiveness in this situation – a picture that might in fact be valid?


Two, it helps the person pull the camera back and see the situation differently

  • If they think through the challenge themselves, they may see different options for solving it, and become better able to solve it in the future.
  • If they uncover options that they are discarding, you can help them see different criteria according to which those options might be viable.
  • If they are stuck on a recurring issue, you can help them reflect on the thoughts, motives or behaviors that are keeping them stuck.


How to formulate good questions

A good question seeks richness in the answer. This usually means it’s not a “yes” or “no” question. A good question provokes reflection and new perspective. Here are some types of good coaching questions.


Questions about the person’s openness to receiving coaching

  • Are you willing to have me help you think this through?


Questions about goal, purpose, interests

  • What’s the goal as you see it?
  • What are your criteria for a good outcome?
  • What result do you think this action will get you?
  • Might there be other outcomes that different people might be valuing in this situation?


Questions about choices, action, current behavior

  • What have you tried? What was the outcome?
  • Why did you choose that action?
  • What action did you consider but not take? Why not?


Questions about where they are stuck

  • What concerns you most about this situation?
  • What would be the worst outcome and why?
  • What’s keeping you from taking this particular action?


Questions that re-frame

  • What might be the benefits of this situation that you see as bad? Or the downsides of this situation that you see as good?


Ask yourself questions, too

If you want to coach your people to better performance, it’s also important to inquire into your own behavior and motives. You might even shift your own perspective!

  • What am I trying to accomplish by engaging with this person on this issue?
  • What do I want them to see or do differently?
  • What is the relative importance of learning versus performance on this issue?
  • How could I be wrong about what I see as the “best” or “right” approach?

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