The Coaching Paradigm: Asking vs. Telling

by Tony Stoltzfus

At its heart, leadership coaching is about helping people solve their own problems, not telling them what to do. One of the most difficult changes beginning coaches must make is learning to ask questions instead of giving advice. As they struggle to get used to this new approach, the following kinds of questions invariably come out:

  • “Would it help if you’d keep track of how much time you’re spending on that project?”
  • “Could you just come right out and say something to her about the problem?”
  • “Do you think you should talk to your pastor about that?”

To see what’s really going on, simply cross out the first several words of each question, like this:

  • “Would it help if you’d Keep track of how much time you’re spending on that project.”
  • “Could you Just come right out and say something to her about the problem.”
  • “Do you think You should talk to your pastor about that.”

Oops! What we thought were good coaching queries turn out to be statements instead. The coach is dutifully attempting to ask questions, but what actually comes out are pieces of advice with question marks stuck on the end.

The statements above are what I call solution-oriented questions: advice-giving masquerading as coaching. While the coach is working diligently at the technique of asking, the change is only skin-deep. The coach is still the one identifying and solving the problem, then trying to lead the client to a certain solution. On the surface it looks like coaching, but the underlying advice-giving paradigm hasn’t changed.

Solution-oriented questions are a great illustration of what it looks like to try to change what you do without changing who you are. Jesus discussed this age-old problem when He stated, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). In other words, what you do and say comes out of who you are—your “being”. What you say won’t change until you change. According to Jesus, to fundamentally alter the way you function, you have to be transformed at the “being” level (values, identity, paradigms and worldview) and not just in your “doing” (skills and techniques).

If you approach leadership coaching as a set of tools and techniques to add on to your existing ministry paradigm, you’ll never be a coach. I can’t emphasize this enough: leadership coaching is a whole new discipline, with an underlying philosophy and value set that most likely is far different than what you are used to. Becoming a great coach is a major remodeling project that will alter your values, the way you look at people, and the conversational habits of a lifetime. Becoming a transformational coach starts with being transformed.

Tony Stoltzfus is a long-time coach, the author of Leadership Coaching and founder of the Leadership MetaFormation Institute, a innovative training school that teaches coaching the heart.