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Telling or Teaching, Listening or Learning: Leading people who solve their own problems

We do a lot of telling and directing with children. Right? That’s because they don’t yet have the life experiences or the cognitive ability to figure some things out. They may look at the stove, feel the heat from a distance, be curious, and touch the stove. They couldn’t figure out that it would burn them. For the same reason, when you ask a young child, “Why did you do that?” you get a blank stare or “I don’t know.” It’s also why after your teenager has made an unwise move you may feel compelled to ask something like, “If your friend jumped off the cliff would you follow right after them?”

Not Children

Think about those with whom you work and who work for you. These adults are not like the children described above. Most can think for themselves and figure things out, most often with a good result. They have life experiences that inform them. They can think critically, see relationships between things, project possible outcomes, identify problems, and solve them.

The Default

Defaulting to telling is typical. It seems easier and quicker. But, telling and directing adults does not work as it does with children. After about 1 minute into telling an adult what to do, that adult often begins to hear you like Charlie Brown hears his teacher, “Wah, wah, wah.”

Tell or Ask?

“Never tell a person something you can help them discover for themselves.” It is a non-negotiable rule when it comes to helping an adult develop a new skill, learn a new procedure, acquire needed information, or correct undesirable performance. NOTE: If they can’t seem to discover for themselves, you’ll need to tell them.

Questions (versus telling) can help discovery, increase awareness, and lead to making learning stick. The goal of using questions to teach is to help an individual become aware of the problem more quickly and do their own problem-solving.


Your first reaction to this will likely be, “I don’t have the time or patience to use this approach. I prefer to keep telling them what to do.” You can keep “telling,” but this approach will ultimately cost you more time and get poorer results. If you “tell” you will continue to have to “tell.” But, if you train the person, with questions, to solve their problems, you can move out of that picture to other responsibilities.

When you must, for clarification or to offer information only available to you, “tell.” Follow “telling” with a question, “Let me be sure I communicated well. What did you hear me say?”

Here are some questioning approaches.

If the person with whom you are working needs more information ask . . .

  • What information do you need?
  • Where can you find the information you need?
  • Who else could help you?
  • Accountability and failsafe – When you find what you need, report back to me. If you can’t find what you need, then check back with me.

If the person with whom you are working needs improvement of skill . . .

  • What is your understanding of how a person is supposed to do this? Or request, “Please explain how you think a person is supposed to do this.”
  • What is your understanding of how the product is to look?
  • What’s missing in your approach? The product?
  • How would you correct that?
  • What support/information/training do you need to make the corrections? What are the steps to getting what you need?

If the person with whom you are working needs correction . . .

  • When it comes to ____ what is your understanding of the requirement(s)/expectations for . . . ?
  • How did you come to this understanding?
  • What does the policy/procedure/instruction manual say about this?
  • What do you need to know from me about the requirement(s)/expectations?
  • How would you compare your performance to the requirement?
  • If everyone performed in this way, how would it affect others/production/the company?
  • What else do I need to know about this?
  • Now you tell:
    • Here is the requirement. . .
    • Here’s how I understand your performance . . .
    • Here are some effects of your performance . . .
    • Take a breath and allow some silence.
    • Praise their positive qualities.
  • What do you believe you need to do to correct this? (state what you understood them to say).
  • If you must . . . Tell the person what is required.
  • What are you willing to commit to doing?

If the person with whom you are working is trying to solve a problem . . .

  • What is the problem as you understand it? (Problem-finding is the highest order of cognitive thought. Clarity around this is most important.)
  • How do you know?
  • Please give me an example of the problem?
  • How long has this been going on?
  • What are you not seeing here?
  • What do you want to be different about the situation?
  • What will you do?

When you receive credible criticism . . . (There can be much more to this interaction than just these questions. The questions will gather information, can lower tension in the room, and can increase trust.)

  • Please tell me more.
  • Could you give me an example?
  • Would you be interested in hearing my understanding of the issue as you have explained it?
  • What would be better?
  • How will I know when I’ve improved?
  • With whom do I need to speak?

To increase productivity and effectiveness in reaching goals (for self or those with whom you are working) . . .

  • What do you want to do?
  • What difference will it make?
  • What makes this important to you?
  • What’s the downside to achieving this? Risks?
  • What are some other ways to accomplish this?
  • Who will you work with to achieve this?
  • How will you know when you have done it?
  • What are the possible roadblocks to achieving this?
  • When will you do it?
  • What are the smaller goals of which you are aware now?
  • What will you commit to related to this issue?

And, there are many more approaches to working with people using questions.

Contact us to learn more.

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