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Telling vs. Helping

June 17, 2020

By Randy Hall


It’s a pretty common occurrence during coaching conversations where we are working through how a leader can help someone around them or on their team.  I often ask, “what have you tried so far to help that person?”  That usually starts sentences like, “well I have told them over and over” or “I keep telling them….”  Telling is our absolute favorite tool to get other people to think differently, act differently, or have a different perspective. I bet it’s been that way since humans developed language.  We often think telling brings clarity to the other person about our thoughts.  Sometimes we think it adds speed to the situation because they don’t have to think about this, they just have to listen to what we already know about the issue and do that.  Often it’s an internal issue for us, as in “I need to say this to them,” without much thought as to whether or not hearing the words will actually help the other person.  And sometimes it’s also just habit.  Our brain has used telling people stuff as our go-to process for getting them to do things or do different things since we could speak.  And yet all of us have at least some evidence that telling people what to do differently, much of the time, changes nothing.  If you have ever had an employee, a boss, a coworker, or raised a teenager, the evidence that telling people what to do differently doesn’t work all that well is staggering.   

And then, every now and then, it does.  Sometimes it works amazingly well, sometimes they say “thank you for sharing that, I absolutely need to think about it that way” or “I’m going to try that, I think it might work.”  And it reinforces our telling habit with the reward that feels like we are helping or coaching or making something better because of what we told someone.   See, this telling thing absolutely works.  

Sometimes we even think of that person differently.  Wow, they really take feedback well and listen to my coaching, if everyone did that the world would be a better place, or this team would never miss a goal, or my kid would clean their room and take out the trash without me asking.  We think we are better at helping because they listened to us, but we don’t often think about why they listened to us. There are two things that cause people to really listen and consider our thoughts.  

They are ready to have someone help them.

They think we can add value.

There are lots of times where they HAVE to listen to us, but that’s not the same as thinking we could add value. They might have to listen because we are their boss, or their parent, or we are in a meeting and they can’t escape stealthily.  But that is so very different from wanting to listen to us because of how they think we might be able to help.

So let’s look at how we cause those two things for people as a leader so that they are in a place where we really can help them.  

Why do people decide to reach out for help or go looking for it in the first place?  It happens when they want to achieve or become something different and they aren’t sure of the best path.  Keep in mind, need for help only happens AFTER they decide they want something different and they are trying to build a path to it.  If your kid is not looking for ways to help out around the house more or your employee isn’t looking for ways to sell more stuff or manage projects differently, then they are not ready for us to be telling them how to do something.  And we can keep trying, but again, we have lots of evidence that says it will not work. 

The only way to help people make a choice about what they want, or if they want a different outcome or future, is to ASK about their future or their goals.  If they have a picture of what that looks like for them and they want to go there, then, and only then, will the path become important to them. If they don’t have a clear idea of where they want to go or who they want to become, then telling them how to be on a path toward it, even if we are certain of the answer, has absolutely no value. We have to then admit that we are saying those words is more about how we want the other person to be different, than about how they want to be different.  And no one ever did a great job of achieving someone else’s goals for them, if they weren’t also their own.  Maybe I HAD to clean my room or plan the project differently, but I didn’t WANT to. Which usually means I don’t execute the process well anyway, and likely don’t even achieve the expected results even if I actually take the action I was told to.  I personally remember shoving everything in the closet or under the bed as a kid and officially declaring my room cleaning complete.  

Oh, and people complying with your picture of what they should do and not theirs, only repeat that action if you keep telling them over and over and maybe even begin to issue consequences if they do something different.  Welcome to exhausting management, not effective leadership. 

If we are able to cause others to think about their goals or their future or their next steps, that is the beginning of helping them care about our thoughts on how they might achieve or begin those things. Sometimes we spend so much time focusing on the actions others should take, without ever helping them explore the thoughts that might actually help them take those actions. 

We might be able to approach the conversations differently with just a few tweaks.  For our kid it might look like.  “Hey, I would love it if you could help out a little more around here. I know that might not be much fun, but do you think there might be times you would be willing to do that and if so, what chores do you hate the least?”  Or for an employee, it might be, “I would love for you to feel like you are crushing this role and go home every day feeling like you have excelled in every way you want to.  Can you describe for me what that might look like for you and what you think I might be able to help with as you work toward that for yourself?”  We aren’t refusing to share our expectations when we have conversations this way, but we are absolutely letting them own the actions they take next, rather than dictating the ones we think they should take.  We are also working in the thinking part of other people’s brains, not the reactive emotional defensive part.  And as humans we can only really operate one of those at a time.  As leaders we get to decide which part of their brain they are in by how we interact with them. 

We have to be focused on two things as we help people shift behavior or get different results.  We have to help them think about a future they are willing to work toward, and then we have to help them build the path that might get them started as they move toward that future.  And we have to keep in mind as we do these things that our job is to help them build their picture of what they want to do next, not adopt ours, even if we have some thoughts about it.  Ultimately they need an element of choice because choice creates ownership, without it we are just chasing obedience.  Obedience is not sustainable, nor does it result in higher level execution of any set of behaviors.

Lead people by helping them create a strong picture of what they want in their future and then help them achieve that vision.  It’s how the brain works, it’s how change happens and it’s how leaders have far more impact on the people they are trying to help.

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