Can a coach switch to tell mode?

Absolutely, 100 percent, yes, they can, but only when certain conditions exist!

You may have the complete opposite opinion, and if you do, of course you’re entitled to it.

Some coaches (and coaching organisations) claim that we shouldn’t tell our clients what to do in any circumstance, rather we should limit our interactions only to questions that allow the client to think and gain insight. 

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Whilst, generally a good basic rule of thumb, this dogmatic approach, in my opinion and significant experience, misses a vital point and opportunities for growth.

You may be reading this, take a look at my background in the military and conclude that I’m one of those types! 

A dictator, probably sporting a large handlebar moustache who shouts a lot (I did have a pace stick in the military, but it’s on my window sill now and I look terrible with a moustache!)

A critical skill as a leader or coach is listening to what the person is actually saying and trying to understand the impact of what is being said

My Challenge to You

I’m challenging you to set aside your desire to express your opinion and practice seeking to understand, before forming your opinion based on what’s actually being said.

The tendency for many, is to pretend to listen while they’re actually waiting for their turn to speak and express what they already think.

Clearly effective listening means absorbing what is being said with a view to understanding a different perspective and finding out how that shapes or influences your own opinion upon reflection.

So, here goes.

Realise from the outset, I’m not saying coaches should be telling and teaching their clients what they know as the primary approach to coaching - that couldn’t be further from what I mean.

Simply that, as this model from a recent Harvard Business Review article shows, there are different styles of coaching, which I believe an effective coach can move around to be more or less directive in the moment as required.

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The Power of Questions

The power of questions to direct the mind is phenomenal and I believe the art of asking the most appropriate and targeted questions, at the right time, is one of the skills for continued mastery for a coach.

Questions allow us to quickly understand, as well as bring realisation into the mind of another.

As a coach, in most circumstances it really doesn’t matter what you know. What's most important is what your client realises and comes to know in their own mind, and your skill is the ability to help the penny drop
Lee Evans

For example, if you said to me that your family were the most important thing to you in the world, how do your answers to these questions support your statement?

  • What have you done today to demonstrate individually to your family without any shadow of any doubt that they are the most important people in your life?
  •  I mean specifically, an act of love that proves to them and makes them feel like the most important people in your life?
  • What about yesterday, and the day before that?
  • Would it be clear to an observer, if they watched your interactions from a distance that this was the case beyond any shadow of a doubt, today?

I hope your answers to these questions encourage you to think, as much of what we tell ourselves is a story, which on closer inspection can be seen as such – we often take the closest people to us for granted, unintentionally of course.

  • What one thing could you do today with your realisations that would demonstrate to them how you truly feel about them? Even if it’s not what you usually do, or a bit uncomfortable for you? 
It’s in the uncomfortable that we can realise our growth
Lee Evans

However, on occasion, when the stars align, it is totally appropriate, in fact necessary for a coach to switch from questions designed to gain insight and realisation in the mind of the client, to direction and advice that leads to the client becoming 'unstuck'.

The power of perspective

Ultimately, an effective outcome of coaching is new perspective, and the ability for the client to gain different perspectives, other than their own.

This can come from discussion with the coach and also from a group if the conditions are set for authentic and courageous sharing.

New perspectives reveal new options and I believe as a high performer, we should be always looking to generate new options. This is an excellent book to explore this idea further.

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Can a Coach ever go into ‘Tell mode’?

Absolutely, 100 percent, yes, they can, but only when certain conditions exist!

I qualify this statement to be true as long as the following (not an exhaustive list) conditions exist.

  • You have explicit permission to give direction as advice
  • You have enough personal experience to know that what you are sharing is effective and true rather than simply hoping it might be a good idea
  • You are in a professional coaching relationship, where accountability and change is an agreed and contracted ambition

Here’s an example of me coaching an individual in a group, where you can clearly hear the request for permission and clear insight into what the client actually wanted.

          Dismantle Bad Habits

Don’t even try to do this on your own. If you have a bad habit, discuss it with three friends, or three family members, or a professional coach or therapist. Ask them for tools or support and ongoing accountability to keep you from that habit. You already know it’s a bad habit, so making a list about why it’s bad is too junior varsity of advice. Instead, mobilise. Bad habits are most easily broken by a program of social support
Brendon Burchard

What key factors existed in this situation that led to my judgement to switch into teach and tell mode?  Write down some factors you heard before reading my perspective.

  • I recognised the client was struggling and wanted advice
  • I am confident and experienced in the topic being discussed
  • I understand the fundamental component of habits – trigger, routine, reward and how to transform them
  • I have helped many others successfully transform habits like this before, and I have personal experience of using the tools and strategies successfully myself 
  • I asked the client for and was given specific permission to tell this client what I thought they could do
  • The client was is a contracted coaching programme where the objective was personal development and growth

Do you think this was the right decision on my part? Let me know in the comments…

What if?

Some of the most common objections to this may be ‘I can’t do that because…..’ you can fill in the blanks.

However, these are mostly based on what other people may think about you, which is living from a position of restriction, limitation, fear and wanting to be comfortable, rather than focusing on what you're being paid to do, facilitate the clients' progress and growth.

As coaches, therapists and leaders, we are not being paid to be comfortable, we are being paid to be effective
Lee Evans


We are able, and should be able, to move around a spectrum of styles and expression as an effective coach. 

This freedom comes from the authenticity, courage and confidence to remove the restrictions we have placed on ourselves as to what is expected or appropriate, and make decisions solely about the clients' progress.

Our insights into when we should shift into different styles and approaches is based significantly on our skill and ability to listen effectively and make decisions from processing what we’re hearing very quickly, and then acting on them in the best interests of the client, whether comfortable of not. 

There is absolute power in questions and I believe this is where we should spend a huge amount of our effort and time in coaching to be most effective, however, when the stars align, we should jump on the rocket ship and go for the most effective way to get our clients making their desired progress. 

If as coaches we’re not pushing ourselves out of our own comfort zone every single day, how can we expect to understand what it feels like for our clients when we challenge them to grow?

If you’re a coach, and you find yourself in coaching situations where you’re wondering whether to switch in to tell mode or not, ask yourself if you can answer yes to the conditions above, and if you can, go for it, do your work and help someone change their lives for the better, on purpose!

If you’re in the British Army and you’d like to bring high performance coaching into your Unit or Group or you’re a civilian and you want to create huge impact and effect in your organisation, send me an email at

[email protected]

Or if you’d like to pre-order the ‘Purposeful Life Planner’ released in Nov 20, which will facilitate your thinking in a purposeful and targeted way, get in touch to join the list.

If you’re interested in Leadership, High Performance or Coaching, you can find me or follow me on social media here.

Whether you do or you don’t, have an amazing day, on purpose!

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