Ask vs Tell. A simple switch for behavioural change.

I once worked for a manager who changed the team’s reliance on her in a mere matter of months by making one subtle shift. She knew the difference between ask vs tell.

When the team would come with questions, or decisions to be made. Historically, she would’ve told them what to do. Instead she switched to asking them what they thought and engage them in the discussion.

The results were astonishing.

Our default as humans is to tell and impart our knowledge, but telling doesn’t always achieve the best results from others. In fact, it can instil a reliance upon your expertise that in time can become a burden on your time.

This article will explore how you too can make the shift and adopt an ask vs tell coaching style in your learning and development activities.

What is ask vs tell?

You might be thinking, is there really that much of a difference between asking and telling?  Yes there is! The illustration below helps to make clear the difference between the two.

As you can see the graph is more of a continuum.

Depending on which side of the ask vs tell continuum we sit on, shows the impact of our communications on others.

ask vs tell continuum
Ask vs tell continuum

If you use a tell style by giving advice or simply telling others what to do, you’re exhibiting a controlling style. Whereas if you’re asking questions, paraphrasing or making suggestions you are exhibiting more empowering behaviours.

If you’re empowering others, they are able to learn, grow and develop much faster than those who are controlled and reliant upon your expertise.

As learning and development professionals we like to be known for our expertise, which could lead us to use a ‘telling’ style. Reflect personally on whether you think that approach will foster the best results over time?

To reiterate the difference further, when you tell you:

  • Control the information
  • Don’t engage them in decision making
  • Supply the same information to everyone
  • Continue to keep the role of the ‘knowledgeable person’
  • People rely on you for information
  • People will likely keep coming back for answers

When you ask however you:

  • Empower others
  • Engage them in the thought process
  • Encourage devolved decision making
  • Trust that your team are capable to the right choices
  • People become less reliant on your expertise

I know which side I would prefer to be on. To be known for empowering individuals through learning and development to truly transform their behaviour. Rather than to be reliant on your L&D expertise.

Impact on recall

Just in case you still aren’t bought into the difference. John Whitmore had this great graphic in his book ‘Coaching for Performance’.

 ToldTold and shownTold, shown and experienced
Recall after 3 weeks70%72%85%
Recall after 3 months10%32%65%
Taken from John Whitmore: Coaching for performance

The results speak for themselves. When you tell others, within 3 months they recall much less than if you ask and let individuals make decisions themselves and learn by doing.

Consider your approach to training. Where does the focus lie currently, asking or telling?

Are you just telling your learners what they need to know and expect them to recall the information? Newsflash, in 3 months they will only have 10% of that telling left. Let’s hope they remember is the important part!

But what if you took a different approach?

What if your training or discussions with others became less about telling and imparting information and focussed instead on facilitating discussion and asking questions.

How might that change the learners experience and recall?

Ways to make the shift

In the spirit of the article I’m not going to tell you any answers. I’m simply going to provide you with a list of coaching questions to reflect on.

  • Where on the ask vs tell continuum do I currently sit?
    • Does this current position serve a purpose for me? If so, how?
  • Reflecting on a recent ‘tell’ discussion with someone. How might the discussion have changed if I’d used a coaching, ‘ask’ approach instead?
  • What changes can I make to my approach to learning and development to incorporate more ask moments?
    • On a scale of 1-10 how committed am I to doing this?
  • What are my next steps as a result of reading this post?


Ask vs tell is a powerful shift, by making the change you will over time notice a difference in the behaviours of those you use it on. Remember, these behavioural shifts do take time but by persevering it will have a greater affect.

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