Ask, don’t tell” is an extremely simple and extremely powerful principle that forms the foundation of any effective facilitation.

Why telling fails

Whatever a person’s issue or desire may be, when we find ourselves telling them, what are we saying? We are either telling them…

  • What we think they should do
  • What we would do in their situation
  • Or about a comparable situation that happened in our past.

Each of those pieces of information has something in common. It is in reference to us, not to the person concerned.

Experience shows that the most profound way we can help another person is when they discover their own resources for themselves. These resources might take the form of ideas, dreams, a vision of the future they would like to experience, decisions, values, beliefs, metaphors, and more.

A solution that uses your own personal resources will make perfect sense to you, but it may be totally inaccessible or meaningless to another person, because we each have our own highly unique personal landscape of meanings. Very often, a person will find a solution offered by someone else hard to understand. It simply doesn’t make sense in their world.

Comparing one person’s situation by referencing someone else’s situation (which may be similar but can never be the same) is unlikely to be the key to the ideal answer they are looking for.

Honestly, how many times have you done something because someone else has told you to do it?

Offering someone a solution, when a solution has not been asked for, can also create resistance or even resentment (say, if the person does not follow your advice).

However, when a person designs their own solution, they intuitively know what has to happen in order for that solution to be realized. They know what steps they need to take (whether that’s actions, decisions, or acceptance) and they are fully prepared.

Of course, there are always normal, practical situations where a friend may ask, “I know you have a lot of experience in this area, what do you think I should do?” where you may freely offer advice that has been requested.

But how often do all of us offer unsolicited advice, in all areas of life? It’s really hard not to do! I have been training in this for years, but I know how often I slip into telling my partner (in particular) what to do.

A stance of open curiosity

Consider the possibility that — no matter how much you understand about another person’s issue — you will never be able to know enough about what it is like for them to be able to prescribe the right solution. Any fix that I suggest you apply in your life must be somehow foreign.

The right solution may only come from intimate appreciation of the person’s whole ecology. That means it can only come from them.

Therefore, the best way to help someone to arrive at the ideal solution is not primarily for us to understand, but to facilitate their understanding.

Ask, don’t tell.”

“Ask, don’t tell” says that we respect the other person’s model of the world, and respect their ability to resolve what is happening for them. In taking that stance, we allow the other person to interpret and classify information in a way that they want to, so that it makes sense to them.

I find that simply remembering that touchstone “Ask, don’t tell” helps me to maintain a stance of open curiosity that can be the key to understanding for both sides.

First, open curiosity helps you to access more information, so that you can better understand the situation.

And it also helps the person you’re talking to also access more information, which can help them gain more insight into what they would like to have happen, and if there are any steps they may need to take in order to achieve that.

Changing the habit

First, it’s important to challenge our core beliefs. Do you believe that each person has the ability to come up with their own solutions? If not, it is going to be very difficult to resist trying to offer solutions.

Spot when you’re using “I” statements. Flip it into a question, preferably a question that is open, neutral, and clean.

Examples of clean questions include…

  • “Is there anything else about that?”
  • “What kind of (…) is that? (…)?”
  • “When that is happening, what would you like to have happen?”

For example, I wonder if you have ever said something like, “That’s just victim thinking. What you should do is write out some affirmations.”

That sounds like quite a normal statement that a person might hear from a friend, a coach, or counselor. But when we look at it, we can see how it might be less than helpful.

  1. It labels the other person a victim.
  2. It judges their thinking as wrong.
  3. And it states that the way to fix their thinking, and to solve their issue, is to apply your method.

It’s easy to see how that might cause resistance, how the person may be unwilling to follow the advice, and how it may prove unsuccessful for them if they did.

From my Clean Language training and practice over the years, I have experienced countless situations where the neutral, open, curious stance has not only allowed people to find their own solutions, but to find solutions that are clearly effective, accessible, and often inspiring.

Using questions like, “What kind of (…) is that?” or “Is there anything else?” helps us to understand intimately how things are right now.

And other simple questions like, “What would you like to have happen?” prompts us really to think about how we want things to be in the future. The simple act of reflecting on our situation and desired outcomes really prompt us to other options that may be available.

The combination of exploratory questions defines the gap between where we are now and where we would like to be, which can then lead to investigation into what may be needed to cross that space, creating the opportunity for us to design our own path.