Coaching is not the same as instructing

 Telling people what to do and how to do it is counterproductive, explains Matt Somers. He explains why instructions can backfire, and why coaching people to work out solutions for themselves trumps direction. 

“Telling people what to do doesn’t enable them to be able to do it”

I used this line in a LinkedIn post and it seemed to resonate with a lot of people. Whether it’s front line staff sick of being managed this way, or classroom trainers finding it’s an approach that doesn’t easily transfer online, or leaders scratching their heads wondering what the alternative is. It’s a worrying thought isn’t it? That all that knowledge and experience we’ve built up over years and years can’t easily be passed on through a few simple instructions.

Actually, it’s worse than that. My experience suggests that attempts to parcel up our expertise and pass it on may be doing more harm than good. 

Back in the good old days of face to face, classroom based training, I had a lovely little exercise which illustrate this beautifully. It invariably generated a lot of discussion too 

Standing up exercise

  • Divide the group into pairs and have one partner lie down
  • Ask those lying down to imagine they’ve never stood up before. Whilst they will understand references to parts of the body such as hands, knees, feet, etc, concepts like roll over, sit forward, and so on will need to be fully explained
  • Invite the person standing to simply instruct their partner how to stand – without touching them and without resorting to demonstration

Done properly, you’ll find that this is actually impossible. If you fancy trying it yourself (in a Covid secure, socially distanced way, naturally) you can expect to see a few giggles as the students put out a leg sideways instead of forwards, or fall back to the floor.

The point is, we didn’t learn to stand in this way and it would be clearly absurd to try to teach small children in this way – yet this is how we try and teach adults work skills. 

Our parents didn’t sit us down in a room with some PowerPoints and a handful of learning outcomes. We saw other people doing something that looked fun and decided to have a try. It’s highly unlikely that we were successful at our first attempt but perhaps because no one lined up to criticise us (and install self-doubt) we tried and tried again, until we got so good at it we’ve barely ever given the process of standing up another conscious thought.

Imagine trying to take something as incredibly complex as standing up and covering it in a series of instructions. Yet we’ll happily take equally complex and nuanced work tasks, like selling, fundraising, customer care, leadership and so on, and try to reduce them to playbooks and training manuals. I believe that this overly directive approach is deeply flawed for several reasons.

You have to know exactly how you get results yourself

This seems to becoming increasingly difficult. Many leaders are now finding themself in a position where they didn’t ever do the jobs their people do, partly because their jobs didn’t exist before.

You have to find a way to explain everything using words

This can also be very difficult. Psychologists talk about us all forming our ‘models of the world’. You have yours and I have mine. They’re likely to be different and when we try to communicate across them things quite literally get lost in translation. How many times have you issued what appears to you to be a simple and fool proof instruction, only for the other person to go off and do something quite different?

Recall is appalling when we’ve only ever been told what to do

If you pop ‘Hermann Ebbinghaus’ memory experiments’ into Google, the search return will provide lots of clever stuff and equations that prove the dramatic drop off in recall in just a few days – unless learning is encoded in long term memory by immersion and repetition.

If you think the solution to all of this is to stop ‘telling’ and start ‘demonstrating’ – showing people what to do rather than telling them – then I’m afraid that is flawed too.

You must be able to do what you are demonstrating, or asking others to do

This goes back to my earlier point about the challenge of leading people who are doing jobs that are very different to the work we once did.

You can only demonstrate ‘your way’

Which means you’re just creating mini mes – clones of you with the same weaknesses.

You risk solving today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions

You’re imposing your ‘answer’ on to problems that may be quite different to the ones that you have experienced.

We must instead, I believe, switch from telling to coaching, to encourage everyone to learn from their own unique experiences in their own unique way. Not only will they learn how to solve problems, they’ll learn ‘how to learn to solve problems’ which is about as futureproofed as you can possibly get.

About Matt Somers

Matt Somers is the founder and Managing Director of Coaching Skills Training Ltd, a specialist training consultancy focused on the idea of the leader as coach. It operates throughout the UK and beyond, working in partnership with clients to ensure that what is intended is achieved. It has a wide and varied client list including charities.

As advocates of the coaching approach Matt works hard to make sure clients are able to continue developing the skills learned long after any initial project has finished. He is a leading voice on training and coaching in the UK publishing Coaching at Work in 2006 and Coaching in a Week in 2016. He holds an MSc in Human Resource Development and is a Fellow of the CIPD.

Find out more at:

Read Matt’s previous coaching blogs here:

The little book of In-House Coaching

This handy guide provides you with the complete know how on how to launch and sustain a coaching programme, with examples of different approaches from various charities.

CL Consortium Ltd
Vine House, Selsley Road,
Stroud, GL5 5NN