Is it OK to give advice?

Giving advice (image of an arrow)

“Real help is different. Real help, professionally or personally, consists of listening to people, of paying respectful attention to people so that they can access their own ideas first.”

Nancy Kline

A common development edge a new coach quickly meets is the challenge of not giving advice.

In a recent Group Supervision session for a new group of trainee coaches, during the check-in, one coach shared this observation:

“I just find myself offering advice, I find it so hard even when the coachee has not asked for it. I do this in my day job, as this is what I am good at — and now, when I am coaching, it is hard to stop this. Is it ok to give advice?”

There was clearly a great deal of resonance with the coaches on screen as I noticed their smiles and several nods of heads.

Unlearning and relearning being directive is a critical learning edge for all new coaches and something we discuss at depth within our 5 Key Learning Edges document.

Building on this, in this post I will explore why giving advice may have become a hardwired conversational habit — and what we can do to shift from “doing” to “being” in a coaching conversation, so we learn to create value in a much more impactful way.  

In our time-scarce and highly-pressured work context, speed of delivery and decision making is often an imperative. As a result, the command and control and pace-setting leadership styles continue to be dominant — even though societal context, leadership experience and Business School research are pointing to more relational and collaborative styles as being critical for the future of work.

These conditions of pace and pressure often lead to the seduction of giving advice — and the belief that this is adding more impact and value.

As leaders, we may often be waiting for a team member to draw a breath so we can tell them what to do and share our point of view.

As Schein says, we are listening from a place of disruption, meaning that neurologically our emotional memories are firing, and we are connecting to our own experiences of the situation being shared — and solving this, rather than paying full attention to the other person’s situation and the meaning it has for them.

As a result, moving into the role of a professional coach can be challenging, because the “giving advice = I am adding value” belief has been deeply formed. This is experienced when there are moments of silence in the conversation and the coach has a habit of filling these with their views (as this is more comfortable for them).

When coaches train with us, as part of their development, they undertake a 1-2-1 coaching programme from the other seat and experience being a coachee. Through this experiential learning they can truly understand from their lived experience what it feels to be held in a strong coaching relationship with space to think, experiment and develop.

With this felt sense, they come to know that the coachee’s own answers and insights into their performance and learning are more important than anything the coach can ever share. They truly feel that the process of the coachee finding their own realisation will create a deeper awareness and a behavioural shift.

Without an experience of being coached, the coach can lack an awareness of what is happening for the coachee during the session. The average person thinks about eight times faster than they speak, so there is a great deal of internal noise happening such as self-talk, narratives, assumptions and beliefs.

And then, in this already crowded thinking space, the coach comes in with their pearls of wisdom, suggestions and advice about what the coachee should be doing.

Creating insight requires a more spacious place to think. As Judy Brown says,“it’s the space between the logs that makes the fire burn.”

Pause for a moment and consider day to day in workplace and leadership conversations:

  • How much space does your coachee get to think without being interrupted or given advice?
  • How often do they get to pause and reflect on the narratives that are running in their mind about the topic they are discussing?
  • When are they able to identify how they are relating to a challenge they are facing?
  • How often are they able to identify what is truly underneath the presenting topic?

Of course, the equation “advice = value” is also a belief that may be running for the coachee. Conversationally, they may be used to receiving advice — and so consciously or unconsciously they may be looking for this from the coach. Asking the coach for their advice will often make the coachee more comfortable too, and can shift the spotlight and responsibility on to what the coach thinks, letting the coachee off the hook.

This is the reason we encourage coaches to train their coachees to be coached, and this starts from the first contact / contracting session and is revisited throughout the coaching relationship via session contracting.

The challenge for both new coaches and coachees is to create the space to step out of their “doing” mode, away from their normal work and leadership conversations, and into the coaching session. Without doing this, it can be very hard for new coaches to step out of their unconscious and well-practised habits – including giving advice. It is important to take the time to pause, prepare for the conversation and then intentionally orientate into being a coach — and not a leader or colleague.

The same applies to our coachee. They are likely to arrive at a session in a “doing” mode (often coming in from another meeting or, when online, an MS Teams meeting) — so how do we invite them to pause and reconnect with being a coachee and what the coaching process means?

In his recent book, NeuroDharma, Rick Hanson describes the two modes of “doing” and “being” in terms of the neural networks involved and outlines in a broad sense two distinct neural networks:

  1. The medial networks in the brain are for “doing”
  2. The lateral networks in the brain are for “being”.

As you can see from the table below these two states of mind are quite distinct.

Focused on part of the wholeAware of the big picture, panoramic view
Goal directedNothing to do, nowhere to go  
Focused on past or futureAbiding in the here and now  
Abstract, conceptualConcrete, sensory  
Much verbal activityLittle verbal activity  
Holding firm beliefsNot knowing, “seeing newly”  
Evaluating, criticisingNon-judgemental, accepting  
Lost in thought, attention wanderingMindfully present  
Prominent self-as-objectMinimal or no self-as-object  
Prominent self-as-subjectMinimal or no self-as-subject  
Sense of cravingSense of ease  
Feeling fragmented  Feeling Whole

Looking at the table above, where do you want to coach from? Where would you like your coachee to be? What would be the impact for you both?

We are learning from neuroscience how our use of technology, the workplace and our environment overly stimulates and strengthens our “doing” mode. Remember that neurons that fire together wire together.

In addition, each of these networks inhibit the other — as one gets busy it suppresses the opposite mode. The over-training of the “doing” networks in the brain may suggest why creating space, pausing and “being” as a coach quickly gets overtaken by forms of “doing” and, in the session itself, we find ourselves unconsciously moving to giving advice and sharing our own experiences.

Of course, within the coaching session, we need both “doing” and “being” to make the coaching session impactful, so we need to be skilful in our movement between these two modes of mind.

However, if we arrive in a driven, “doing” mode, it will be very hard for us to be responsive, and we are likely to be unconsciously reacting as we start to listen to the coachee. 

A key takeaway is therefore that we need to be training our “being” as a coach and strengthening these networks.

Key reflections for your coaching practice:

  1. What practices do you use to cultivate your “being” as a coach? (We are using practice deliberately as this is a capacity we build and strengthen over time.)
  2. Before a coaching session, what supports you to pause and become more aware of your intention for the container you wish to create, the conversation you are about to hold and how you want to be as a coach?

To help you with this reflective process, I encourage you to read the following related blog posts:

  1. A Grounding Exercise for Coaches (this includes an MP3 of a short grounding exercise to help you prepare for your next coaching session).
  2. How coaches can make use of a traditional Japanese concept called “Ma” to help their coachee gain greater insights.
  3. Compassionate Listening.


  • Catalyst 14: Becoming a Coach — 5 Essential Learning Edges.
  • Edgar Schein: Humble Inquiry.
  • Rick Hanson: Neuro Dharma – 7 Steps to the Highest Happiness.

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