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The Manager's Job Is To Be A Coach, Not The Expert

This article was based on episode 110 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Get early access to Marcia’s bonus materials when you become a member at

When a staff member comes to us for help, we’re supposed to use our expertise to solve their problems, right? Well, it depends. In some cases, offering support by sharing lessons learned, opening doors or removing barriers, is exactly what a manager should do. But in other cases, giving advice and telling them what they should do is the least effective way to solve the problem (and help them grow).

Marcia Reynolds, a world-renowned expert on inspiring change through conversations, educates managers on how to coach their team members to think more broadly for themselves. In her most recent book, “Coach the Person, Not the Problem: A Guide to Using Reflective Inquiry”, Marcia teaches managers to be “thought partners” with their team, helping their staff reflect on the stories they tell that make them stuck.

According to Marcia, our minds are filled with old beliefs and irrational ideas that sabotage our progress. When we look at these archaic beliefs more closely, we can discard notions that are no longer serving us and discover new solutions.


Our brain responds differently when we are told information than when we generate it ourselves. Receiving information from a manager or colleague only activates short term memory. The moment we leave a situation and are bombarded with other information, crises, and concerns, the original information distorts in our minds. At night, the brain sorts through the most important takeaways from the day and discards the rest. This function creates efficiency but means that most of the information we consume each day will likely be forgotten.

Alternatively, when we generate an idea ourselves, we activate a different part of the brain involved with long term memory. If we speak the thought aloud, the likelihood of us remembering it increases. This powerful combination of generation and voicing means that thoughts we communicate to others have a strong likelihood of being remembered.

Managers can deploy this winning duo by asking a colleague follow-up questions like “So what is it you just discovered?” or “What's stopping you from doing the one thing you want to do?” Encouraging a team member to say what they’re thinking also helps them crystallize these epiphanies. And of course, everyone feels more committed to taking action when they come up with an idea themselves rather than being told what to do.


Marcia offers simple steps for coaching employees to get their beliefs out on the table where these thought patterns can be examined.

1. Be Present. Don’t Worry About The “Right” Question To Ask.

After reading so many books on coaching, leaders often get stuck thinking they need to ask powerful questions. Then, during a coaching conversation, they spend more time trying to think of the right questions than being present and listening deeply to the person. This can backfire if your team member notices (consciously or not) that you’re not fully focused. Instead of trying to think of the perfect question, simply listen and really try to hear the problem. Then confirm what you hear is accurate by asking: “Is this how you see the problem?”

2. Summarize. Look For Emotions And Keywords Used.

A great way to demonstrate listening, understanding and provide insight is simply to summarize what was said. Pay attention to energy patterns and keywords that they emphasize or use more than once. Sometimes, it’s less about what they say and more about how they say it. Ask: “Wow, you seem really excited about that, can you tell me more?” or “This seems to be an important point for you, what does it mean to you?”

The more emotions that are present, the more they’re stuck in their stories and likely can't objectively see the stories that they’re living by. Look out for metaphoric language that is used, such as “I feel like I'm drowning.” You can even provide them with a metaphor to help them identify their emotions: “Does it feel like you're treading through mud?” This language can give you and them clues as to what’s really going on under the surface.

3. Be Curious. Don’t Judge or Fix.

Maintain curiosity for what they said, asking simple questions that come out of your curiosity - not your memory - to help naturally guide the conversation. Avoid judging the person’s thoughts and feelings. As soon as the person feels vulnerable, any potential for meaningful growth will disappear. Along the same lines, offering advice and solutions may feel good in the moment but will shut down the deeper, more impactful conversation. Instead, explore the person’s thoughts, ideas, and feelings together.

4. Find The Destination.

It’s almost impossible to know what to do if you don’t know what success looks like. Flip the problem to what is it your employee wants instead of what they have (or don’t have) right now. Ask: “What would it look like if you woke up and you did things differently?” or “How would you like it to be?” If you have a picture of what it is they want to create, you can work towards that vision together. Once that is clear, your team member can start to see what’s stopping them from getting what they want or need, and discover an innovative solution to resolve it.

5. Practice. Practice. Practice.

It often feels uncomfortable to apply these coaching perspectives in the beginning, which causes many managers to stop trying. Don’t give up. Practice at home with your spouse or kids, or find a buddy-coach colleague who also wants to learn these techniques. Agree to coach each other in order for you each to gain insight into yourself and improve your skills. The sooner you start practicing reflexive inquiry, the quicker you'll integrate it into your mindset and behavior, making it feel less awkward.


While it may seem like a manager's job is to tell their people what to do, a manager’s deepest role is to develop their team’s minds and abilities. If we can put aside our expertise, experience, and need to feel important, and instead use reflexive inquiry techniques when staff approaches us with problems, we can empower our employees to change their thoughts and behaviors on their own.

By using reflexive inquiry techniques, we serve as an external disrupter, interrupting the existing patterns and stories and providing space for the person to reconsider their approach. If we truly want to help our staff become the best version of themselves, we need to be willing to give up being the expert in order to be the coach.


Get early access to bonus resources from Marcia when you become a member of the Modern Manager community at

This article was based on episode 110 The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.




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