Directing and Coaching

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I am in front of a group and the group needs my support. What should I do? We see two main approaches that facilitators prefer: giving advice and asking questions. When you want to buy something in a store, a clerk can help you in any number of ways. One person might explain the product’s specifications to you. Another person will ask you what you need the item for. Both approaches accomplish a goal. On the other hand they follow a different inner logic and have implications on our role as facilitator.

A clerk will often bombard you with a cloud of confusing terminology you do not understand. Obviously this does not enable you to make an informed decision. Instead ask open questions, listen and observe. In trainings related to participation this approach is often the better one. Because at the end we don‘t want people to do something they don‘t understand or even want. Rather we‘d like to enable them to climb the steps of the participation ladder as a result of self-responsible and free decsions.

The Exclamation Mark: Advice


Advice involves interpreting the problem and formulating a unique solution. Presentations, comments, or active suggestions from a facilitator are also “advice” in this sense.

  • “In my opinion, the problem appears to be…”
  • “This is what I can do for you…”

Advice is perhaps best described as an exclamation mark. It expresses a point of view or a solution that began in the mentor's mind. From the mentee's perspective, it is: "Tell me how you would solve this problem." Or sometimes even: "Dear facilitator, solve this problem for me." Giving advice typically causes the learner to take a more passive role in developing a solution. It transfers responsibility for finding a solution to the facilitator.

However, in order for facilitators to be able to give advice, they have to become more involved in their learners activities or to aquire specific knowledge. Typical examples of this include when a conultant is actively involved in a team process: She moderates a meeting or offers her contacts and resources. Seeking advice is a quick solution and helps us divide our labor: If we do not have the capacity to understand a problem or to solve it, we look for someone who can help. We do not have to learn anything and can arrive at a solution very quickly.

When one asks for advice, one problem can involve two advisors and four opinions. What then? This common situation illustrates one limitation of seeking advice: It quickly brings other people into the context, which can then become complex. On a related note, the quality of the advice depends on the mentor’s understanding of the situation at hand. If a mentor does not, then his or her advice decreases in value. And since it requires us to show our expertise and find the best possible solution, giving advice is a challenging cognitive and psychological task. In conclusion, we can say: Facilitators should exercise caution when giving advice. Are you sure that you really understand the problem from your learner’s perspective? And is your solution as well for the learner easy to implement?

The advice-related approach is often at risk to give answers on questions that are not especially asked or it makes the consultant think and work much more than the „principal“ (or here: the learner). But shouldn‘t the learner be challenged more and work harder on finding answers to their problems?

The Question Mark: Coaching


The opposite of the energetic exclamation mark is the question mark. Questions can be very powerful. Think of a clerk in a store who asks a customer: Do you need this item? What does your partner think? Can you imagine what life would be like with this item? What about without it? This kind of questioning would have a huge impact on the customer’s tendency to reflect on his or her needs and resources. The customer will reach a decision more easily. He or she might even make a decision that the clerk had not foreseen. As in this example, coaches are people who pose challenging questions to help their clients or, as they are sometimes called, “coachees” identify possible solutions and think about them independently. This close relationship to systemic qualities like autonomy, the validity of multiple perspectives, and rationality gives some authors cause to use the term “systemic coaching.”

“In systemic coaching, our role is to clearly support our coachees in solving their problems independently and responsibly. In their private lives, in their professional ones, or anywhere in between.” [1]

Coaching approaches are positive in that they are based on autonomy and personal responsibility. This prevents the learners from becoming dependent on the facilitator. In this sense, a learner will always receive what he wants. And if not, then he is responsible for clarifying and reflecting on his goals. An advisor says, “I’ll give you a solution.” A coach says:

  • “I’ll help you to understand your concerns and find a way toward a solution.”

Advice has its limits, as mentioned, if the concerns and the solution don’t coincide. The advisor is not responsible for implementation. The coaching approach is often more effective because the learner has already spent time thinking about what his or her concerns are and how to best begin to work with them. He or she knows that no one else can or should be responsible for them.


With regards to this example, a clerk’s strategy might also change. If he’s smart, he might be flexible enough to take a different approach if he notices confusion in your questions and body signals. A shift in awareness can make him ask first open questions and listen carefully:

  • What do you want?
  • How are you going to use this device?

Also a facilitator needs to develop such flexibility. Sometimes we are still in front of a group, giving advice and sharing expertise, but more often we choose the background, or observe from the side, or moderate. Sometimes even participants take the lead. The challenge is to find the position that works best for every part of the learning process or is accepted by a group, answering such questions like: Is input needed here or should I focus on active group work? What part of the input that I have prepared is really useful? Should I take the lead or let the group find a solution?

These decisions are influenced by both the customer's and the clerk’s personalities. In trainings, mentorships or in front of a class, this is illustrated in the fact that both - facilitators and learners - have approaches they prefer to others (which can vary depending on whether they are addressing someone or being addressed)

Reflection as a Condition

These ideas have many implications. The success of the process depends on the learner’s ability and willingness to reflect. So coaching produces effects more slowly and focuses on the decision-making process more than giving advice, which is good for finding solutions problems quickly. A coaching relationship also needs to have a deeper foundation of trust. If a learner cannot or does not want to define goals and work toward solutions, then nothing will happen.[2]


  1. Sonja Raddatz: Beratung ohne Ratschlag: Systemisches Coaching für Führungskräfte und BeraterInnen; Vienna 2000/2009; p. 87
  2. N. Zimmermann: Mentoring Handbook - Providing Systemic Support for Mentees and Their Projects; Berlin 2012; MitOst; ISBN 978-3-944012-00-1

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Nils-Eyk Zimmermann

Editor of Competendo. Coordinator of the project DIGIT-AL Digital Transformation in Adult Learning for Active Citizenship. Secretary of the DARE network. Topics: active citizenship, civil society, digital transformation, non-formal and lifelong learning, capacity building. Blogs here: Blog: Civil Resilience. Email:


Also interesting:


Mentoring Handbook

Providing Systemic Support for Mentees and Their Projects

MitOst editions, Berlin 2012, Online