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Are you in the question business or the answer business?

Are You in the Question Business or the Answer Business?

I was recently at a dinner with several fascinating thought leaders and for some reason or another the conversation turned to the difference between coaching and consulting. Now several of the folks at the table are world renowned coaches and several are renowned consultants. It wasn’t exactly a red state, blue state level of intensity but when you combine smart folks with other smart folks and a cocktail or two things get interesting.

The consensus among the coaches was that a good coach never gives advice. Ever! Even if the issue seems apparent to them they don’t tell their clients what they should do or could do. They simply ask questions to help the client gain the clarity or insight to make a wise decision and challenge their thinking. Interesting and actually quite difficult for these executive coaches to do consistently. Given that their clients are C level executives of global organizations apparently they value, appreciate and pay top dollar for someone who will not only question them but ask them questions that they can’t immediately answer without taking the time to reflect and think. Reflecting and thinking are things too many of us do to little of.

Are you in the question business or the answer business?

The consultant camp (full disclosure, I’m the founder and the CEO of a boutique consultancy) felt that their clients pay them for their expertise. Ultimately they want answers to questions, concerns or issues that are typically outside of their domain or sweet spot. The consultants by the way also get paid top dollar for their wisdom and need to always be on top of their game with regards to understanding the latest trends, thinking and issues in their respective space. The consultants also agreed that while it is their duty to provide their clients with the best possible answers it is still ultimately the client’s decision whether to take the advice or not. Often times they do, many times they don’t. The reasons why they do or don’t aren’t really relevant. What is pertinent is that they are making an informed decision with the insight of a respected expert.

What I took away from that evening was that the lines aren’t usually so clear. We don’t typically live in a binary world where you are a coach that asks questions or a consultant that provides answers. More often than not we operate in a dynamic environment. We move from situation to situation and each requires that we think about the role we should be playing to serve those around us in those situations. There’s a time and place for coaching and a time and place for consulting. Some situations are best handled by crafting questions that help the other party resolve an issue and some are best handled by providing evidence or experience based answers. Decide when to be in the question business and when to be in the answer business.

Peter Winick has deep expertise in helping those with deep expertise. He is the CEO of Thought Leadership Leverage. Visit Peter on Twitter!

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