Photo copyright by CJ Schmit available under Creative Commons on Flickr.


There is a saying:

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day.
Show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

The message is really simple. When you teach a person a skill it will serve him better than a direct response to his momentary needs. This is what we want to believe is true.

But …

Is it really?

Reality check

Have you ever given your whole heart to help a friend to end a toxic relation or quit an alcoholic (or other) abuse?
Yes? … (I have.)
All in vain, as you found out that the land of desperation was too attractive for them to leave.

Have you ever done your best to teach a friend strategies for personal growth when she was really a worrier and complainer?
Yes? … (I have.)
All in vain, as you found out that no matter your efforts she choose to complain.

Have you ever spent a huge amount of time to teach your friend a framework of healthy living (English / math / driving / whatever)?
Yes? … (I have.)
All in vain, as you found out that despite the initial progress he was worse off than before.

The willing

All these experiences taught me something deeply profound.

Love and compassion go hand in hand with frustration.

You can do everything what’s in your might to teach a person a skill, but it is not in your power to make him change. You cannot help someone who is not accepting this help. A person may follow your teaching for a while but unless it is fueled by their own desire to change, a transformation will not happen.

Despite the sincerity of intention you can’t help someone who is stuck in their perspective and refuses to take the obvious steps. Why? Because as long as they maintain their Self-perspective, your beliefs, arguments and methods will have no effects whatsoever, or little, at best.

They need to become aware of their own situation. This is the first ingredient. But there is another one, even more important. That is ….

The change simply comes to the willing. It omits the ignorant ones.Tweet: The change simply comes to the willing. It omits the ignorant ones. via @ElaPekalska

Indeed, the second ingredient is willingness. This is not the wishy-washy thinking, but an inspired action.

There has to be an inner drive for a change to happen. Even if you make a change possible – provide the right circumstances, share your resources and supervise the whole process, an unwilling ground will inhibit the growth. The planted seed will die even if well watered, nurtured and provided with sunshine.


Because it lacks the will to grow.

Simply …

Enabling change doesn’t lead to a change by default.

The will to change can be encouraged, e.g. when the consequences of the given behavior (say, from the lack of skill) are more profound than the value of this behavior. It still doesn’t guarantee the change, but it provides a spark in the awareness. Only then a person may develop their will.

As long as the behavior suits them even for secondary gains, they will remain without fish.

The act of giving

When you are willing to teach someone a skill or offer help, it’s important to check your motivation as well.  Are you offering your help to exercise your power or control (“I’m smarter/better off than you and …well.. I can mercifully teach you this…”)? Or, are you teaching a man to fish because of your compassion?

If you choose to help, do your best and let it go. If you give, give generously and allow the person to do anything with your offering: the learned skill, your time or the resources.

They may use it, abuse it or even abandon it. It’s up to them.

Even if you teach them to find the best fish, catch it and cook it, they may still choose to do it differently.

They may choose to catch the fish, make a photo and release it (as many Dutch people do ;)), while staying hungry. They may also wait to be served, or expect angels to come and provide them with food. Until one day their hunger perhaps outweights their laziness or whatever else that stops them from catching the fish and eating it.

Just give what you can give and let them be free to do whatever they choose to with your gift. Only then, in freedom, they can exercise their power to receive and become responsible. I know it can be painful at times to see your own resources being wasted but a true gift is free. Really. The receiver has no obligation towards you.

So, if you now think that all your efforts may be wasted, there comes …

The power of open questions!

Open questions have an important role to play.


Because the mind doesn’t like openings and holes. It strives to close the gap of the lack of knowledge or understanding. The mind will search for answers.

Therefore, a powerful question is your bait to encourage a person for a change.

So …

When you choose to give, give generously. Either feed the man or teach him how to fish. At the same time, however, leave him with powerful questions.

These are the open questions that start with the words: “what?”when?” or “how?” and touch the important issue. The purpose of the questions is to make a person think.

How do you recognize a powerful question?

Well, …, it’s usually such when a person says “oh, this is a good question”, or something along these lines. (I’ve tested this hundreds of times and a powerful question will always make a person to admit that.)

Example questions are:

  • How would you know if it were the time to go fishing / eat the fish (i.e. change / learn the skill)?
  • What can you do to feed yourself (i.e. improve your current situation)?
  • What is the easiest / fastest step that can move you forward?
  • What keeps you stuck in your situation? How can you overcome it?
  • Whom can you ask for help to overcome your inertia / lack of funds / confusion?
  • What could you do if you had all the resources/ money / time / help  available? (Would you open a fish restaurant? … just kidding)
  • What does it need to happen for you to make you to change (go fish and feed yourself)?
  • How can you use your skill of X to make Y happen?
  • What do you want to achieve in a 5 -year time? Whom do you want to become? What does it need to happen to be at that point?
  • If you are 95 and look back at your life, what would you like to have achieved? Whom would you like to have become? How can you ensure that you are going to reach this?
  • What would it be like if you could do  X or had Y?

The point is not to ask all these questions. Perhaps not even these questions. Just one question or a few questions, relevant to the issue at hand that are open-ended and will inspire creative thinking.

A powerful question will stay with this person for much longer than you may expect.
It will reach beyond the surface, pass their inner critic and the doubting mind.
A good question will keep sounding in the mind as a gong. Long and pervasive.
A good question will penetrate the person to the bones. Until they dissolve the resistance.

And, indeed, a will to change can be inspired by such open questions.


Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day.
Show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
Ask a man a powerful question, and you ignite his desire for transformation.

That’s your task for the next week.



Be very careful with asking WHY.

The why-questions are big spoilers. They are often subtly perceived as a form of accusation or telling off, where you call the other to explain himself. This is especially true when you put the emphasis on why. E.g. Imagine what type of feelings evoke in you when you hear: “So, why do you do that?” or “Why did you decide to go in this direction?” You can ask the same/similar question in a different way.

Use WHAT instead. Say “What encourages you to do that?” or “What was your motivation to go in this direction?” You notice the power of curiosity behind the what-questions, don’t you? Choose to ask what-questions.

This is what coaching is about!




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