The Most Deadly Word in Advice-giving

(Hint: You Probably Have Said it Today)

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Whether we are experts or neophytes, we all have opinions. Our opinions are most likely to come to the fore regarding others’ behavior and choices. It makes sense since we have (or so we believe) an objective view of the situation. Plus, most of us want to be helpful. If we are not so altruistic, perhaps we want to show off that we know more than the other person!

But let’s assume that our motives are pure. You see a co-worker passed over for a choice assignment. You feel indignant on her behalf. You want to help her get what is rightfully hers so, at the next opportunity, you say something like, “You should go and complain that you were passed over. You should tell the boss that assignment should have been yours.

A relative is in the market for a new house. Having been through the process in the last few years, you figure you can offer him your advice. When you see him, you may begin with, “You should call my realtor, what a job he did for us” — or, “You should avoid that neighborhood, I hear the traffic is awful.”

Nowhere is this “wisdom” sharing more common than when it comes to medical treatments. My cousin had this or that and you should

In these situations, it’s important to remember that no one really asked for our opinions! If someone starts with, “You should…” — my first reaction is to think: you don’t understand. My situation is different, unique.

At best, I won’t be in any frame of mind to hear what they tell me. At worst, I may think they are a presumptuous jerk!

When we offer unsolicited advice, we are, in effect, saying, “I know more than you know, and I feel entitled to tell you what you should do about your life, health, wealth and so on.” — which may or may not be true!

So what would be helpful if I have relevant experience?

Offer an opportunity and leave it up to them.

We recently bought a house and had a great experience, if you are interested I’d be happy to tell you what we learned. If they want your advice, they will ask for it. Or they won’t. And that’s okay, too.

Suppose though, someone has asked for your advice. You may be tempted to say, “You should…” — but is that really helpful?

Imagine someone has specifically asked you for an opinion: Should I take the job with a bigger salary even if I have to move or should I turn it down?

What’s helpful is to help them clarify their own thinking. The most powerful way of doing that is by asking questions. Remember your job isn’t to have the answer because you can’t have the answer.

Here are some examples of what to say instead of you should:

>> What are reasons in favor of taking the new job?

>> What are the reasons for turning it down?

>> When you think about what’s important in your life and in your career, which choice leads you in that direction?

All those questions (and their impending answers!) are a lot more interesting than you should. I invite you to experiment with this!


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