The Truth About Your Advice: It’s Not As Good As You Think
Instead of dishing out advice, do this instead…
The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself. ~ Oscar Wilde
Do you love to dish out advice?
In my experience, without asking for it, people will throw their opinions around. Family members will tell you about the type of career you should have. Partners will tell you what clothes to wear. Friends will tell you where you should go on vacation or who you should date. Co-workers will give you career guidance.
Some people even go so far as to hire coaches to tell them what to do. I’m a coach myself, but I’m not in the advice giving business. I prefer to help clients discover answers on their own.
Moreover, the bigger the decision we face in life, the more we tend to turn to others to solve the problems for us. Seeking the advice of others seems like a smart thing to do when dealing with a critical situation. The problem is, nobody knows our life as well as we do. No one else has as much at stake. How then, can anyone possibly know what we should do?
The truth is that they can’t.
At best, giving and receiving advice is a way to gather knowledge. As the giver, it is a sure-fire way to stroke the ego. At worst, however, seeking the advice of others can lead you down the wrong path while shutting off the flow of your inner wisdom. When we tell others what to do, it constricts their innate intelligence and creativity. The same happens when we turn to others for the answers to our biggest problems.
However, what do we do when others come to us for guidance or when we are stuck in life? Should we expect people to figure everything out on their own? Of course not! However, you should handle these situations differently than you think. By doing so, you will show others (and yourself) how to tap into the inner wisdom and capacity for problem-solving that we all hold as human beings.
Instead of doling out advice we should do this instead:
1. Listen intensely and sincerely
In 2006, Dr. Ralph Nichols — a professor at the University of Minnesota — quantified that we spend 40 percent of our day listening to others, but retain just 25 percent of what we hear.
This is just the beginning of the problem since the fraction of the information that we retain is not factual. Reason being, most people do not listen to understand the truth in a statement or better yet, the bigger picture of the topic at hand. Instead, they listen to reply. Worse, listening to compete (e.g. to refute others) is a poor behavior that is all too common in corporate workplaces.
As demonstrated through research at Princeton University by Charles Gross, we have a tendency to listen to ourselves and not to the other person when engaging in a conversation. As a result, our comprehension plummets. The cause of this is the lag time between what we hear and the time it takes for us to comprehend things in the mind.
Given this, what should we do?
- To start, we can slow down the conversation and allow for deeper understanding to happen, as opposed to actively trying to formulate an immediate response.
- Next, we can listen from the perspective of empathy and caring. Perhaps the best description on how to listen in this manner is demonstrated by Dr. Brene Brown’s brilliant lesson on empathy.
Sure, we aren’t always dealing with emotional situations. However, the lesson from Dr. Brown’s talk still holds. To listen intently, you must care deeply about the other person and the meaning (and feelings) behind what they are saying. You also need to go a step further and feel some aspect of yourself that connects with what they are feeling. Your presence and feeling with the other person are more important than any advice or solution you can provide.
Next time you engage in a conversation with someone, adopt the mindset of being immensely curious and caring about the other person. Show empathy. Notice how reminding yourself to be curious, caring and empathetic; as opposed to trying to give brilliant advice — raises the level of listening and awareness you hold in the conversation. In the process, you might find that the issue hand resolves itself without your advice.
If the issue is still worthy of further conversation, take the time to reflect what you are hearing back to the other person in an effort to clarify the issue…
2. Clarify the issue
Part of listening is observing what is actually going on in the conversation. If someone is confused or otherwise muddled in their thinking, they may not be able to notice the subtleties of the problem they are dealing with. In these circumstances it can be profoundly useful to comment on what you are observing in the conversation.
Your observation is what you directly see or hear. Observations are not your opinions. They are a statement of fact based on what you directly experience in the conversation.
For example, let’s take the example of someone asking you for career advice. In listening to the other party you may notice that there is more to the story than what they are saying. You may feel a sense of frustration or confusion adrift in the words. This may prompt you to state that “It seems like there is more to that story, what else is going on?”.
Similarly, it is helpful to restate what you observe. In coaching parlance, we call this “backtracking.” The goal of backtracking is to ensure that everyone is clear on what is being discussed. Someone who is caught in a difficult situation might not even realize what they are saying, or their statements might not be easy for your to understand.
For example, if someone comes to your for advice, and is stuck working for a terrible boss and is considering quiting their job, you might simply reflect back what you heard them say as a way to drive for a better understanding of the issue at hand: “Here’s what I hear you say….[restate what they said]…did I get that right? Am I missing anything?”
Your restatement of their words serves like a mirror, helping the other person see things from an objective point of view. Sometimes, this reflection is all that is needed to create a shift in awareness that helps your friend solve the problem at hand on their own. You might also find that your understanding of the issue is far from complete (or flat-out wrong!).
Next, embrace the power of questions to promote further awareness and understanding of the real issues that lie below the surface of the topic at hand.
3. Ask powerful questions
Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers. ~ Voltaire
In the past few years that I’ve been a coach, I’ve learned that the initial question or topic of conversation a client brings to the table is rarely the real issue that needs to be resolved. There is always something deeper under the surface that needs to come out.
When someone is asking you for advice, don’t take the initial question as the be all, end all. Respond with curiosity and interest. How would someone who is extremely curious engage in a conversation? They would ask questions! So should you.
A simple question to ask that can help you get to the heart of an issue is formed by three short words, “Tell me more?”.
When you ask someone to “Tell me more?” you are requesting more depth and context. Asking such a question isn’t for you to get more information, it is for your friend to further illuminate, for themselves, the issue at hand. It is not uncommon for the entire topic of discussion to shift as the real problem is brought to the surface through a few excavatory questions.
Once the genuine matter is clarified, is it then appropriate to offer advice? Better than your advice, how about asking the other person; “What do you think you should do about this?” or “What do you think is the best next step?”.
You will be surprised by how many people know the answers to their biggest problems, it just takes a question or two to help them access it.
If you still feel like the conversation is incomplete, try sharing from personal experience instead of giving advice.
4. Share your personal experience
Each of us finds his unique vehicle for sharing with others his bit of wisdom. ~ Ram Dass
Finally, you might hit the point in a discussion where you feel compelled to offer your advice. Perhaps your friend seems really stuck. Perhaps they are unable to clearly articulate any potential solutions or even see their problem with much clarity.
Even in these situations, it’s best to avoid giving advice. Instead, share your direct personal experience. Advice is what you think someone else should do. This is impossible to get perfectly right since you have no way of knowing what their life situation is really like.
Sharing from experience is different. It’s relaying what you have done in your life, during similar circumstances. It’s a way of demonstrating empathy towards their situation by showing that they aren’t alone in what they are feeling. If you don’t have a personal experience to share, you may even choose to share a story about what someone you know did in a similar situation.
Sharing in this manner is powerful. It shows that similar problems, even if they aren’t identical, can be solved. It promotes creative problem solving and broader awareness.
After sharing a personal story, you will then benefit from asking your friend a question like “What does that mean for you?” to help them process the story and apply it to their personal situation.
Everything I am sharing in this article is established on a fundamental belief that all human beings are whole, complete and capable of solving their biggest problems and challenges. Sometimes, the art of conversation is a vital tool to support this problem-solving. It can be hard to see our blind-spots on our own.
Giving advice, however, is not the answer. Instead, apply the strategies in this article to listen, reflect, inquire and share. Then, notice what happens to obstacle at hand. It’s bound to improve. No advice necessary!
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