Do you love to dish out advice? In my experience, people love to throw their unsolicited 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. The bigger the decision we face, the more we tend to turn to others for advice on how to solve the problem. I’m a career coach myself, but I’m not in the advice-giving business. I prefer to help clients discover answers on their own.
Seeking the advice of others seems like a smart thing to do when dealing with a critical situation. The problem is nobody knows our lives 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, they can’t.
At best, giving and receiving advice is a way to gather knowledge. As the giver, it is a surefire way to stroke the ego. At worst, however, seeking the advice of others can shut off the flow of your inner wisdom and lead you down the wrong path. When we tell others what to do, it constricts their innate intelligence and creativity. The same happens to us when we turn to others for the answers to our problems.
What, then, do we do when others come to us for guidance? Should we expect them to figure out solutions on their own? Of course not! But instead of doling out advice, try this:
- Listen intensely, and sincerely.
- Clarify the issue.
- Ask powerful questions.
- Share your personal experiences.
1 Listen intensely, and sincerely
In 2006, Ralph Nichols, a professor at the University of Minnesota, quantified that we spend 40 percent of our day listening to others, but we retain just 25 percent of what we hear. 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.
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 Brené Brown’s brilliant lesson on empathy as shared in her famous RSA video. She says empathy is “feeling with people.”
To listen intently, you must care deeply about the other person and the meaning (and feelings) behind what they are saying. Your presence and feeling with the other person are more important than any advice or solution you can provide.
The next time you engage in a conversation with someone, adopt the mindset of being immensely curious and caring. Show empathy. Remind yourself to be curious, caring and empathetic, as opposed to trying to give brilliant advice. You’ll be surprised by how this raises the level of listening and awareness you hold in the conversation. In the process, you might find that the issue at hand resolves itself without your advice.
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 face. In these circumstances try to comment on what you are observing in the conversation—what you directly see or hear—not your opinion of it. Base your comment on what you directly experience in the conversation. Let’s take the example of someone asking you for career advice. In listening, you may notice that there is more to the story than what that person is saying. You may feel a sense of frustration or confusion adrift in their words. This may prompt you to state, “It seems like there is more to your 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 you to understand.
For instance, if someone comes to you for advice about working for a terrible boss and is considering quitting 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 saying … [restate what they said] … did I get that right? Am I missing anything?”
Your restatement of their words serves as 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 on their own. You might also find that your understanding of the issue is far from complete (or is flat-out wrong!).
3 Ask powerful questions
As 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.
When someone asks you for advice, don’t assume that your answer to their initial question will help solve a problem. Respond with curiosity and interest. How would someone who is extremely curious engage in a conversation? They would ask questions! So should you.
Seeking the advice of others can shut off the flow of your inner wisdom and lead you down the wrong path.
A simple question to ask that can help you get to the heart of the matter is formed by three short words, “Tell me more.” Asking such a question isn’t for you to gain more information, it is for your friend to further illuminate for themself 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 probing questions.
Once the genuine matter is clarified, is it then appropriate to offer advice? Rather than giving advice, how about asking other questions, such as, “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 realize that they already know the solutions to their biggest problems; sometimes it just takes someone else to help them access that knowledge.
4 Share personal experiences
Finally, you might hit the point in a discussion where you feel compelled to offer advice. Perhaps your friend seems really stuck and is unable to articulate any potential solutions or even see their situation 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 your experiences is different. It relays what you have done in your life during similar circumstances. It’s a way of demonstrating empathy. If you don’t have a personal experience to share, you can share a story about what someone else 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 broadens awareness.
After sharing a personal story, ask your friend a question like, “What does that mean for you?” to help them process the story and apply it to their personal situation.
These techniques are based on a fundamental belief that all human beings are whole, complete and capable of meeting challenges and solving their biggest problems. 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 I’ve outlined to listen, reflect, inquire and share. Then, notice what happens. No advice necessary!
This article was originally published on raviraman.com.
Ravi Raman is an executive career coach and long-time veteran of Microsoft, where he led product management and marketing teams for several global software products and services. Read more of his articles at raviraman.com/blog.