Kaponia Aliaksei/Shutterstock
Source: Kaponia Aliaksei/Shutterstock

A riddle asks: "What do we love to give but hate to take?"

The answer is advice.

And yet many of us are addicted to offering our solutions and pearls of wisdom at the slightest opportunity. Over time this can cause friends, family, and colleagues to pull up the drawbridge on communicating with us. Our advice may be well-intended but is ultimately unwelcome.

For example:

  • A father insists that his regular "advice" for his teenage daughter is to help her succeed. But she treats it like white noise and tells her friends, "My dad is always on my case. Nothing’s good enough for him."
  • A manager thinks she isn’t worth her salt unless she’s fixing problems and issues, but her team members say she doesn’t delegate or give them space to come up with their own solutions.
  • A couple is stuck in a pattern of arguing. When she raises an issue, he tries to solve it, and she accuses him of not listening. He feels bewildered because he thinks his solutions are perfectly valid but that she refuses to let him contribute.

What to do?

STEP 1: Give Space, Not Solutions

More often than not, someone will raise an issue because they want to be heard rather than have it fixed. The extent to which many men tend to do this drives women mad. Bur while there is a gender bias toward this habit, it’s not exclusive to men; people of both sexes want to be heard. You can easily test this theory by considering who in your life you speak to when you have a problem, and who you avoid. We tend to go to the people who will give us space rather than opinions. 

STEP 2: Give Advice When Requested

As a general rule, don’t offer advice unless it’s been requested. If you work on an IT help desk or in a specialist consulting company, you’re paid for your expertise. But when you go home and give advice to your teenage son, you need to clock whether or not he’s actually asked for it. If he hasn’t, at best you’re likely to get a "Yes, but..." response from him; it’s more likely that he’ll just zone out.

STEP 3: Ask What People Need—and Say What You Need

All too often we don’t express what we need in a conversation. If someone says, "I’m really having problems with my manager at work," it's hard to know whether they are just passing the time of day or whether they want you to listen, help them get clear, offer your opinion, or fix the problem. 

Rather than defaulting to giving advice, ask them what they need. If they say, "I don’t think I need anything," this is your cue to keep your wisdom to yourself. On the other hand, if they say, "It would be good to get your advice," this is like winning the lottery—an invitation to launch in with your suggestions. Like the parable of the farmer who sows his seeds on fertile rather than stony ground, there’s a far greater probability that your input will make a difference if it’s been asked for.

STEP 4:  Ask Thoughtful Questions

Asking questions is an art in itself. Voltaire got it right when he said, "Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers." It requires being able to place yourself in the other person’s world and consider how you can support their thinking process.

Great leaders and managers—not to mention parents—focus on the questions they’re going to ask rather than the advice they’re burning to give. This isn’t to say that advice can’t be given, but it’s best done sparingly and with discretion.

Many years ago, my manager conducted my performance appraisal over lunch and asked me how I’d evaluate my year. He went on to ask what motivated me, what was next on my agenda, how I thought I could build on my strengths, and what I needed from him. The ratio of speaking was at least 80:20 in my favor. It was conducted so well that, over 20 years later, it still sticks in my mind. Most appraisals had little impact and have long receded into an unmemorable blur.

So often our questions have more impact our solutions. 

About the Author

Rob Kendall

Rob Kendall has spent 25 years studying the dynamics and practices of effective conversation.

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