- Giving advice to others gives us a sense of control and status, which may make us feel good but usually isn't all that helpful to the other person.
- Instead of giving advice, we can guide people to find their own answers through a combination of listening and asking questions.
- Asking "What is the real challenge here for you?" followed by "And what else?" helps people focus on the most important problem they are trying to solve.
When you think about it, our inclination to advise others doesn’t make sense. We usually don’t know enough about a particular person’s situation or problem to be able to give them the best advice. And often our own biases—based on what we happen to believe or what may have worked for our particular situation in the past—inform the advice we give to others.
The renowned executive coach and author Michael Bungay Stanier has written about this in his recent book The Advice Trap. Michael believes our desire to give advice to others is “about certainty and control. When you’re giving advice—even when you’re not giving very good advice—you have high status. You’re in control of the conversation, you’re the one with the answers. So it can make you feel pretty damn good about yourself.”
Michael notes that people in leadership positions—managers on the job, but also the heads of households, too—may feel obliged to tell people what to do, to offer up a solution for every problem. But it seems to also affect close personal relationships. When we know someone very well—e.g., a spouse or best friend—it’s easy to fall into the habit of dispensing advice to them (even when they haven’t asked for it).
And it isn’t always a bad thing; sometimes people actually need advice and sometimes (though probably not as often as you’d think), you may be in a good position to offer it. “I don’t say, ‘never give advice,’” Michael told me in a recent conversation. “Just slow down the rush to advise people. Because the truth is, your advice often isn’t as good as you may think it is.” In other words, that advice might make sense for you, but not necessarily for others.
Giving misguided advice to someone you know can end up damaging the relationship. Though more often, your advice is likely to be simply ignored. That is what many of us tend to do with the advice we’re given—though it doesn’t stop us from turning around and giving this unwanted gift to others.
The Advice Alternative: Help Them Find Their Own Answers
What’s the alternative? Rather than handing people what you think is “the answer,” it’s preferable to help them find their own answers, if possible—and one way to do that is through a combination of listening and asking questions that gently probe and guide.
The model for this type of interaction is used by many life coaches, consultants, and especially therapists. A good therapist doesn’t tell you what to do; she leads you on a path to figuring it out for yourself.
If you can help someone to think about a problem more clearly and gently guide them in the direction of possible solutions, you’re leaving room for that person to arrive at their own insights and make their own decisions—so that they have more “ownership” of potential solutions.
At first, taking this approach may not feel as satisfying as dispensing advice. Bungay Stanier notes, “when you ask questions, you’re stepping into ambiguity and lower status. You may be empowering the other person, but in doing that you’re disempowering yourself. I think because you’re helping people, you do win in the long term—but it might not feel like that in the moment.”
How can we use questions to guide someone toward figuring out their own solutions? Michael advises that you start by helping them to focus on and clarify the real problem they need to address. Often, people have not quite figured out what that is—so they end up trying to solve other problems instead.
A Key Question and a Powerful Follow-Up
Here is the key question Michael asks people he’s trying to help: What is the real challenge here for you? (Notice the emphasis on the words “real” and “you”—this puts a focus on the most important problem and on the person trying to solve it.)
Michael says that because this question is so important, he tries to get the other person to really think about it and dig deep. To do this, he uses a powerful follow-up question, sometimes in repetition.
After the person has shared what they believe to be the real problem, Michael asks And what else? If they come up with another problem, he may again ask, And what else?
Michael calls ‘And what else?’ the “AWE question.” And indeed, that three-word question is pretty awesome in terms of its surprising power. By pushing people to go beyond top-of-mind answers, this question elicits more, and usually better, ideas and insights. It encourages the process of “thinking out loud” about a challenging subject. And by continually asking this question, the questioner can remain in a more supportive role. As Bungay Stanier notes, the AWE question can help “keep ‘the advice monster’ at bay.”
But he offers two caveats about the question. It must be asked with genuine interest; if it is asked as nothing more than a rote question, then it becomes irritating. And Bungay Stanier adds that it generally is most effective when asked three times in succession, but no more than that. By the third round, consider re-wording the question slightly to Is there anything else?—which invites closure.
Once someone has thought more clearly about the problem they’re trying to solve, you can begin to guide them toward possible actions they could take. When people are dealing with a challenge, they may actually already have their own ideas about possible courses of action—but they might need help organizing those thoughts into a coherent strategy.
Help Them Focus, but Avoid Judging
Hal Mayer, executive pastor and leadership trainer at Grace Family Church in Tampa, shares a great example of how, by using only questions with not a word of advice, it’s possible to help someone figure out what to do.
Mayer was coaching a woman who was trying to attract more volunteers to help in her parish. He started by asking her to set her goals (attract 10 new volunteers). He next asked, What have you tried?, and she mentioned past efforts that had not worked. He then asked this question: If you could try anything and money was no object, what would you do to find new volunteers?
The woman first came up with the idea of offering people $100 to volunteer. Mayer made note of that and asked, And what else? With each subsequent idea she shared, he followed up by asking for another idea, and then another. When she ran out of ideas, he showed her the list of five ideas she’d come up with and asked: Which one of these most interests you—which one would you like to discuss further? She chose an idea about setting up a lemonade stand at which kids could hand out applications to volunteer.
Mayer then asked several practical questions about that idea: How would you set it up? What would you need to get started? What problems might get in the way of this idea? What are the first steps you can take, right away? By the time he was finished with the conversation—which took less than 20 minutes—the woman had a plan of action and was ready to begin in a few days.
As Mayer points out, he did not pass judgment on any of her ideas or try to tell her how to proceed. “All I did,” he says, “was ask her questions to help her focus.”
You’ll notice one of the important things Mayer did in the midway point of that conversation was to solicit multiple ideas (using the “AWE” question). The favorite idea, about the lemonade stand, wasn’t the first or even the second idea mentioned by the woman. It had to be drawn out with follow-up questioning.
When you’re asking someone to talk about a challenge they’re facing and how it might be addressed, the initial responses may be superficial or impractical. But generally, people will dig for deeper thoughts and better ideas if you use that powerful “AWE” question.
Skip the advice. Ask these seven questions to help someone figure it out for themselves:
- What is the real challenge here for you?
- What have you tried already?
- If you could try anything to solve this, what would you try?
- And what else? (Repeat two or three times, as needed, to surface additional ideas.)
- Which of these options interests you most?
- What might stand in the way of this idea, and what could be done about that?
- What is one step you could take to begin acting on this, right away?
Bungay Stanier, Michael (2020). The Advice Trap: Be Humble, Stay Curious & Change the Way You Lead Forever. Publisher: Page Two.
Mayer, Hal. “Can You Actually Help People by Just Asking Them Questions?” Appeared on Bob Tiede’s ‘Leading with Questions’ blog, April 27, 2017.