Finding Perspective in the Pause

How mindfulness can steer us clear of the “advice trap.”

Posted Mar 31, 2020

Monika Pejkovska/Unsplash.
Winding staircase.
Source: Monika Pejkovska/Unsplash.

In many cultures, there is an embedded association between a person’s perceived “wisdom” and their capacity to give sound advice. As the adage goes, “with age comes wisdom.” But as research has shown, the soundness of advice has less to do with the adviser’s age or experience, and more to do with perspective.

The “bible of positive psychology”—Character Strengths and Virtuesidentifies perspective as one of 24 key character strengths. By “perspective,” the editors and founders of the field mean one’s ability to weigh different points of view and see the bigger picture without getting caught up in the details. The troubling thing about most advice is that it lacks this crucial perspective. Our brains are wired to find patterns and build stories, so without conscious effort, we will default to the simplest, most familiar answer, which doesn’t make for great advice.

Though we tend to focus on the content of advice rather than the practice, advice-giving is a skill that you can cultivate. It is a collaborative, creative process. It is an opportunity for the advice seeker to absorb others’ ideas in order to come up with better solutions, and for advisers to influence important decisions by empowering others to act. However, there’s a catch. For this process to work well, we can practice holding in check our own cognitive biases, no matter which side of the exchange we are on.

Practicing mindfulness can help us gain perspective and also overcome these hurdles to become better teachers, mentors, colleagues, and confidants. 

Why we fall into the “advice trap”

Whether as coaches, parents, or friends, people often rush to give advice, rather than taking the time to listen. They often focus on their solution and close their mind to other possibilities. Before the advice seeker can even finish their story, they assume they’re the right person for the job, formulate their response, and selectively listen for evidence that supports their idea.

These people—you included?—fall into what Wall Street Journal bestselling author Michael Bungay Stanier* calls the “advice trap” in his new book named for this very phenomenon. The Advice Trap: Be Humble, Stay Curious, and Change the Way You Lead Forever offers a whimsical yet highly useful look at the psychological “traps” that get in the way of effective communication, collaboration, and coaching. For this article, I interviewed Michael to understand how mindfulness can help us avoid these traps when it comes to giving advice. 

It turns out that we have a deeply ingrained advice-giving habit, or AGH, as Bungay Stanier befittingly calls it. All our lives, we have been rewarded for knowing the answers. As Bungay Stanier explained via email, “Being the person who has and delivers the answer is gratifying: We’re the smart, important, in-control, high-status person in the conversation. We may be solving the wrong problem, and we may be offering up mediocre advice, but it strokes our ego at a very basic level.”

Recent research supports Bungay Stanier’s claim. In a 2018 series of studies, researchers found that giving advice—and having that advice followed—enhances an individual’s sense of power, while having your advice ignored decreases it. Unsurprisingly, “alpha personalities”—those that are typically more power-seeking—are more likely to give advice than those with a lower tendency to seek power. Unfortunately, those same alpha personalities are often the least-suited to giving thoughtful, impactful, objective guidance, because they tend to be more cognitively rigid. They resist feedback that conflicts with their point of view and have trouble considering others’ points of view.

So how can we tell if our advice is selfishly motivated, or when we’re on the brink of the advice trap? 

The answer is simple on the face of it (but not always so simple to practice): Take a step back, pause, and get some perspective.

The perks of Solomon’s paradox

When it comes to advice-giving, research shows that perspective can mean the difference between a well-reasoned, rational solution and a knee-jerk response. To consider this hypothesis, psychologists designed a study to test the veracity of Solomon’s paradox: the concept that we are capable of giving well-reasoned advice to others, but struggle to think rationally about our own problems.

In the first experiment, half of the research participants were asked to consider a hypothetical dilemma that a friend faced, while the other half were asked to imagine the dilemma as if it were their own. The study found that when research participants were advising a friend, they were 22 percent more willing to seek further information about the circumstances of the conflict before making a decision. Furthermore, participants were 31 percent more likely to weigh multiple perspectives, and 15 percent more willing to consider a compromise.

In the second experiment, participants were split into three groups. The first was again tasked with imagining their friend’s dilemma and describing the scenario using third-person pronouns. The second and third groups were asked to discuss their own hypothetical dilemma, but the second group used first-person pronouns while the third group used third-person.

This simple shift helped participants in the third group remove their own personal interests from their assessment, and thus, they were 35 percent more likely to give similarly wise, well-reasoned advice to themselves as they would to others. Even those using the first person to describe a friend’s problem displayed higher levels of reasoning. Meanwhile, participants using the first person to discuss their own problem were less able to consider others’ perspectives, search for a compromise, or recognize the limits of their own knowledge. 

As these experiments suggest, perspective is critical to giving sound advice. In Bungay Stanier’s words, “It’s finding the line between saying to someone: I’ve got your back, I’ll support you, I’m a fan of yours and not disempowering them, not getting seduced into thinking you’ve got the right answer to a complex and personal human challenge, not creating a codependent relationship.” Given how primed our brain is to problem solve, it can be difficult to train yourself to patiently walk that fine line. Fortunately, mindfulness can seemingly slow time and open us to possibilities so we can give more thorough, thoughtful advice.

Find perspective in the pause.

The famed neurologist, psychiatrist, author, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl is credited with saying, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.”

Now, as we grow older, most of our day-to-day actions become habitual, and that space between stimulus and response diminishes. We have mere milliseconds before our default wiring kicks in and takes control. Mindfulness can trip our deeply ingrained wiring, so we can switch from being reactive to creative, from anxious to curious.

Though it has become a buzzword in recent years, mindfulness is not an esoteric practice or a badge reserved only for the “enlightened.” As Bungay Stanier explains in his book, “Mindfulness... means you’re less reactive to what’s going on around you. You create that tiny pause between stimulus and response, a moment where you more actively choose how best to show up.” When it comes to advice-giving, this pause gives you the time to open yourself up to novel ideas and innovative solutions that wouldn’t normally leap to mind. It gives you time to check yourself and gain perspective on what is “real” about the situation—the actual hurdles, threats, and possibilities—as opposed to the imaginary ones your anxious brain creates.

So, the next time someone comes to you seeking guidance—before you blurt out a solution or explain how you would solve their problem—recognize that they are coming to you for your leadership. True leaders do much more than merely give orders. They turn their advice-giving habit into a “curiosity habit” by asking questions.

In our interview, Bungay Stanier said, “Leadership is a mix of doing, thinking, and being.” The doing part is easy, he continues, but “thinking is harder. If you watch people thinking, one part of you is asking, ‘Why the hell aren’t they working?’ But curiosity means that you’re more likely to find the right challenge and generate a better solution.”

Michael Bungay Stanier is an Oxford scholar, founder of the coaching organization Box of Crayons, and the first Canadian Coach of the Year.

References

Grossmann, Igor, and Ethan Kross. “Exploring Solomon's Paradox: Self-Distancing Eliminates the Self-Other Asymmetry in Wise Reasoning About Close Relationships in Younger and Older Adults - Igor Grossmann, Ethan Kross, 2014.” SAGE Journals, journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797614535400.

Schaerer, Michael, et al. “Advice Giving: A Subtle Pathway to Power - Michael Schaerer, Leigh P. Tost, Li Huang, Francesca Gino, Rick Larrick, 2018.” SAGE Journals, journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0146167217746341.

Stanier, Michael Bungay. The Advice Trap: Be Humble, Stay Curious, and Change the Way You Lead Forever. Toronto, Box of Crayons Press, February 29, 2020

“The (Paradoxical) Wisdom of Solomon.” Association for Psychological Science - APS, www.psychologicalscience.org/news/were-only-human/the-paradoxical-wisdom-of-solomon.html