Giving (and seeking) advice the right way

Communication  Relationships
29 October, 2018

It’s worth taking time to reflect on how good we are with advice

As leaders, we are frequently asked for advice from our peers, colleagues or team members. Many of us also love giving advice even when not asked :).

Think about it –  have you taken the time to reflect on how good you are at giving advice? No matter how noble your intentions, your counsel will only have the desired effect when it’s formulated and delivered in the right way. If you don’t have an accurate understanding of the situation or if you give your perspectives in a manner that puts off the recipient, then you won’t be a good adviser.

In their Harvard Business Review paper, The Art of Giving and Receiving Advice, David Garvin and Joshua Margolis highlight the benefits of seeking and giving advice skilfully:

When the exchange is done well, people on both sides of the table benefit. Those who are truly open to guidance…develop better solutions to problems than they would have on their own. They add nuance and texture to their thinking – and, research shows, they can overcome cognitive biases, self-serving rationales, and other flaws in their logic. Those who give advice effectively wield soft influence – they shape important decisions while empowering others to act. As engaged listeners, they can also learn a lot from the problems that people bring them.

So, this week, my message focuses on the art of giving and seeking advice.

Here are five crucial mistakes that advisers usually make:

1. Giving unwanted guidance 

Unsolicited advice is rarely followed – and if you hand it out frequently, it’s seen as intrusive and disrespectful. Also resist the temptation to chime in when you don’t have any expertise in the area. Baseless suggestions will only damage your credibility.

2. Misunderstanding the problem 

When the person begins describing their issue, you may quickly jump to a conclusion: “Oh, this is exactly like that case last year!” Such instant assumptions are usually wrong, and can cause you to misdiagnose the problem.

3. Taking a self-centred approach 

Experts agree that “If I were you…” is an ineffective way to frame suggestions – in fact, this causes the listener to shut down. As Garvin and Margolis explain, personal stories are also pointless if they fail the “doability test” – i.e. if they don’t reflect realistic options. For example, a senior leader has the power to take certain steps that a junior team member doesn’t.

4. Communicating poorly 

When giving advice, we sometimes fall back on vague platitudes and sayings. Or, we offer far too many perspectives and alternatives, with not enough clarity on how to think sort through these.

5. Taking it personally 

If the person doesn’t follow through on your recommendation, you may feel offended and turn cold towards them. By doing so, you’re making it all about yourself! Remember, ultimately the choice lies with them, not you.

Here are some helpful pointers to keep in mind when giving advice:

1. Ensure a good fit 

When someone comes to you for guidance, it’s natural to feel flattered and want to help them. But are you the right person? Do you have the relevant experience and knowledge? Can you dedicate enough time? If not, recommend alternatives.

2. Listen first 

Listen carefully to the entire account, keeping interruptions to a minimum. The issue might be different or more complex than it first seems, so don’t jump in midway. If you have only a partial grasp, your advice could do more harm than good.

3. Get the full picture 

Once you’ve heard the person out, ask for more information to fill in any gaps. Remember that you could’ve heard a biased or incomplete account. Your role is to uncover the full scope of the problem. Asking open-ended questions is a good start. For example, “Can you tell me more about…?”, “What do you mean by…?”, and “How do you feel about…?”.

4. Ask permission 

If the person hasn’t explicitly requested your advice, check if they would like you to weigh in. In the article, The Art of Giving Advice, Uzi Weingarten elaborates:

Asking if our advice is desired shows respect for others and prevents resentments. Here is one way to do this: “As I listen to you, there are some ideas coming up for me that you might find useful. Would you like to hear them?” It is very important to ask that question without attachment, from a place that both “yes” and “no” are equally acceptable responses.

5. Articulate your thinking 

Often we give advice without bothering to go into the why. If the listener doesn’t follow your underlying reasoning, they’ll be more prone to ignoring the recommendation.

6. Be kind 

In The Subtle Art Of Asking For And Giving Advice, Jill Griffin emphasises the importance of taking a kind, empathetic approach:

I try to offer my advice with a fair dose of kindness and here’s why. When people come to you, they are most often in a crisis of some kind or another, either great or small. That means that they are vulnerable. Maybe they’ve made a mistake and you’re their manager. They want to know how to fix it so that at least that particular mistake never happens again. This is a critical juncture in your working relationship. Handle this well and the roots will grow deeper.

7. Empower, don’t insist 

As an adviser, you need to offer guidance – not to make the decision. As Garvin and Margolis explain:

Think of yourself as a driving instructor. While you provide oversight and guidance, your ultimate goal is to empower the seeker to act independently. Our interviewees were unanimous in saying, essentially, “It’s the seeker’s job to find the path forward.”

Insisting on a course of action is counterproductive: it creates resistance, along with making the other person feel powerless.

In her article, How and When to Give Advice, Rose McCammon sums up the role of the advisor wonderfully:

The great secret of advice is that its value is not in direction but in information and motivation. When offering advice, inform more than you advise. And listen more than you talk. Talking presumes that you have the answer. But you don’t have the answer: They do. Your job is to help them find it.

Asking for advice

While most of us are only too happy to give advice, we tend to be much more hesitant about asking for it. A common concern is that it makes us look stupid or incompetent. In reality, however, it makes you appear smarter and more likeable. In the Harvard Business Review article, Asking for Advice Makes People Think You’re Smarter, Francesca Gino and Alison Wood Brooks elaborate:

We actually view people who seek our advice as much more competent than people who forego the opportunity to seek advice.

This is because being asked for advice is flattering, it feels good. They’re asking for my advice because they think I’m smart and I know the answer, and I think they’re smart because I’m actually going to tell them things that will be useful and help them do the task better.

Here are some tips for when you want to seek advice:

1. Do it for the right reasons 

Many times, people asking for advice are convinced that they already have all the answers. In such a case, “asking for guidance” is really about wanting validation or praise. If you hear a different perspective, you might get defensive or dismissive – making it clear that you never really wanted their take. So, ask for advice only when you’re willing to be open to it.

2. Choose the right advisers 

Garvin and Margolis recommend putting together a personal “board” of advisers. Opt for a diverse set of people, with sound judgement and expertise in different areas. Turning only to those with the same professional background limits your perspective. Some of you may prefer to solicit advice solely from friends or close colleagues, but do they have the right knowledge? Garvin and Margolis also suggest having one constant adviser:

Try to find at least one person you can turn to in a variety of situations, because that adviser will develop a multifaceted sense of the problems you face and your natural proclivities and biases.

3. Define the problem clearly 

When seeking advice, people often provide a rambling, blow-by-blow account of the situation, with little or no background information. Instead, first set the context and then give enough information for the adviser to grasp the issue fully, without inundating them with minor details.

4. Value the advice 

Research shows a strong tendency to discount advice, no matter how good it may be. Thanks to our ego-centric bias, we trust our own opinions more, even when the other person has greater knowledge in that domain. Over time, repeatedly ignoring sound advice can lead to poor decision-making, as well as damage your relationship with the adviser. (By the way, leaders are especially susceptible to dismissing recommendations from experts. Does that ring a bell?)

As always, I look forward to your thoughts.


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