The limits of advice and what to do instead

July 13, 2011 · by Allison Porter · Filed Under Choices, Previous · 2 Comments

Have you ever been mentoring or coaching someone who is struggling with what to do about a dilemma, and you have felt compelled to give them advice? They need to know what to do and you can help. The urge is so strong that it feels irresistible and fundamentally right.

It doesn’t have to be as blatant as “here is what you should do…” It can be indirect, like “when something like that happened to me, here is what I did…” or in the form of a question, like “have you considered doing ….?” When the other person nods appreciatively – or better yet, writes it down – it feels great. So what could be wrong with that? Well, in moderation, probably nothing. But advice is like brain candy. It feels good, is digested quickly, and ultimately doesn’t do the consumer much good.

Two major limits of advice

#1: it can be off the mark. We are only getting some of the facts, filtered through the person we are talking to, and we could easily be wrong about what to do. Even if we’re right, how we would handle it might not work for the other person. They can misinterpret what we are suggesting or not be able to execute. Bottom line, we aren’t helping as much as we think.

#2: it lets them off the hook. Giving advice reinforces dependency. If we give the answer, then we rob the other person of the hard – but stretching – work of thinking it through themselves and making tough choices. And even if our advice is exactly what they would have done anyway, they feel less responsible for the outcome – and less motivated to do it – because they didn’t think of it themselves. Bottom line: we may be doing the other person a disservice.

So what do we do instead?

David Rock, the author of numerous books and articles on the brain science of leadership, has an answer for what to do instead: ask ‘thinking questions’. Ask people about the quality and range of their thinking about what to do, rather than asking them about the issue itself. The more we focus on the details of the dilemma, the more tempted we will be to solve the riddle. But if we shift our focus to the person, and really help them probe their own resourceful mind for answers, they will grow before our eyes.

Ten “thinking questions”

Here are some questions to ask that will help the other person expand, rearrange, and deepen their thinking. Respect the silences – these questions will get the internal gears moving.

1. How much thinking have you done on this already?
2. What have you been focusing on?
3. Are there aspects of this that you think you need to focus on more?
4. What else do you need to know or understand in order to figure this out?
5. Is there another way to look at it?
6. What do you already know that might help you think this through?
7. Do you have options in mind?
8. What insights have you had as we’ve been talking about this?
9. What would help you to do more or better thinking about this?
10. What specifically would you like to do to move this forward?

The irony of giving advice about not giving advice

I’d like you to reflect for a moment how it felt for me to give you this advice. Some of you – or part of you – might have rejected it outright. Others might have nodded with recognition and moved on. Others might have been curious about the alternative. But like other easily digested carbs, the advice won’t provide the energy you need to actually build new habits. For that, you need to come to the realization yourself. So, if you are interested, my suggestion is that you try these questions out on yourself. Think of a dilemma you have and take a walk around the block. While you are walking, ask yourself about your thinking and see what insights come up. I’d love to hear about it.


2 Responses to “The limits of advice and what to do instead”

  1. Tee on July 13th, 2011 9:22 pm

    Well, when I first read through this, my initial thought was to say, OMG, does Allison think I give to much advice? Haha, then I thought deeper and thought how many times I have given an example of a situation I’ve been through to help the person sharing with me instead of being quiet and listening. Though it may be hard to accept, this reminder was very useful. Showing questions to ask instead of giving advice is a helpful tool as well. I’ll give this a try in my next encounter with some talking to me seeking my advice.

  2. George on July 18th, 2011 3:17 pm

    I’ve always found it difficult to balance my inherent (learned) non-directive/probing approach against the other’s blunt “What should I do?” requests (and the ticking clock). The 10 questions you cite are good reminders. In addition, though, here’s what I think you should have written…

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