Our inclination is to give advice to others, but it doesn’t help them or us. It’s better to ask them questions instead and help them figure it out themselves.
Often people come to me seeking advice, and I don’t usually give it, but they keep coming back and asking for more. I must be doing something right, or maybe it is not my counsel they are after, but something else. They think they want some advice, but what they really want is someone to help them think something through better. That I can do, and I’ll always be happy to do it. On the other hand, giving advice isn’t my thing, and it shouldn’t be yours either.
I’ll make an exception with you, and I’ll give you some handy advice: try not to give it to anybody unless it is strictly necessary (more on this later). You will be better for it.
Let me tell you why.
Some personal context
I’ve never liked giving advice. Initially, it wasn’t because I had thought hard about it and thought it was better that way. That came later. It probably had something to do with my personality and traits that can only be defined as defects.
I am a hidden perfectionist who hates making mistakes and has traditionally equated error to failure. I know errors are not failures and are indeed the best way to learn; my mind knows it, I know it, but I still hate making mistakes. I think it has to do with me not wanting to show my vulnerability and wanting to be seen as infallible.
I think that’s the reason why I never liked giving advice. What if I was wrong and my friend or colleague messed it up because of what I told them to do? The consequences were unthinkable and terrible, so I’ve naturally always preferred to ask them questions, explore different ways, but never tell them what to do. It was mainly cowardice and not wanting to be proven wrong, nothing else, but it seemed to work. People kept coming to ask for more.
Then a few years ago, I started training to become a coach, and I realized this is what a coach is supposed to do. A coach asks you powerful questions. She doesn’t tell you what to do. It fitted perfectly with what I was doing naturally and without thinking about it, so it made things easier.
However, the reason a coach doesn’t give advice is very different from the one I had. They don’t want to advise for a simple reason: it is much better for the coachee. It empowers them, allows them to find their own answers, and to learn and grow.
I learned since then that this applies not only to coaching but to most aspects in life.
Why you shouldn’t give advice
There are several reasons why you shouldn’t give advice, either in a work situation, to your partner, or to a friend.
First of all, when you advise someone, you are putting yourself above them. You are telling them, without intending to, “I know more than you, and I am better than you.” This is unconscious and implicit, neither the advice-giver nor the receiver notices it consciously, but both know it deep inside. The message is clear, and often when we receive advice from others, we resent it rather than be thankful for it, even more so when the advice is unsolicited.
I have got upset many times with people I love because they told me how to do something or what was best for me when I didn’t ask for their advice. I know they meant to help me, but I couldn’t help getting upset by it. It was beyond my control. Maybe it´s just me, but I think it happens to many other people.
This is not the main reason not to give advice, though. Often people will come to you willingly asking for advice and tips. They really want to get some help from you. Still, there are two problems with telling them what to do. First, their learning will be limited. Second, they may not get the best possible answer for their trouble.
The most effective learning is intrinsic; it comes from within. You learn much more when you figure out something yourself than when someone else tells you how it works. You cannot force anybody else to learn; they need to put in the work themselves. When you are advising someone, you are shortcutting the whole process and giving them the solution, thus taking away from them the process and the learning about how to get there.
It’s like the proverbial phrase about giving a hungry person a fish for a day or teaching them how to fish forever. When you provide them with advice, you are giving them the fish, you are not teaching them anything. You may actually be giving them the wrong fish, which brings us to the second problem, the one about giving them the correct answer.
Real-life situations are not mathematics or exact sciences. There is not one possible correct answer, and there are certainly many different angles and ways to look at them. The values we hold dear will often be an important part of the solution. What is right for me may not be right for you.
When someone comes to me with a problem at work, with their partner or a friend, and I tell them what to do, I’m telling them what to do based on my worldview, experiences, and values. I am telling them what would work for me, but this isn’t necessarily the best solution for them. They are free to take your advice or discard it, but by giving them some ideas, you may be closing their minds to other ideas that could have worked better for them.
This is why it is much better to help them work out the best solution for them, not by telling them what to do or what you would do if you were in their shoes (that’s giving advice too!), but by asking questions and exploring different alternatives together.
This is what a good coach does, but also what a good leader, partner, or friend should do.
The leader-coach, the partner-coach, the friend-coach, the person-coach
Coaching is a technique to help people develop and grow, but it is also a philosophy of life. Its teachings and practices can be helpful in many other aspects of life.
If you start coaching a friend or a family member when they didn’t ask for it, they will probably find it annoying, so please don’t do it. Still, doing things like listening more, asking more open questions, and not giving advice can get you far as a leader, a partner, or a friend.
When someone comes to you with a problem, and you listen to them attentively, ask open questions that show you understand the intricacies of the problem and help them look at it from different angles, you are helping them find the best solution for them. You are empowering them to make their own decisions, and you are enabling their growth.
There are some basic tips to consider when asking questions, like, for example, asking one question at a time, asking open questions rather than closed ones, or listening carefully to the other person before you ask the question. The best and most powerful questions are those that come from genuine and attentive listening.
When is it OK to give advice?
I am not doing what I am preaching, as I am giving you plenty of advice here. This whole post is a monument to advice, as I am telling you, dear reader, what you should or shouldn’t do. Am I a hypocrite, or is this a typical case of “do as I say, not as I do?”
I don’t believe in absolutes. There are always exceptions to the rule. The topic at hand, that is, to give or not advice to others, isn’t an exception (forgive me the pun). There are many cases where giving advice is not only perfectly fine but would be the best course of action.
It all will depend on the situation, but there are some cases in which it makes perfect sense not to start asking questions and to tell someone directly what they should do.
For example, suppose the problem at hand is technical or requires specific knowledge and expertise that the person asking for help doesn’t have, and you do. In that case, you should give them the advice they require, as they won’t find the solution themselves or it will take them too long to do so.
Time is another factor to consider. As a leader (or a friend or partner for that matter), often we don’t have enough time to have a philosophical or coaching discussion about a problem with an easy solution, and it is easier (and faster) to provide what we think is the right answer.
Learning and personal growth are, for me at least, some of the most important elements in life, but they aren’t the only ones. Life is complex and full of many moving parts, and sometimes, perhaps most of the times, it will make sense to stop for a moment and ask questions instead of giving advice. Still, some other times, it will be easier and better for all concerned to provide an answer, advice, or tip and get over with.
I’ll leave it to you to decide when to use each, but if you allow me one last tiny little piece of advice, I would err towards asking more questions and giving less advice. You are probably giving too much advice today, and you haven’t realized it yet.
Try listening more and asking more questions, and see how it goes. You can thank me later.