The habit of giving advice

Who is this Blog for?

  • Leaders who coach, to implement informal coaching as part of their coaching skills development
  • HR and L&D professionals looking at how coaching can achieve business goals

Introduction

In 1997, Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune wrote an article entitled Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young*. This article is full of wise insights, and often quoted (notably by Baz Luhrmann during a gradation speech the same year) and holds one revelation for coaches and leaders. In the article Schmich says that advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it is worth.

Why leaders giving advice while coaching is not best practice

The implication is that giving advice is basically the process of re-hashing our own old ideas and opinions from the past that are mostly neither needed nor relevant and are best left unsaid and should stay that way.

Whilst a bit of advice is useful on very rare occasions (I am thinking teenagers here) the fact is, we know instinctively that giving advice does not really work (I am still thinking teenagers). Yet giving advice has an allure for most of us and is an almost impossible temptation to resist. Why is this?

We know that the urge to give advice stops us from listening effectively to the other person, as we are too absorbed in our own ‘advisory’ thoughts. This means we are not listening to the root of the person’s problem and our advice is missing the point most of the time.

In ‘adviser’ mode, we try to join the dots for the other person, to think for them, and then we give advice mostly based on our assumptions and irrelevant personal experience. It is ineffective, frustrating for the other person, and prevents them from thinking for themselves. In short, giving advice is nearly always a bad idea, and a habit all coaches and leaders should refine.

'The Advice Trap' looking at the habit of giving advice

In his excellent new book, The Advice Trap, the author Michael Stanier looks closely at the habit (trap) of giving advice – why we are so tempted to do it, and how we can begin to change our behaviours to stay curious, listen more and appreciate the other person as fully capable and responsible in resolving their own problems without our help or advice.

Stanier makes the point that there is Easy Change – superficial, simple things we can do to make small differences – which he compares to downloading an app on a smartphone - another small addition to solve another small problem. But then we come up against Hard Change, where no new apps seem to work and the phone (i.e. ourselves) just gets bunged up with stuff that doesn’t seem to resolve harder issues. As Stanier says, this is because what is needed – what we need – is a new operating system. This involves letting go of what has worked for us in the past (the accumulation of apps) to free up space for new ways of doing things and running ourselves in a different and more effective way.

Hard change requires us to take a long hard look at not only what we do but who we are – how we have constructed ourselves from an early age to succeed in the world as we saw it then and how these habits have become engrained in our day-to-day behaviour.

Stanier identifies three personas of the Advice Monster – Tell It, Save It and Control It.

Tell It persona needs to show up as clever, authoritative and knows best. If Tell It does not step in and save the day, no-one will. Tell Its must have the answer.

The Save It persona shows up as helpful, trying hard, and likes to be seen as the most responsible person around. If Save It does not rescue everyone, it will all fall apart. Save Its must be responsible for everything.

The Control It persona likes to hold all the reins, not to share power and to stay in charge. They can be strong and manipulative, If Control It does not stay on top of everything, we will all fail. Control Its must stay in control.

You may identify with one or even more of these three core personas, and you will notice that they all share the same profound belief – that THEY are better than the other person.

Stanier makes the powerful point that these Advice Monster personas, which we all exhibit to some degree, completely disempower the other person – when the Advice Monster comes upon us, then we see others as less clever, less responsible, less competent, less courageous, less trustworthy etc. They are not good enough to get to the answer themselves so we must take up the slack for them. In Stanier’s words how unsustainable, how unscalable, how exhausting for you and how disempowering for them. How inhuman for you both.

This expresses the true cost and down-side of giving advice and it is why coaches and leaders must tame their Advice Monster persona. Once tamed, then we have the power of choice of when and if to offer advice to others, and almost invariably, the choice will be not to offer advice, but to listen and question further.

One key reason that experienced coaches who have escaped the Advice Trap are far more effective is because they hardly ever offer advice, but rather simply create the conditions for the other person to find their own insight and take responsibility for action.

How Leaders/ Coaches can step out of the mindset of giving advice.

In The Advice Trap, the author outlines four steps towards taming the Advice Monster in each of us:

- Getting to understand what triggers your Advice Monster persona into action

- Becoming aware of the behaviours that show up when your Advice Monster is triggered

- Appreciating the short-term pay-off of these behaviours and what are they costing you in the longer term

- Getting clear on the long-term benefits of becoming the Future You and embedding new habits

Three specific qualities stand out in this process of becoming the Future You, as Stanier puts it. These qualities are Empathy (really appreciating what is real for the other person), Mindfulness (awareness of the situation that allows responsiveness rather than reactivity) and Humility, which is about fully appreciating and acknowledging your own strengths (and weaknesses) and wisdom, as well as acknowledging and appreciating the wisdom of others.

Humility is about knowing your own voice, appreciating that it is not the only voice and very often will not be the best voice in each situation.

Developing these qualities as a way of being is critical to the learning journey of the coach and leader. They point to the mindset of the effective coach/leader – curious, vulnerable, and fascinated by other people and their capability to solve their own issues without help or advice from us. These qualities build powerful and engaging relationships which allow for conversations that sparkle with energy, creativity, and insight. This is the coach’s role, and it starts with controlling your advice habit.

In the author’s words - you can be known as the person who helps articulate the critical issue or as the person who provides hasty answers to solve the wrong question. Which would you prefer?

*https://www.chicagotribune.com/columns/chi-schmich-sunscreen

**Stanier, Michael Bungay - The Advice Trap - Box of Crayons Press - Toronto 2020