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June 12, 2018

Think of baby-steps when giving advice

Lately, I was thinking back to my niece when she was taking her first steps. I remember how I felt the urge to help her stand up, keep the grip and grab the objects she was reaching out to. At that moment, I did not understand that her goal was not to standing straight, keeping balance or catching that specific object. She was merely enjoying the process of learning. She did not ask for advice.
With the same urge with which I intervened in Isabella’s learning process, I often jump into problem-solving when my friends, family or colleagues reach out to me. Instead of observing, I intervene. I do that with my best intentions. In fact, most of us instinctively want to help others standing up, keeping the grip and reaching the object, although we usually react with armed opposition when we receive advice or instructions ourselves.

“Advice giving usually doesn’t work, and often completely backfires.”

Thomas G. Plante

In general, we think better when we speak out loud because we thereby gain distance to our thoughts. Asking another person to join our verbal thought process, therefore, seems more like a social norm than a physical need. [1] This makes me wonder how we can tweak our behaviour to add more value to the conversation. In this article, I suggest three alternatives to advice-giving: Explore the bigger picture, ask questions and lead by example.

Explore the bigger picture

Similar to the child trying to reach an object in its sight, we often reach for those goals that are most obvious to us. We engage in a tunnel vision that distracts us from seeing beyond. [2] Hence, the value of having a peer who listens to our thought process lies in their ability to make us see the bigger picture. Instead of providing solutions to an apparent challenge, the advice-giver contributes most by questioning underlying assumptions and thereby opening new perspectives.
Recently, I utterly failed in doing that when a friend shared his project of developing a “storytelling” course. I could relate to the topic since I completed an online course myself. Hence, I projected my experience on his goal and engaged in a monologue of idea-sharing. Consequently, I overheard his silence and missed his ambition to create multi-senses, offline experiences – the extreme opposite of an online solution.[3]
This is the trap in which I usually warn my clients: we tend to see problems that we can solve with the tools in which we excel. Think of a CEO who reports a decrease in turnover. The CFO would most likely advise lowering the costs, the CMO would increase the ads, and the CIO would suggest a product update. Independent of our roles and whether we seek or give advice, we tend to see what we are used to seeing. When we base advice solely on past experience, we risk solving a problem which turns out to be unrelated to the advice-seeker’s challenge.

Investigate by asking questions

Since Socrates we know that questions teach us more than answers. And, depending on the questions we ask, different conclusions will appear. While answers point to one solution (“you can reach a larger audience by selling online courses”), questions open doors to discoveries (“whose problem are you solving with your course?”).

“At the core of an innovative and capable leader is the ability to ask catalytic questions that uncover false assumptions and lead them down productive, new paths.”

Hal Gregersen

Hence, as advice-givers, we can create value by asking open questions which might trigger aha-moments by revealing blind-spots. Also, we will engage in a conversation that empowers advice-seekers to craft solutions that better match their realities.

Lead by example

In some cases though, we have strong opinions on the situation and believe that our instructions will make the difference. The problem is that our capability to listen shuts down after ten seconds already whenever we disagree with what we hear.[4] Consequently, our advice becomes obsolete as soon as it tries to achieve significant changes. Have you ever witnessed a heated debate in which suddenly one party agreed to change their mind because of a rational argument? Instead of trying to convince with words, we can lead by example and children might inspire us in doing so.

“Imitation is a powerful form of learning commonly used by children, adults and infants.”

Andrew N. Meltzoff

Children learn by imitating successful behaviours independently of whether the adult is intentionally trying to teach them. And, as adults, we often do the same. For the advice-giver, this means that we can best convince someone to follow our instructions by being an example. Unfortunately, most of us enjoy “showing the path” more than “walking the talk” and therefore give instructions that remain neglected by design.

The nutshell to take home

The next time my someone reaches out with a challenge, I will remind myself of my niece who seeks the process more than the goal itself. I will resist the urge to give advice and rather support the process of exploring the bigger picture. Instead of preaching solutions, I will engage in a conversation by asking questions that clarify the goal. Finally, to induce new behaviour, I will live what I want to observe.
Will you join me?

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[1] Researchers have investigated the effects of self-talk and shown the benefits in multiple ways. However, in most societies there exists a social norm that prevents us from excessive self-talk. ”And although self-talk is sometimes looked at as just an eccentric quirk, research has found that it can influence behaviour and cognition.” (Kristin Wong)

[2] This is a fantastic podcast (Hidden Brain, NPR) about the impact of tunnel vision due to scarcity.

[3] Thank you, Christopher Marks, for the enriching feedback sessions we have about our business ventures. I love your final value proposition of helping companies to tell responsive stories and am excited to witness the success of Get Your Growth!

[4] Watch the eye-opening video by Esther Perel