Giving Advice, is it Art or Science, Helpful or Damaging?
“advice(n.): Words given or offered as an opinion or recommendation about future action or behaviour.”
Why do people ask us for advice?
Because we are considered to be the expert.
- We have the experience
- We have the knowledge
- Others want to validate their own decisions
- Others trust us
- We are a sounding board
- It’s what they have always done
Why do we give advice?
Because we consider ourselves to be the expert or we think we are helping!
The first thing to consider is that giving advice to others can:
- Make you feel good about yourself
- Validate your own experiences
- Provide you with a strangely pleasurable sense of superiority
- Give you the opportunity to talk about yourself
- Cause conflict – when you help without it being asked for
- Shut others contributions down
- Turn people of
The second thing to consider is that advice can be given to:
- Speed a process
- Stop others making a mistake
- Get something done our way
For advice to be effective, whether it is asked for or given freely, you must be prepared. Many advisors approach the task of giving advice as if it were an objective, rational exercise based on their technical knowledge and expertise. Alas, advice giving is almost never an exclusively logical process. Rather, it is almost always an emotional “duet” played out between the advice-giver and the advice-receiver.
By giving advice you may be telling others they have done something wrong or you may be telling them something they do not want to hear. As the advice giver you need to learn to recognize, deal with and respond to the receiver’s emotions, if you do not you will never be an effective advisor.
The Advisors Job
It is not enough for an advisor to be right: An advisor’s job is to be helpful, not patronising, pompous or arrogant. The skill of telling others they are wrong in such a way they will thank you for giving helpful advice has to be developed. An advisor has to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable. Proving to someone that they are wrong may be intellectually correct (and let’s confess it, occasionally fun), but it is not particularly productive for either the advisee or the advisor.
Criticising is, by definition, a part of every advisor’s job. Suggestions on how to improve always carry the implied critique that all is not being done well at the moment. Yet it is the person asking you for advice who is usually responsible for the current state of affairs.
The diagnosis and solution of a problem can never be performed without considering the sensitivities, emotions, and politics of the receiver’s situation. No matter how technical one’s field or discipline, the act of giving advice is crucially dependent on a deep understanding of the personalities involved, and on the ability to adapt the advice-giving process to the specific individuals involved.
It is an essential part of the advisors role to reveal problems, barriers and issues of which the advisee is unaware. If these are not conveyed with tact and skill, the advisee could easily believe (however unfairly) that, rather than relieving fears and being helpful, the advisor is creating complications.
Some advisees are anxious and uncertain and may experience unwelcome feelings of dependency or loss of control. Therefore, it is the advisor’s role to provide reassurance, calm fears, inspire confidence and promote independence.
It can take some time for many advisors to realize that it is a central part of their role to develop these skills. You are not taught these skills in your professional training, in school nor inside the typical workplace, well very few are.
Finding the Right Words
Excellence in advice giving requires not only the right attitude, but a careful attention to language. There are always a number of ways of expressing the same thought, each of which differs in how it is received by the listener. You aren’t always aware of how you come across in your conversations. You know what we intend to convey, but you do not always know how you are being received. As the poet Robert Burns noted, there is great benefit “to see ourselves as others see us.”
Saying “You’ve got to do X” even when correct, is very likely to evoke emotional resistance – no-one likes to be told that they’ve got to do anything (even when they do).
As alternative option is to say something like: “Let’s go through the options together. These are the ones I see. Can you think of anything else that needs to beconsidered?” Followed by “let’s go through the pro’s and con’s of each course of action. Based on those pros and cons, action X seems the most likely to work, what do you think? Or can you think of a better solution?”
If the advisee doesn’t want to do X, the conversation is still alive. If you’ve said “you’ve got to do X” and the advisee says, “No, I don’t,” you’ve nowhere to go. Your effectiveness as an advisor has just been lost, and you have placed yourself and the advisee on opposite sides.
Saying, “did you understand that?” after explaining something may produce silence, as the advisee may not want to say no, and in their eyes appear to look as though they don’t understand. An alternative phrasing could be “have I explained myself well enough” therefore placing the onus on yourself to be clear and allowing the advisee, without losing face, to say “no” and ask questions.
Effective advice giving requires an ability to suppress one’s own ego and emotional needs and to make the advisee think that the solution was his or her idea, or at the very least his or her decision.
However, unless you can develop the approaches and skills necessary to deal with this, your advice will not be acted upon, and you will not be seen as a helpful, useful advisor.
The fact remains that advice giving is an art, not a science. Most of you will have to learn these skills by trial and error as your career progresses. Individual tips and tactics are helpful, but to apply any of them unthinkingly across the board with all advisees would be a huge mistake.
An advisor’s role is to be an expert guide in the process of reasoning through the situation. Your ability to be accepted as a trustworthy guide can be damaged if your advisee believes that you have already reached your own inflexible conclusion.
The essence of advice giving is the ability to design a process and means of interacting that fits each unique advisee situation. The burden is on the advisor to understand each advisees preferred style of interaction and to be sufficiently flexible to deal with him or her in the manner that that advisee finds most comfortable and effective.
The one thing an advisor must not do is commit themselves to a single advisory style and say “Well, that’s my style, the advisee can take it or leave it.” That really would be pompous, patronising and arrogant!