The Art of Giving Advice

I was reading an HBR article today The Art of Giving and Receiving Advice.  The title piqued my interest.  I often get into discussions with trainee coaches, on the thorny topic of ‘giving advice’!

It is intriguing to think that there could actually be an art to giving advice, but of course, as you think about it, it makes perfect sense.

In the article Edgar Schein said that Advisers can slip up in a couple of ways:

“First, they may define the problem prematurely because they think they see similarities with challenges they’ve faced.  (Often those analogies don’t hold up when the full scope of the problem is revealed.)  Second, they sometimes forget that (advice) seekers are self-interested parties who may – deliberately or not – present partial or biased accounts.  All this is compounded by an irrational but compelling fear of looking incompetent – not asking basic, probing questions, so as to not jeopardise one’s expert status.”

Many of the skills of a good coach are also the skills of a leader/adviser helping another: e.g. listening, suspending judgement, asking good questions, self-awareness, contracting, challenge, transparency, relationship building skills, empathy, emotional intelligence, awareness of process, etc.

The article describes a process to help overcome the barriers to effective advice-giving and advice-receiving.  There’s quite a lot involved in doing it well!

I reflected on several things as I read the article:

  • ‘Giving advice’ can be part of the coach’s job with a very big ‘BUT’. A huge ‘BUT’!  There are a minority of times when it is in the best interests of the coachee, and is the right thing for that coach to do in that particular moment with that coachee.  Having a coaching conversation is very different to day-to-day conversations, and the coach needs to unlearn many habits of opinion-giving, idea-giving and advice-giving, in order to become a powerful and effective coach.
  • “Careful listening is hard, time-consuming work” – I totally agree. When I have spent a day carefully listening to people, whether this be in 1-1 conversations (coaching, supervision, consulting) or in running a training programme, I can be exhausted.  Many of my trainees comment on how tiring listening is.  It involves changing our habits.  It’s hard work.  And….it’s extremely rewarding.  And effective.
  • We’re all human, and our egos do funny things to us. On the whole, it’s flattering to think we have the answers, the solutions, the great ideas, the experience to draw upon, the accumulated wisdom, knowledge of how organisations work, knowledge of different sectors, geographies, etc. – which is just what the person sitting in front of us needs.  How often do we slip into thinking we know the best way forward for someone else?  How could we slow ourselves down to give a bit more space to ‘not knowing’ and maintaining a curiosity in what that other person is experiencing in their reality?
  • Finally, I reflected on the many times I have sought support and advice from friends, family and colleagues. I don’t think I was overly skilful in how I did it.  It takes a lot of skill to seek out, ask for, and receive advice.  I will now think more carefully, and prepare myself.  I will also challenge myself, and seek out people who are different to me, and be more prepared to let the possibility in, that I may not already intuitively know the answer!

© Wendy Robinson 2015

570 words

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