You are (Probably) Terrible at Giving Advice

I used to think that I was very good at giving advice. I would meet up with friends, we would share our issues, and we would give each other advice about what we should do about our problems. I thought this was what it looked like to be a good friend, but I have recently realized that I may not have been as good a friend as I thought I was.

Image designed in Microsoft Designer by Shaney

People give advice to each other all the time, and we probably don’t think about this kind of transaction very deeply. It’s just something that we do naturally, as a part of the conversations that we have. This week, I have been thinking about why we are not as good at giving advice as we think we are, and why we should consider trying to introduce a different kind of flow to our conversations with friends, family, and colleagues.

Say, for example, that I have a friend who is having trouble making a decision about something. I would assume that if she brought that issue to me, she wants me to give her some advice about which option is the best, based on what she has told me, what I know about the topic, and what I know about her. That is how these conversations have usually gone in the past, and if I was able to say my opinion eloquently, and my friend said something like, “Yeah, maybe I’ll do that,” I considered my job as a friend done. However, if she has been thinking about her problem for a number of days, and I have only just started thinking about it, it is unlikely that I will have grasped all of the pointy edges of the problem that she is trying to solve. If it could be solved so quickly, she probably would have already solved it for herself.

So, in this case, it is likely that I will give advice of varying quality, some of which she has already considered (and maybe rejected), some that won’t actually work in her situation, perhaps a few bits that might help her think about her problem in a different way. And all the while, she might be feeling judged by me, especially if my tone suggests anything like, “Why don’t you just…?” or “You should just…”.

So, am I saying that we shouldn’t ask friends for advice, and that good friends don’t give advice? No. The point is that when I give advice, I need to check myself on two points.

  1. Am I an expert in what this person is asking me about?
  2. Have I had a similar experience to the one that my friend is currently grappling with?

Okay, so here is the part of this article that gets a bit “meta”, because I am about to give you some advice about how to give advice, based on the idea that everyone, including me, is terrible at giving advice. Bear with me a bit longer and hopefully it will all work out in the end!

Am I an Expert?

I have a business coach that I have worked with for many years, and he has a policy of always asking first before giving anyone advice. I think that is a great way to shift the flow of the conversation. By asking me if I want his advice, he is giving me time to think about what I want to get out of the conversation with him. Do I want his advice, or do I just want to get something off my chest and not actually try to solve anything right now? Also, this gives me a chance to consider whether I believe that he is an expert in what we are talking about, and if I trust him to give me good advice. (He is an expert, and he always gives me good business advice. That’s the great thing about having a coach!)

So, modeling my coach, if I can answer “yes” to “Am I an expert on this topic?” then I can direct the flow of the conversation by asking my friend first if she wants advice from me, or if she just wants me to listen. Even if I am an expert on whatever she is talking about, as a good friend, I should first try to figure out what she needs rather than just spouting off what I think.

Am I Experienced?

The next point is about experience. Can I honestly say that I have had a similar experience to the one that my friend is struggling with?

Recently, I mentioned to my mother that my school was going to be used as a set for filming a commercial. My mother jumped on board and started giving me advice about this situation. Luckily for me, my mother has had this exact experience, because she was the business administrator of a private school for many years, and many films were made at the school due to its unique characteristics. (The school is a castle built in the 1800s.) So, my mother was able to give me some really valuable advice about how to handle the situation of a film crew being on a school campus.

So, modeling my mum, if my answer to “Have I had a similar experience?” is yes, then I can tell my friend that I have had a similar experience, ask them if they want to hear about it, and frame the next part of the conversation about my own experience (not theirs). In this case, rather than giving advice, I am saying, “Here is what happened to me when I was in a similar situation. It may or may not apply to your situation. It is just my experience, and the context of your situation is different.”

Not an Expert or Experienced?

The examples of my business coach and my mother are two cases when the advice given was valuable and well-received. However, if you consider the number of conversations that you have with people in a day, and the topics that are covered in the conversations, it’s likely that, on balance, the people involved in the conversations are neither experts nor have they had the exact same experiences as each other. So, what should happen when neither of those conditions are fulfilled?

My advice for improving the flow of your conversation is to GET CURIOUS and STAY CURIOUS instead of giving or receiving advice.

Advice for Listeners

If I am the listener, in the situation where I would usually be inclined to give the advice, I can instead be an open vessel for my friend to contain her issue, and when she stops talking, instead of putting a lid on it and giving advice, I can open up the conversation more by getting curious and asking questions. I can assume that I don’t know the whole picture, because the issues people face are rarely so one-dimensional that they can be explained easily or solved in one go. If I find the words “you should (just)” coming into my mind, I can push them away. I am not an expert, and I do not have the exact same experience, so I am not in a position to tell anyone what they should or should not do. What I can do is provide the space for my friend to explore the issue themselves, with some gentle help from me in the form of my questions.

Advice for Speakers

If I am the speaker in the situation, where I might be seen as seeking advice, I need to get curious about my own intentions. What do I want to get out of the conversation? Am I looking for answers/advice, or for consolation? Do I just want to get something off my chest, or do I want someone to help me solve my problems? If I can get curious and stay curious long enough to figure that part out, and if I can tell the listener what I think will help me right now, they will almost certainly follow my lead.

Usually people already know the answer to their problems, deep down inside themselves. Or, if they don’t know yet, they can get themselves there if they have a bit of help from a good friend (or a coach). Perhaps we can consider the idea that the gift of our friendship may come in the form of questions rather than words of advice?

What do you think? Is this good advice?