Stage 1 of Giving Advice: Is it necessary?
“We give advice by the bucket, but take it by the grain.”
William R. Alger, American Theologian (1822-1905)
We all give advice. Some of us are expected to do it as a key part of our professions. No wonder so many insist on offering advice even though no one asked for it. It’s annoying and can seriously strain relationships. What’s especially annoying is that the “know-it-alls” often have a big problem with you offering them advice! Unfortunately the “know-it-all” may be automatically ignored even though at times their advice is dead-on and exactly what’s needed. How can be better at giving advice?
Don’t rush in.
Curb your temptation to jump right in with your recommendation. Take time to first determine if advice is needed. Most people do what works for them. It may not be your way to do it, but if it’s not problematic for them leave it alone. I am a tidy-freak. In my home being messy is a problem. It may not be so in my child’s or neighbour’s home.
Get the whole story – all the facts and feelings. You may have to slow down again and let the person who needs your help finish. Don’t be anxious to comment. Focus on completely understanding the problem from their perspective. If it’s not clear ask them to repeat it until you get it.
Issues are often more complex than they initially appear. By first listening, actively and intently, we allow the speaker to more fully describe the situation. Not only do we understand it more fully, but the speaker may be encouraged to listen to what we have to say later. In the words of Dr. Marshall Rosenberg the adviser needs “connection before correction”. Rosenberg is an American psychologist and the creator of “life-serving” Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a communication process that helps people to exchange the information necessary to resolve conflicts and differences peacefully.
Listen with empathy.
It is empathic listening that establishes the “connection before correction”. Empathic people are able to be aware of, be sensitive to, understand and imagine the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another … without having those feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated to them in an objectively explicit manner.
Recognize what really matters at the time.
Advice is a recommendation. Sometimes that’s not what is needed by the other person. What they are really after could be much different, for example:
- compassionate ears, willing to only listen as they vent their anger, disappointment or frustration,
- a sounding board to brainstorm possible alternatives,
- help to solve a specific problem,
- clarification of rules, practices and even opinions,
- a discussion to mediate or change a consequence or punishment, or
- reassurance and encouragement to continue their struggle.
Be aware of why you are planning to give advice.
There are legitimate reasons to offer advice. Helping someone who is expressing a clear need for your assistance is at the top of the list. Warning someone of an impending danger is right up there too. However while you think the danger is real the person you are warning may not share your certainty. To smoke or not to smoke is a good example.
We enter the danger zone when, on our own initiative, we recommend corrections or improvements to the other’s self. For sure character deficiencies or personality issues can hurt performance on the job or romantic relationships. But is it any of your business? Be careful and do not offer advice unless the other person acknowledges the problem beforehand and has come to you for help.
Is your willingness to offer advice more about satisfying your own personal need? Does your ego need a boost? Are you obsessed with furthering your own agenda: to show how much you know; to vent your own feelings of superiority, disappointment or anger; to sell your ideas about values or morality? Back away quickly if these are your motivators.
Do they need it? Do they want it from you?
If the answer to both questions is “Yes”, the coast is clear. Just make sure your advice is good and your approach is effective. The next post will share ideas on how to do that.
“Advice, like food, tastes better when one is hungry for it. Ever try and feed a baby or a child when they are not hungry?”
Gian Fiero, educator, speaker and consultant, adjunct professor at San Francisco State University