Since the early days of my work over ten years ago, I’ve generally been an advocate of us all doing less giving advice and less asking for advice. Women—as well as others in our society with less power because of some aspect of their identity—are ceaselessly given advice by our family members, friends, by the culture, the experts.
Far less frequently do we get the message from the world: Turn inward. Trust yourself. Find your own right answers. You are powerful and trustworthy.
But, remember my recent post, It Depends? Lately, I’m really interested in the exceptions to my own rules. Yes, advice is often unhelpful. It can send us down distracting rabbit holes of someone else’s agenda or projections, or leave us feeling unseen/unheard.
On the other hand, sometimes it is fantastically useful. I live in the neighborhood I live in because a friend said, “go check out that area, I think you’d like it.” And I started a blog in 2009—a blog that opened up my creativity and led to the work I do today—because after listening to me talk about my writing struggles, a friend said to me, “you should start a blog.” I mean, she even used the word “should”—a no-no word in the personal growth world! And you know what? That advice was very helpful.
And so, with the matter of giving advice, I am interested in getting more granular. When is advice helpful and when is it not? How do we get more of that magically-just-right advice, the kind my friends gave me, and less of the other, unhelpful kind?
I recently brought these questions to a discussion with a group of alumnae of one of my courses. To start, I asked the group to reflect back on their experiences and estimate: what percentage of the time has advice they’ve received actually been helpful?
The majority of the group said that of all the interactions when someone has given them advice, the advice was helpful to them only 10-25% of the time. In other words, most of the time, advice is not helpful! That alone is a really important thing for us to consider.
Then we looked at the data of our own lives, considering what distinguished helpful and unhelpful advice we’ve received. What we discovered was illuminating.
For this group, here’s what commonly characterized the times when advice was not helpful, or was even harmful:
- The advice was not asked for.
- The advice didn’t reflect careful listening to the other party.
- The advice seemed to come from fear or projections of the advice-giver.
- The advice was based in assumptions, and/or reflected blindspots related to the privilege of the advice-giver.
- The advice felt like it contained a criticism, judgment or condescension.
On the other hand, here’s what was present during times advice was truly helpful:
- Trust—they trusted the person who was giving advice.
- Permission—they asked for advice or the other person asked for their permission before giving advice.
- The person was not pushy about the advice, and was not attached to them following it.
- Often, the advice-giver was able to put the advice in the context of their own experience, and make explicit that the other party’s context/experience/goals may be different—in other words, they didn’t assume lessons from their own life would necessarily apply to the other person.
- The recipient could feel that the advice came from a place of love and caring. (Note, this is very different from the advice-giver feeling their advice comes from a place of love and caring. Here what we are talking about is that the recipient actually feels, in their own being, that the advice is coming from a place of love and caring.)
- In some cases, there was also a sense that the advice-giver saw potential, talent or possibility in them that the person did not see in themselves—and the advising was about helping them step into that potential. (In co-active coaching terminology, what we would describe as “calling forth” the other person.)
So, if we were to extrapolate some guidelines for giving more helpful advice, those might include:
- Wait to be asked for advice, or if you feel inspired to share advice without being asked, authentically and gently ask permission first.
- Listen carefully and deeply to the other party before ever moving into advising. You might want to even repeat back to them the key themes of what you heard and check with them—did I get that right? Am I hearing you?
- Start from the assumption that the other party’s experience, circumstances and goals are different from yours, not the same.
- Start from the assumption that what worked for you in your life or career is not a universally applicable approach, but was shaped by your particular identity and forms of privilege.
- Do your own inner work to unhook from any projections or attachment to outcome that’s present in your stance toward this person or their situation. That inner work may take days or weeks! Then, after you’ve done that work, see what’s left over that you really feel moved to say.
Big picture, collectively, I continue to think we benefit from leaning much more heavily on other ways of supporting people (besides giving advice). We can draw on generous listening, asking powerful questions, championing others, and modeling/embodying positive qualities and actions via our own behavior (versus advising others about them). These are all skills I love to teach, in the Playing Big Facilitators Training and The Coaching Way.
And yet, at the same time, there are exceptions to every rule. Should we give advice? It depends. Some small percentage of situations are ones where, if we listen carefully and lovingly, we might just be able to give the piece of advice that is transformative for someone else. I think those are the rare occasions, not the usual thing. Maybe a good way to think of it is that advice isn’t the main course of how we support people, but the occasional garnish on the plate. Carefully chosen, carefully placed.