Making Space is More Important Than Giving Advice

On New Year’s Eve I was playing a problem-solving game with my significant other. It was my turn and I was stuck. “Hold on,” I muttered to the frustrated man beside me, who clearly already knew the answer “…I can solve this myself”. But I couldn’t, and after a while I gave up and turned to him: “Come on then, give me your advice.

But there was no advice. Instead, he just asked: “What is it exactly that you were trying to do?” so I duly explained. “And what’s stopping you?”  Again I explained. “Well, where can you move it to?” he asked. I started to explain and then stopped mid-sentence, as I saw clearly what I needed to do.

This is the difference between giving advice and making space for others to come up with a solution themselves.

Advice is poor help, or no help at all

Had I been given advice, I would have felt incapable of doing it myself. Dissatisfied with my performance, I’d have felt like I had failed and given up. However, once I was given the opportunity to realize what I needed to do, I felt a sense of achievement. Not only did I want to carry on playing, but I felt energized and elated.

The same applies – whether you are stuck finding one particular solution to a problem, or trying to unravel a more complicated issue that affects your whole life – offering advice is rarely a good idea.

Unsought Advice is an Insult

I have previously mentioned that unsought advice is an insult. Whether insult is too strong a word is debatable, but the effect remains – a person who is not ready to listen to your advice, will simply feel you’re trespassing on their territory.

Unsought advice can often have the opposite effect to the one you intended. The person might instead defend their actions, attack you, and cling on even tighter to their opinion. Instead of discussing the matter that your advice was aimed at, you get caught in a complicated web of making excuses, blaming others, and shame.

Asking for Advice Means Giving Up Control in Return For a Solution

But what happens if I want advice and ask for it? Surely then it would be OK? In principle, yes, and the advice is often useful, at least temporarily. But the problem is that this advice will often fix the visible symptoms rather than the underlying cause of my troubles. By taking this advice I am resigning myself to the overall situation, and focusing instead on finding a solution that will work for now.

But a coach that asks the right questions might be invaluable for finding the root causes of your problems. During this process you can ask others for ideas, suggestions, more information, and their own experiences. This is not the same as advice which is directly telling you what you should do.

In the end, you are the one who knows best what you should do.

Give Them Space by Asking and Listening

If you see a person that could do with some advice, the best way to do this is by asking them good questions. Give them some space to have their own ideas by simply being present and empathic. Let them do their own work at their own pace. Solutions found in this way feel more like an achievement, they energise everyone involved, and they set the ball rolling in the right direction.

You can also tackle the difficult questions by addressing them directly from your own perspective rather than in pseudo-objective terms. For instance, “you need to document your code better” is not only vague, but unhelpful. A much better approach would be to explain it in more detailed subjective terms, such as “I am frustrated by the fact that there’s essential information missing from this part of the documentation. This means work takes longer than it should and it might be jeopardizing future projects. Do you know a good way to solve this?

This will probably evoke  in your colleague – they are only human after all. By giving people the space to react, and by keeping calm yourself, it is possible to help them towards the right solution by asking questions, rather than giving advice.

May I offer some advice? Come chat with us at our Slack Workspace.

TL;DR: Advice rarely results in the desired outcome

  • If a person is not ready for advice, they won’t ask for it.
  • If they don’t ask for advice, you are trespassing by giving them it.
  • In such a situation, they will often ignore or react against your advice.
  • When a person does ask for advice, they are often only treating the symptoms, not the root cause.
  • The most useful thing they can do is to realize the underlying causes and work out solutions for themselves.
  • They can realize these things by gathering ideas and suggestions.
  • In the end they will be the ones who know best what to do.

Or what do you think?

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