Why Giving Advice Doesn’t Work

When someone comes to you for advice, there is an incredibly tempting instinct that it may be better to stifle—and that is the instinct to give them the very advice that they’re looking for. It’s natural to want to give someone a solution right away. But giving advice may not be the best way to help them solve the problem.

When you give someone an idea about how to solve their problem, you presume that you know enough about their problem that you have the best solution. In reality, you’re guessing. You might feel confident in your guess: you may have been in a similar situation in the past, or read about a similar situation somewhere.

But if you have not been working together on this problem for a long time, then you really know very little about their problem. You haven’t been in their shoes, and you haven’t experienced the problem first-hand. This means that your guessed advice, more often than not, will simply miss the mark.

In reality, the person asking for advice is the person best positioned to solve their own problem. Instead of trying to solve the problem for them, you can empower them to solve it themselves. This not only means a much better solution, but a great opportunity for your employee to grow.

In fact, you can start by asking questions that will help them to organize and synthesize the information about the problem they already have, and to get more critical information about the problem. Such questions would help your advice-seeker learn more about the problem and the factors that control it, so they can better understand what they can change in order to solve the problem.

Ask questions that help them define the problem very rigorously. In particular, make sure their problem definition does not include assumptions about what’s causing the problem.

Ask them how they can become intimately familiar with the problem and understand its pattern more deeply. The root causes of many problems can become readily apparent by understanding the pattern of failure.

Summing-up: Teaching others about great problem-solving behaviors will take more time than giving them a quick guess, but it’s far more likely to help them solve their problem. Better yet, it will empower their independence and confidence.

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