Before you give advice

“I think the main reason you employ me,” Bob once said, “is to hear yourself talk.”

Bob was a savvy coach who’d run the Career Services office at Harvard and then gone into private practice.

I sometimes consulted him for advice. Except that he hardly gave any.

And when he did—one day he suggested I write a sitcom episode for “Seinfeld”—I usually ignored it.

His role, as he saw it, wasn’t to tell me what to do. It was to engage in dialogue so I could figure things out.

How often do you give advice?

Advice isn’t bad.

When you have expertise, and the other person doesn’t, your advice may be useful. I give lots of advice, for example, when coaching executives on presentations.

But most problems aren’t like that.

Suppose you’re a manager. You’ve got at least 15 ways to develop your employees—advice ranks last (Learning and Development Roundtable 2003 survey).

Your advice robs others of the chance to develop judgment.

Sometimes, when people ask me for advice, I listen for a while, and then ask a question like this:

“Suppose you were talking to a very wise person. What would she or he advise you to do?”

“She’d advise me to stay put,” said a colleague. He’d been wrestling with whether to accept a job at another company. Suddenly, he knew the answer.

A similar question: “What would Person X do (where X is a role model)?”

Movie director Steven Spielberg, while making “Jaws,” struggled with a mechanical shark that didn’t work.


He could have called Alfred Hitchcock for advice. Instead, he asked himself, “What would Hitchcock do?”

Answer: Don’t show the shark. It’s scarier.

Tip: It’s scarier to let people solve problems on their own. It’s easier—for you and for them—to show the answer.

But the next time someone knocks on your door for advice, remember: that’s a coachable moment.

© Copyright 2011 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

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