How to give and get better advice

The problem with most advice is that it’s delivered as “here’s what I think you should do.”

Yet it typically reflects, “here’s what I did in a similar situation.”

That old situation and this new one are never the same: different time, different place, different people.

Plus, upon receiving that kind of advice, we end up stuck again: we’ve turned to someone we trust who has more experience with this type of thing than we have. Hearing their advice, we face a new dilemma: is their wisdom, experience and fresh perspective more valid than what we (closer to the texture and nuance of the situation) see and know?

There’s a better way to approach this conversation, both as advice-seeker and the advice-giver.

If we are asked to give advice, we start by advising less.

Instead, we take a position of inquiry. Our job is to tease out what is going on beneath the surface, the questions that are being balanced, the decision that’s lurking but afraid to show its face. As this picture starts to emerge, we can, gently, begin to engage with what’s been offered up. We can re-frame the options that have been presented and share some new ones. We can question the weight being given to this or that risk (or opportunity). We can inquire about some strongly-held assumptions to see if the could be held more loosely, revealing both their truths and their limitations.

Ultimately, through this engagement, the person who felt stuck doesn’t get a take-it-or-leave-it answer, instead she ends up armed with new criteria, a few better assumptions, and a bit more confidence in her own choice-making ability. So equipped, she’s ready to get herself unstuck and find the path she will choose to walk.

Similarly, as the person seeking advice, we can remind ourselves that a much better opening question than “what do you think I should do?” is “can I talk this through with you?  I’d love your input on whether I’m thinking about this in the right way.”

Trying right

It might be my long-ago past as a wrestler, but I’m a big believer in effort. The willingness and ability to try hard for a sustained period of time makes a huge difference in what we can accomplish.

But sometimes it’s not enough. Yes, people care about the effort, but if it doesn’t deliver what they need then they can end up frustrated.

For example, in terms of working with teams, I find the Situational Leadership framework, developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, hugely helpful.  It serves as a simple but powerful framing for how different team members need different things depending on the task they are doing and their skill at executing against that task. (Ian does a nice job explaining situational leadership in some detail, and if you want to go deep, go here or here.)

SITUATIONAL LEADERSHIP

Situational leadership_two graphicsThe framework describes the different roles you can play in interacting with a colleague (or a team) – from Directing to Coaching to Supporting to Delegating – depending on how committed to and competent they are at completing a given task.  (The graphic on the right is the classic visual for Situational Leadership; the one on the left focuses particularly on how willingness and ability map to different intervention styles).

It’s a simple framework but it takes a lot to apply it: you’ve got to diagnose the elements that make up a task; map your diagnosis onto an assessment of another person’s skills and motivation for accomplishing the elements of that task; intervene successfully to provide support based on that diagnosis; and adjust along the way for both how well/poorly you diagnosed both the task and your colleague, and how well/poorly you succeeded in your intervention.

My point isn’t about the situational leadership framework (though if you’ve never used it I recommend it highly), it’s about the leverage comes from the right diagnosis of each situation. This is the continual work of figuring out what’s needed at this moment in this situation with this person.

Yes, we should try hard, but the question becomes: where to direct that effort? More often than not, the right starting point is to listen, think about, and reflect on what another person needs to succeed in a given situation.

There’s a selflessness to this orientation, as we move from an internal focus (“I’m thinking about how I am going to act”) to an external one (“what is this situation, who is this person relative to this situation, what do I know about their wants and needs in this type of situation?”).

In this reorientation, we start the work of shifting from trying hard to trying right.