I loved this conversation with Michael Bungay Stanier, author of The Advice Trap and The Coaching Habit about why our “advice isn’t as good as [we] think”.
Stanier explains why giving advice can be disempowering and counterproductive:
You might be solving the wrong problem because so often the thing somebody comes to you as the challenge is not the real challenge; it’s just the first thing they thought of, it’s the symptoms. So often you’re working really hard to solve something that doesn’t really matter or isn’t the real problem.
Much of your advice is biased, slanted, prejudiced based on the last thing that you did, based on the first thing that you did, based on your own history.
Stanier's guidance has been difficult for me to take in because I tend to think my advice is pretty good. And operating under that belief, I indiscriminately dole out advice to my kids in an effort to try and smooth out the rough patches.
Stanier also says, "if you’re playing the rescuer role, you create victims. . . so, your frustration, ‘Why can’t they sort this out?’ Well, you’re part of that dynamic; you’re actually driving that dynamic.”
My instinct to offer advice generally stems from my own anxiety. When I'm faced with an unresolved problem, I feel this urgency to offer a neat and tidy solution (preferably one that is tied up with a big, red, bow).
But apparently, my well-intentioned (and apparently not very good) advice is serving to rob my kids of the productive struggle of real world learning experiences.
And I wonder why they aren’t as independent as I would like.
However, this ability to “stay curious a little longer”, as Stanier advises, seems exponentially kinder and more respectful as it enables us to “hold space for them to figure their stuff out themselves”.
The truth is that the answers we often seek can only be found within ourselves. I wish this wasn't so, but over and over again it appears to be the case.
It feels like this is a lesson I should have learned by now.
Anne Lamott explains it this way, “we can't arrange peace or lasting improvement for the people we love most in the world. They have to find their own ways, their own answers. You can't run alongside your grown children with sunscreen and ChapStick on their hero's journey. You have to release them. It's disrespectful not to. And if it's someone else's problem, you probably don't have the answer, anyway. Our help is usually not very helpful. Our help is often toxic. And help is the sunny side of control. Stop helping so much. Don't get your help and goodness all over everybody.”
Stanier offers us questions that can support us in our efforts to remain curious instead of rushing in headfirst with advice. He offers these strategies in the context of leadership and coaching, but I think these questions in particular can work in any relationship:
What’s on your mind?
What else? (in case the first thing they said was just a symptom of the problem)
What do you want?
So, how can I help?
In case you need one final deterrent to refrain from dispensing advice, Stanier says, “When you give somebody advice, you are one upping yourself against that other person, you’re saying, “Look, I’m better, smarter, faster, more experienced, wiser, cleverer. . .”
Imagine in your efforts to be helpful you’re actually implying that you are somehow superior. Ugh.
Even though I’ve committed to taming my “advice monster”, I still catch myself blurting out advice in an effort to solve problems that are not mine to solve.
But if offering advice is undermining my true intention to be of service, it seems to me that it is worthy of continued practice.