Giving advice is a last resort

A haiku from the book The Coaching Habit:

Tell less and ask more.
Your advice is not as good
As you think it is.

Ouch. Gut reaction: listen, you don’t know me! My advice is primo, champ! …But I was wrong. My advice is garbage just like everyone else’s.

The book says that it’s not our job to fix things for other people, which is what advice does. It’s our job to help them fix their own things, and we do that by asking questions.

  • We ask questions because we’re teaching them to fish.
  • We ask questions because we have the courage to say no to the cheap self esteem boost of telling them what to do.
  • We ask questions because our advice often isn’t as good as the solution they reach themselves.
  • We ask questions because even if our advice is the same as the solution they reach themselves, at least they can own it and internalize it because it’s theirs.
  • We ask questions because solving the initial problem usually means solving the wrong problem.

But it’s hard, right? The urge to advise is a tough habit to break:

We call this urge the Advice Monster. You have the best of intentions to stay curious and ask a few good questions. But in the moment, just as you are moving to that better way of working, the Advice Monster leaps out of the darkness and hijacks the conversation. Before you realize what’s happening, your mind is turned towards finding The Answer and you’re leaping in to offer ideas, suggestions and recommended ways forward.

Michael Bungay Stanier, The Coaching Habit

It takes work to beat the Advice Monster, and you can’t cheat. Rhetorical questions don’t count. Advice with a question mark attached (“Did you consider X?”) doesn’t count.

Ask things like “and what else?” and “what’s the real challenge here for you?” and “what do you want?” Keep asking until their well is dry. Hopefully by then they have found a solution, but if not, then you’re allowed to give advice.

Giving advice before then means short circuiting their thought process and stealing their ownership. Advice is the last resort because you failed to ask the right questions to help them find the best solution. Do better next time.

Give the Advice Monster the finger. Tell less and ask more. Your advice is not as good as you think it is.

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