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Three ways to give better advice

For starters, understand what’s really being asked and don’t just offer what you’d do.

Three ways to give better advice
[Photo: Flickr user WOCinTech Chat]

Over time, you’re likely to have other people at work ask you for advice. You might have colleagues who see something you do well and want your help. There might be folks in your industry who value your expertise. You might even take on the role of mentor.

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When you find yourself in an advice-giving situation, here are some suggestions for how to approach it.

Answer the right question

Often, people seeking advice come to you with a specific question. That is good. I am always wary of people who just want to “pick my brain.” The conversation is likely to ramble and probably not be that useful in the long-run.

But, just because someone asked you a particular question doesn’t mean that you should answer that question. Instead, start by asking yourself what question you think the person should have asked you. That is, try to understand the assumptions underlying the question. Then, figure out how to address that issue rather than the particular thing someone asked for.

Remember that when people want advice, they often don’t know much about the domain they are asking about. So, they ask the best question they can based on what they know. Because you know more about the area, you are likely to recognize that there is a better way for them to achieve their goals.

If you can’t figure out why you have been asked for a particular piece of advice, it is also OK to ask a few questions of your own before proceeding to answer. Find out more about the situation the person is in and get a sense of what that individual is trying to accomplish. Then, you’re in a better position to re-frame the question to give a useful answer.

Provide information

Often, people ask for advice by getting a sense of what you would do in the same situation. Resist the temptation to talk about the course of action you would take. For one thing, your goals may not be the same as someone else’s goals, and so you might suggest something that would be perfectly good for you, but wouldn’t help the advice-seeker much. For another, some people are just trying to validate a decision they have already made. If you disagree with what they want to hear, they may just ignore your suggestion.

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Instead, focus on giving people information related to the choice they want to make. Look for things that someone may not have considered and point them in that direction. If you think someone is headed for a mistake, then don’t tell them they are doing something wrong. Instead, suggest they consider facts, data, or possibilities that conflict with their desired outcome. That way, you are helping them to reach the right decision for themselves.

In addition, use advice-giving situations as a way to find connections for someone in your social network. Sometimes, people come to you for advice when they would be better off connected with someone else you know. Making those connections can be a great way to help other people to achieve their goals.

Teach a person to fish

When you do answer someone’s question, don’t just tell them the information they asked for, also give them a sense of how you got that information. Let them see more of your thought process behind the response.

The reason to elaborate more is that you’d like to both answer the question posed to you and also make it more likely that someone will be able to find an answer they need in the future for themselves. If they internalize your thought process, they will be better able to solve similar problems in the future.

Of course, it isn’t enough just to tell along story about your reasoning. People are often listening just for the particular knowledge relevant to the question they asked. So, make the conversation more interactive. Ask a few questions that lead people to respond in ways that make them think about the problem the way you do. Your aim is for them to hear your voice in their head the next time they encounter this situation and lead themselves through that set of questions.

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