It’s often easier to solve someone else’s problem than your own. So it only makes sense to share your opinion when you hear about someone’s problem, right? Unfortunately, this habit can actually be unhelpful and a waste of everyone’s time, says Michael Bungay Stanier, author of The Advice Trap.
“We need to learn how to tame our advice monster,” says Bungay Stanier. “Too often we think we can add value to a conversation and immediately jump in before we know what’s going on. Then we wonder why people don’t take our advice.”
There are three main reasons, says Bungay Stanier.
1. You’re solving the wrong challenge
The first time somebody says, “Hey, this is my problem,” what they share is almost never the problem, says Bungay Stanier.
“When someone first shares a challenge, it’s usually not quite there yet,” says Bungay Stanier. “The seduction for the advice-giver is thinking that the first challenge is the real challenge, and we take a first guess and stab at solving it.”
If you spend more time being curious about what real challenge is, you’ll likely find that it shifts, getting deeper and more specific. For example, if someone tells you that they have a hard time meeting deadlines when they work from home, many of us would jump in and offer tips such as waking up earlier or setting aside more time for a project.
“You might think the person is a prima donna,” says Bungay Stanier. “But when you dig deeper, you could find out that the real challenge is that she has two young kids who are fighting, and it’s a distraction when working remotely. Those are different challenges than time management, and that can shift the conversation away from simple productivity hacks.”
2. Your solution is mediocre
Another pitfall we have with an advice-giving habit is thinking that our ideas are better than they really are. “We all assert cognitive bias and think that our idea is the smart idea, the right idea, and the best idea because it lives in our head,” says Bungay Stanier. “You have a vested interest in thinking that your ideas are great. You are wired to protect your ego.”
Unfortunately, that nugget of gold and wisdom often isn’t good advice.
3. You’re draining everyone’s energy
While the first two reasons your advice isn’t being used are about wasting time, energy, and resources, the habit can have a more damaging outcome. “Solving problems for someone is limiting and diminishing for them and you,” says Bungay Stanier.
If you’re on the receiving end, advice carries an underlying message that you’re not experienced or clever enough to figure out how to figure out the challenge for yourself. One iteration is mansplaining. “It sends the message to the other person that you don’t know jack shit,” says Bungay Stanier.
In addition to disempowering the other person or becoming a bottleneck for finding real resolution, feeling like you have to solve everybody’s problems can leave you frustrated and drained. “When you carry this weight, everybody loses,” says Bungay Stanier.
What to do instead
Helping others in real ways can be powerful, and you don’t necessarily have to keep your mouth shut. Instead, shift your behavior slightly.
“I’m not saying to never give advice or that all advice is bad, but the key place where things break down is when most of us default move into advice-telling mode,” says Bungay Stanier.
Can you stay curious a little bit longer and rush to advice giving a little bit slower? he asks. In the workplace, managers and leaders should shift their thinking from being the person who uncovers a fast but wrong solution to being the person responsible for uncovering the real challenge. It’s a more strategic role to play, says Bungay Stanier.
“Most organizations spend no time figuring out their real challenges,” says Bungay Stanier. “That’s why many come out with not quite right solutions.”
Albert Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”
“It can be powerful if people start a new default habit of asking a question and staying curious for 60 seconds,” says Bungay Stanier. “Then you can add, ‘Would you like to hear my ideas?’ Or ‘What ideas do you have?’ With this approach, you spend time providing solutions to the real problem.”