The Art of Advice
I have been blessed to have had some of the best advisors and mentors a person could ever ask for. They have been generous with their time, and they seem to get a lot of joy from being asked. What I have learned is advice can be a powerful tool. I’ve also learned that there is an art to both giving and receiving advice. And, there are rules for both that make the exchange work well.
For example, I try to offer my advice with a fair dose of kindness and here’s why. When people come to you, they are most often in a crisis of some kind or another, either great or small. That means that they are vulnerable. Maybe they’ve made a mistake and you’re their manager. They want to know how to fix it so that at least that particular mistake never happens again. This is a critical juncture in your working relationship. Handle this well and the roots will grow deeper. Deal with it so that they get to keep their dignity, no matter how egregious the error. Doing so will engender trust so that they will be more likely to ask again at some point down the road.
Seeking advice can be your greatest learning experience. You and I are surrounded by really smart people who have knowledge and experiences that we don’t have. Why not reach out them sometime and pick their brains? This takes humility, and yes it takes (here’s that word again) trust. If you are worried that you might be somehow perceived differently because you asked, then you are not very likely to do that, right? My advisors have always made me feel smart for asking. They appreciate the humility it takes to reach out in the first place. It also tells them how I feel about them and how highly I regard them.
There’s an art to how you ask for advice so as to get the most out of the exchange. I learned this from Pam Autrey, a retired strategic business executive in Austin, Texas who recently gave me her insights on the subject for a new book I’m working on. Here’s what she shared with me:
Late into my career, as a consultant to a large national company, I was asked to help resolve a dispute between two department heads. This experience convinced me that I would benefit from a mediation training course. The best advice I was given in this course was to ask better questions and to listen closely. This is a fundamental skill which can contribute to anyone’s improving performance by helping promote a better understanding of customers, vendors, employees – and even family and friends.
Most of us negotiate almost every day of our lives, whether it is in deciding where to go eat with our spouse or in navigating relationships at work or deals with our vendors or customers. The fundamental skill of asking open-ended questions allows the other party to provide insights into their understandings (or misunderstandings) of a situation, their needs, desires, interests and the motives behind their original demands. Listening carefully can give you knowledge that can then help everyone involved figure out better options that can address all parties’ needs or desires and arrive at a possible win-win solution for everyone.
What is an open-ended question? It is one which cannot be answered in one or two words. It is one that allows the person being questioned to provide insights into their thinking about an issue.
The question typically will start with something like the following:
Can you tell me your thoughts about …?
Explain what you mean by …?
Tell me about ….?
What would it look like if …?
What is most important about …?
What would work best for …?
If ___________, then ____________________ …?
Are there conditions under which …?
What do you see as …?
Can you draw a picture or a diagram of how you see that?
No matter where you are in your career and life, and no matter how far you have come, there is more to learn. Stay humble and ask. And, if you are a mentor or manager, be kind. Teach and be taught. There’s no better way to grow.