Still Life

A Series of Mental Snapshots

Giving and Accepting Advice… it shouldn’t be this hard, should it?

Posted by Steve on May 11, 2008

I have had thoughts on this topic for a while, and have had them surface recently because I have been reading the book “The Secrets of Consulting” by Gerald Weinberg and am about 50 pages into it. The book, as the title suggests is about consulting, which is in effect giving advice to people who say that they want. The reason I highlight say, is because the book discusses that even if someone says that they want your advice they rarely actually want it. I am going to go into my thoughts on firstly receiving advice, then I will go into actually giving it.

Receiving Advice
I have two questions to pose first, think about these two questions for a bit:

How often have you reacted adversely to someone trying to help you?
How often have you reacted adversely to someone giving advice?

From my personal experience I would rarely have an adverse reaction if someone is trying to help me, but as soon as someone offers advice, of any kind, I sometimes become defensive, discredit what they are saying or simply ask myself ‘why should they know better than I do?’. It is an interesting occurrence since the difference between the two is very minor. When someone gives advice, are they not trying to help you?

Maybe the difference is that if someone offers to help you, thats all it is help. But when someone gives you advice, perhaps you are admitting to yourself that someone else knows more than you, that they know better than you. I think that that is exactly where the problem lies, just because someone gives you advice on something, it does not mean that they necessarily know better.

Since I have had these feelings of defensive towards receiving advice, I have actively tried to be receptive to all advice, because it can never hurt to hear someone’s advice, the worst case scenario, it is not good advice and you choose to ignore it. I really feel that your attitude to receiving advice is what really matters, so to try to be more receptive to advice, I actively try to listen and be open to any advice people are willing to offer, and then if it does turn out that I feel it is not pertinent or good advice, I simply file it away and do not act on it, as stated above hearing the advice cannot hurt.

Giving Advice
I wrote a little more than expected on receiving advice, so I will only state the most important thing I have learned about giving advice, something that my dad actually taught me: Always ask if someone wants your advice before giving it. I always ask someone, “would you like advice” before giving any, and will actually not proceed to give them any if they say no. That is actually the most difficult part, not giving advice when you want to, but it is important to know unwanted advice will usually have a neutral or negative impact. Furthermore if someone refuses your advice, it feels a bit like a personal insult, like they think you do not know what you are talking about; that is another thing that is difficult to get over, but is still very important, often times someone not wanting advice has very little to do with you specifically, often people want to work through things on their own.

There you have it, a few thoughts on receiving and giving advice. This is definitely a topic I am looking to expand on and these are just some first thoughts.

Advice, good or bad, should always be heard but need not be acted on.
–Steve Swanson

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3 Responses to “Giving and Accepting Advice… it shouldn’t be this hard, should it?”

  1. Ming Qu said

    Steve, nice post. I was roaming around on Adam’s page and came across this.

    I certainly can relate to the point that you are making about receiving advice. I treasure those who help me. But the moment one gives me advice when I don’t need it, I would try to disagree even when I don’t. It feels like it’s just something in my nature. I would try to oppose just to try to make this one realize of something that he/she didn’t know.

    I think the intrinsic reason why we all have such attitudes is driven by the fear of being less-knowing than others. This always tends to be human nature: we all want to be the best. But recently I came to a realization that I don’t need to be better than others, but rather I need to be better than myself. This led to realizing that others’ advice will always be theirs, if I don’t choose to take it, I could always leave it at the door.
    Anyways, I’ll probably make a post about this soon.

    Good to hear from you.

  2. Adam White said

    Steve,

    I like your post as well. It’s very interesting and it touches on something that is so core to our work that sometimes it easy to overlook it.

    The truth is everyone has an opinion and some people choose to share it. Sometimes it comes down to respect. If someone I respect gives me advice then I rarely get defensive. If it is someone I don’t respect then I tend to react by disagreeing or being defensive as Ming noted.

    Ming has touched on something very interesting – the topic of ego. The trick is to recognize when it’s ego talking and nip it in the bud. Ego isn’t a bad thing but when it makes you defensive, and possibly attacking/agressive, then it’s time to address it. A lot can come down to confidence (at least for me in the past). I was looking to others for validation that I was smart. If they were giving me advice then obviously I wasn’t smart enough 🙂 It’s a viscous circle

    Try putting yourself in the shoes of a teamlead or a manager. Do you think you would always ask someone before giving them advice if you are in this role? Would your approach be different? If yes – Why? What would be different?

    What happens if you have solved the problem that a person you are leading is working on and when you ask them if you want advice they say no? Should you let them go down a path that you know won’t work?

    If you expand the topic into the realm of feedback in general then it starts to get really interesting. Jerry has another book What Did You Say?: The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback

  3. Steve said

    Adam,

    Your points have definitely got me thinking. I was thinking about giving advice to a peer, not as a manager, thus there are obviously some different challenges that surround that case. I first thought back on if any superior has ever asked me if I wanted their advice, and it does happen at times that they did ask, I would never say no, so I have trouble relating with a situation when someone would say no. I think if a manager/team lead asked if someone they managed wanted advice on something, and that person said no I think that there would be a larger issue here, to me that would display the fact that they do not trust your judgment on the matter, and I think that would be a large issue, how could you be a team lead/manager and have your team not trust you, that is just a bad situation. That does not answer the question exactly, but it is sort of the thought process that ended up happening!

    As to whether I would always ask them if they wanted advice, I think that the answer would be know, it is sort of implied by the structures of the workplace allow for the manager/team lead to give advice because of the role that they are in, it is their job to give advice and guidance to the team members.

    Definitely an interesting topic to think about though…!

    –Steve

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