A couple of months ago, as my oldest grandson was graduating from college, I started writing out some worldly advice for the young man.
What I didn’t realize is how far along he was on mapping out his life and my idea to help him along seemed rather unnecessary. I would still like to give him some things to think about and keep in mind as he moves through life, maybe not pearls of wisdom, but observations from life.
I set aside my writing; maybe I’ll share it with him at another time. Or not. This exercise did help me reflect on the giving of advice in general. So, here goes.
Advice is a delicate matter. Is this a work or personal matter? Is the advice solicited or not? How well do you know the person? Obviously, the type of issue is key to the discussion. Are there gender, age or cultural considerations? If you are a trusted source, there may be more openness and consideration of your input. Are you there to mostly listen or does the person actually want your input?
I wish I’d had more advice in my younger years although I might have fought it, being a rebellious sort at the time. Man, how I’ve learned. And life has a bit of irony. Today, I’m more in the advice giving business as a part of my job. If you survive long enough you might gain a sort of exulted reputation for either wisdom or hard-earned lessons. And the color gray is associated with experience and wise views. The people who come to see me don’t care which method I arrived at the knowledge, only that I might have something they can use. I hope that is the case.
Mostly, I help many colleagues sort through various alternatives, ask them questions, and give my views if asked. Many times the advice is self evident, just peeling the orange to get to the fruit. There’s no wizardry, although I do like a fancy cape and a wand. My point is, there’s usually no magic or card tricks, just finding the answer that are usually in reasonably plain sight.
Giving life advice to someone who hasn’t asked for it is tricky business. Like suggesting to a man he should stop and ask directions. I tread carefully in this area. Sometimes, I offer an observation to see where it might go. If it doesn’t get any traction, that’s usually the end of it, unless it is critical or it carries a high risk factor. At least I’ve opened the door a crack.
Likewise, giving advice to someone of a different generation can be like putting roller skates on a bull. Hey, old fart. What could you possibly know that’s relevant in the post ice-age era?
I’d like to think that I’m approachable. At times, I send out a vibe that I’m busy and I catch myself conveying that to folks who come to my office. That’s a bit of feedback I’ve gained from myself. Also, I don’t tell people what I think they want to hear. I try to listen for facts and also subtext, particularly if they are being cautious in their explanation or if it seems they want validation rather than advice. It’s easy to spot the folks who seem like they have their answer, right or wrong, they just want you to endorse their position. I don’t let people off that easy. Explain your position and we’ll explore it.
The key to providing advice or feedback starts with listening. Listening is a skill, and most people need work at it. When you are listening, you are not talking, and you do not interrupt. You are a sponge, soaking up what that other person is saying and you are observing their body language. You certainly can ask questions and probe, but you may be impeding that person from presenting their information and throwing off their train of thought. Use questions carefully. If you are interrupting, you probably aren’t listening. If you are in a position of influence, the most powerful tool on your belt is the ability to listen. Listen for understanding.
In the pursuit of advice, what anyone wants more than answers is attention, focus and a connection. If you have empathy, give it. Empathy does not lessen objectivity, it humanizes it. Empathy is not a weakness, it is a strength. Empathy is the connective tissue between humans. If you cannot build a bridge to that other person, whatever wonderful advice you want to impart, will never make it across.
When you are in a position of offering help or just reflection to someone else, you are acting as a servant leader. It’s not about your brilliance, position or the alphabet behind your name. It is not about you.
Sometimes you have to refer them to organizational policy or the employee handbook to guide them. If the purpose of the advice is medical or technical information or analysis, that’s an entirely different story. I’m not diagnosing the pain in your chest or providing calculations on what beams to use in a building design.
Giving advice is a gift. When someone comes to my office, the first thing I do (or should do) is stop what I’m doing and give them my full attention (see above). Yes, that is sometimes difficult to do, but you need to find a stopping point. Think about how that person feels, coming to your office unannounced, hoping they will be welcomed and not turned away. Whatever is on their mind is important enough for them to risk saying they need help figuring out a problem, counseling an employee or sorting out options to make a decision. Thankfully, they aren’t coming to borrow money.
We all give advice. Most of it is unsolicited and happens in the daily interaction of life. We teach, we challenge, we advise and we are role models. As humans we learn from each other all the time, whether we realize it or not.
Some people you can’t help. You try, but they aren’t willing to see difficult things or they only want their viewpoint validated. Or, they simply want to argue everything. I’ve dealt with my share of those folks. They are exhausting and it’s a waste of time.
Equally frustrating is the person who had taken no time or energy to think about their own situation. They come for a handout, a ready-made solution. They want someone else to shoulder their pain or do the heavy lifting.
I’m not in the business of solving other people’s problems. I’m a helper. There is not a box outside my office that says, “Dump your problems here.” It is pleasing when someone leaves with a new path or a more definite strategy. Sometimes it works, other times not. I don’t issue guarantees, but I stand behind the willingness to help. Maybe it takes more than one bite of the apple.