By Ian Whitworth
Got a 7 minute car trip coming up? Let me read it to you instead.
Top Tips For Busy Parents
One of our staff was expecting his first child. Summoning memories of that exciting time, I asked, “Would you like some advice?”
“Uh … sure.”
I quite enjoyed seeing him try to stay polite while he’s thinking: if someone gives me just one more bit of new-parenting advice I will sever their head, put it in the freezer and use it as a prop for the kid’s first Halloween.
“You’re about to be swamped by advice on every baby topic imaginable,” I said. “And most of it will be useless, like you’re trapped in some hideous 24-hour a day Facebook group. Ignore it all and you’ll be fine. Sorry to tell you that via the medium of advice.” He seemed relieved not having to pretend to appreciate the tip.
People love to give you advice. Those with the strongest urge to give it are the last people on earth you want it from.
Some only give advice to those who actively seek it. That’s likely to be good advice. You should always be asking accomplished people for their thoughts and they’re usually delighted to provide them. It makes you smarter and makes them feel good.
Advice Thrusters: Don’t Be That
Your major source of advice, though, is from people who like to thrust it upon you.
“You know what you should do?” is their classic opening line after a minimal appraisal of your situation. The Advice Thruster usually has poor listening skills, equipped as they are with all the knowledge anyone would ever need.
They bring certainty that everyone else has exactly the same tastes, values and morals as they do. They have little interest in the individual, complex nature of your problem. They won’t leave many gaps in the conversation even if you feel like clarifying anything. They won’t notice your lack of non-verbal interest signals.
This kind of advice boils down to: “You should be more like me. Because what I’d do is the best thing to do in any given situation. You’re lucky I was here to let you know what to do.” Advice Thrusters transcend professional advice from so-called experts because experts don’t operate in the “real world” and can be over-ruled by “common sense”.
You Really Should Tell ‘Em
Your difficulties with other people are a particular favourite of the Advice Thruster. They’re so confident of what they would do if they were you.
Troubles with the boss? You should really tell her straight up where to stick her demanding requests.
Kids being uncontrollable little bastards? I’d really come down much tougher on them, kids today have no discipline. Lock away their devices until they show some old-fashioned manners.
Distant cousins from England overstaying their welcome in the house? Just tell them they have to be out in two days and if they’re not gone, you’re going to put their bags out in the street.
There is no limit to the tough justice they’re willing to let you hand out in difficult situations to people they don’t know. In business situations I sometimes invite them to the meeting where they’ve advised a Putinesque bareknuckle showdown. You may be shocked to learn that in 100% of these situations the Advice Thruster doesn’t actually speak up.
The Racist Cab Driver Principle
Advice thrusters are poor persuaders because they can’t tell the difference between “they agreed with me” and “they didn’t actively disagree with me”. This is at the core of most business dramas. One person spouts their one-sided viewpoint while the other patiently listens, the way one does to a racist cab driver, knowing that arguing is a waste of energy.
This is why those cab drivers tell you the silent majority is on their side. They just don’t realise why their passengers are silent.
Office Romance Advice: The Ultimate Lose/Lose
There’s a special corner of the advice world where you can really feel the flames of hell licking your feet: romantic advice. You have no idea what’s really going on in other people’s relationships and you’re only getting one carefully-curated side of it.
Nobody wins and given this is a business site we’ll stick to people asking you for relationship advice at work. In 99% of cases it’s: “I am doin’ it with someone at work who I know I shouldn’t be doin’ it with, but I can’t stop. What should I do?”
You already know they are, because everyone at work knows. It may as well be posted on a laminated sign on the office fridge with love-heart clip art. You have to pretend that it’s a shock revelation. They pour out their confession and ask for your thoughts.
It doesn’t matter what you say, because all they want is validation of what they already think. They’ll ask as many people as it takes until they find someone to agree with them. Just nod and listen. Don’t suggest any course of action. At this difficult time they are a pinless grenade of potential mad behavior and any active involvement will come back to bite you.
How To Be Good At This
People who are actually good at giving advice are skilled at holding up a mirror to you. They don’t talk a lot, but ask you questions. They’re sensitive to your facial expressions and vocal tone. They ask more questions based on the signals they’re noticing. They get you to voice how you feel about the situation. They essentially get you to advise yourself.
It’s one thing to get advice; it’s another to act on it. If it’s a big issue, you’re unlikely to act unless you’re convinced at a fundamental level, and who do you trust better than yourself?
The Essential Question
When people at work ask what they should do – assuming it’s a bigger issue than what sort of birthday cake to get Gary from admin – go through that questioning and listening process. Get them to describe the situation as they see it, then ask them the magic question:
What do you think you should do?
That’s all that matters. There’s no point in telling them what you’d do. Good people usually know what to do, they just want it clarified. And if you jump in with your answers all the time, they’ll never develop into someone who can replace you, which is what you need.
Plus you end up with an inbred hillbilly village of a business where everyone thinks the same way.
Lazy people will also ask for advice because they haven’t put much thought or effort into solving the problem. The magic question forces them to do their homework.
Either way, if their answer is insanely bad, don’t correct them, or they’ll just go the full hermit crab retreat. Go back to the questioning. Offer some hints, like “what do you think the effect on X might be if you did that?”.
It’s important that they come up with the idea “themselves”, or they’re unlikely to act on it. The more you shut up, listen and observe, the better you get at this essential business ventriloquist skill.
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