Esquire Guy

How and When to Give Advice (Hint: It's Not as Simple as You Think)

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This story appears in the June 2015 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

The first step in giving advice is: Do not give advice. Listen instead.

The advice-seeker must establish:

1. The problem and why it’s important.

2. Possible solutions. (The seeker needs to have done at least as much work as he’s asking you to do.)

3. Why you’re appropriately positioned to help. 

“The presumption of expertise is a natural impulse. They asked me for advice, ergo I must know something about that subject!” says David Garvin, a Harvard Business School professor and co-author of the Harvard Business Review paper “The Art of Giving and Receiving Advice.” “Unfortunately, often that’s not the case. So the thing to do is make sure you’re well-positioned and have sufficient expertise and knowledge to be the advisor in the first place.” 

Do you actually have experience with a similar problem? Maybe the answer is no. If that’s the case, then you should direct the advice-seeker to someone else. 

Things might even end there. That may be the only thing the seeker really wants out of the interaction. “Sometimes it’s hard not to interrupt and say, ‘Oh! I know this! I can help you,’” says Jessica Livingston, co-founder and partner at the Y Combinator accelerator. “Even though you may be thinking, It’s taking a long time for them to tell me the half-hour-long buildup to the problem, sometimes they need that half-hour-long buildup because it’s a really traumatic thing that they haven’t been able to talk to anyone else about.”

Sometimes people asking for advice don’t actually want any. They just want someone else to help shoulder the burden. They want their problem out in the open, so they can deal with it. 

And now for some advice on advice

The second step is: Give information. 

According to research conducted by Reeshad Dalal, an associate professor at George Mason University, and Silvia Bonaccio, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management, there are four types of advice.

1. Advice for. (“Walk out of here and don’t look back.”)

2. Advice against. (“Don’t walk out of here. What are you, crazy?”)

3. Information. (“Here’s some information about what it’s like to not have a job.”)

4. Decision support. (“You should talk to your wife about quitting your job. She might have some opinions on the matter. Consider inviting your children as well.”) 

When Dalal and Bonaccio asked what kind of advice subjects wished to receive, they consistently preferred being provided with information about one or more options (as opposed to being advised to “do this” or “don’t do that”). 

The problem is that delivering information requires time and thought. It’s a lot easier to speak in platitudes about how to come to a decision or to just recommend a specific action. Researchers who have studied giving and receiving career advice have shown that advisors tend to evaluate a decision according to a single attribute or dimension. (“If you leave your job, you won’t be making any money.”) But advice-seekers are weighing a decision against many dimensions. 

The main thing is: Don’t provide answers. And don’t say what you would do, which sounds helpful but is actually self-centered and most likely irrelevant. Talk about a similar situation you’ve dealt with in your personal life, but tell the seeker that your advice is a parable, not a pattern. (Note: At no point should you say: “I will now deliver unto you a parable.”)

Says Garvin: “Our tendency is to say, ‘That reminds me of XYZ.’ Well, sometimes the resemblance is accurate, but more often it’s superficial, and you need to go deeper to find out whether the analogy has legs, or whether the situation the person is facing is fundamentally different in important respects.”

Instead, stay focused on the seeker’s problem, ask questions and then offer some paths forward. Giving good advice isn’t about solving a problem; it’s about making the problem easier to understand. It also involves encouragement to act.  

“The mark of the best advisors is that people leave their meetings not only with clarity and direction but with energy in their step—a refreshed or renewed sense that there’s a path forward, a feeling they can conquer the problem,” Garvin says.

The great secret of advice is that its value is not in direction but in information and motivation. When offering advice, inform more than you advise. And listen more than you talk. Talking presumes that you have the answer. But you don’t have the answer: They do. Your job is to help them find it. 

Which brings us to the third and final step: Walk out and don’t look back. Not them. You. You have your own problems. 


Dos and don’ts

David Garvin and Joshua Margolis, professors who wrote the Harvard Business Review article “The Art of Giving and Receiving Advice,” say good advice involves the following:

  • Finding the right fit
  • Developing a shared understanding
  • Crafting alternatives
  • Converging on a decision
  • Putting advice into action

Giving advice should not involve:

  • Overstepping boundaries
  • Misdiagnosing the problem
  • Offering self-centered guidance
  • Communicating poorly
  • Mishandling the aftermath

And it should definitely not involve:

  • Taking responsibility for the seeker’s eventual action. “Both the decision and the consequences are [the advice-seeker’s],” Garvin stresses, “not yours.”
Edition: December 2016

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