A few weeks ago, I met with a friend for a catch-up meeting. He is a senior, experienced, multi-time successful entrepreneur whose opinions are worth heeding. During the catch-up, we started talking about some of the work that I am doing and in particular a couple of companies with whom I am working. He weighed in with some advice which was very pointed, very direct and probably very correct, yet even though I wanted to hear his opinion, it somewhat pissed me off. So the last few weeks, I have been trying to figure out why I felt the way I did and more importantly, whether I leave others feeling the same way when I give advice.
During that meeting, I felt a tiny bit like a kid being lectured by my parents. He didn't mean to cause that feeling but that is how I felt.
- I felt inferior. The conversation should have between peers but I felt like a subordinate.
- I felt dumb. Many of his suggestions were things I knew, but because of lack of time, too much distraction, or lack of discipline, they were things I had not done.
- I felt defensive, probably because I felt dumb for not having done things that he was advising.
There was one specific piece of advice he gave that my client and I had thoroughly discussed and chosen to go against conventional wisdom because we believed the circumstances are slightly different. I was exhausted from discussing this issue and the position we had taken. I did not want to get into discussing it further because it would have distracted the meeting and not been productive. Whether my client and I made the right decision on this one issue will only be known over time so I just sat politely and listened to my friend's opinion, hoping we could pass over the issue quickly and get on to more productive discussions. I am sure my actions on this one issue made me look weak or my body language sent him a message that I wasn't listening or open to his opinion.
As a result of my feelings about the meeting, I have been examining how I can improve on how I give advice to my clients. I have been mulling over what he did and how it could have been delivered differently. Combining these insights with past learning, here is what I have come up with:
(Disclaimer: the following may be in the category of "the pot calling the kettle black" because I have been told that sometimes I am too blunt, lecture too much, preach too much, am too forceful in giving opinion, and much more)
- Don't tell someone what to do. When giving advice, it presumes you know all the facts which you rarely do. To give advice without all the facts is presumptive and can be perceived as arrogant or reckless. Instead share your experience of a similar situation, what you did and what was the outcome (both pros and cons). Discuss how this experience applies to the other person's current situation.
- Collaborate on developing the advice on what to do.
- Watch the other's body language very closely. If you sense discomfort or get signals contrary to what their words are saying, stop what you are doing. Change course. Possibly ask them if the discussion is useful or whether to move to a different topic.
- Suggest your advice as a question, not a statement. Don't say, "you should do….". Instead ask "if you did this, would this help solve the problem".
- Make your idea their idea. Don't lay out the whole solution for them, rather open their eyes to an idea for the solution. Work with them to expand the idea. The conversation will shift from it being your idea to them developing the idea into a plan. Giving advice is not about you being smarter than them. It is about them developing their solution with your help.
- Be humble. They are talking to you because they already think you know something they don't. Don't rub their face in the fact that you may be more senior, more experienced or even smarter than them. I often say that my value is that I already have made the mistakes so my advice is based on helping people avoid my mistakes.
- Don't try and hit a homerun by solving all their problems. Focus on one or two important ones. Solving all their problems only makes you look smart and they look dumb. Solve one problem. They will be back for more advice later.
- Disarm them. I often talk about context. I claim not to be smarter, just that I have seen more and have greater context for seeing what works and what doesn't.
- Don't presume to make the decision for them or usurp their power. It is their company, not yours and ultimately they have to live with the consequences of the decision. Give them options, give them balanced opinions on the pros and cons and let them decide. Only say "If it was my company, I would…" if asked specifically what your decision would be.
- Make sure they understand that you will continue to respect them regardless of the decision that they make and whether you agree with it or not. If they think that they have lost your trust and respect, they won't feel comfortable asking you for future advice.
- If they ignore your advice and make a bad decision, give them a face-saving way to admit what went wrong. No one likes to be told "I told you so".
Giving advice is tricky. If you have any advice for me on how I give advice, I would love to hear it.