In the early 1970’s there were a series of commercials on TV that featured a “know-it-all” spokesman for a brand of wine called The Answer Grape. He had a very stately demeanor and would answer any question posed to him. Why is it that like the Answer Grape, we feel compelled to impart our advice to others, even when we’re not quite sure what to say?
Perhaps it’s because over a lifetime we’ve learned and believe that giving advice, sharing our viewpoint, and telling others exactly what they should do—even when we aren’t quite sure ourselves—demonstrates credibility, adds value, and builds trust. But does it really?
Of course sharing your ideas and giving advice can be valuable to others—I’m just suggesting that when it becomes our fallback response to every request, it can have unintended consequences for both the advice seeker and giver. When people unduly rely on you, it disempowers them and wears you down.
I’m not suggesting that you abandon sharing your ideas and giving advice completely. Instead, I’m suggesting that it not be your default position when the matter at hand doesn’t require a practical or more expedient answer. There is another alternative, and it is simple yet exceedingly powerful: to give less advice and listen more.
Listening more starts when you can:
Resist The Urge To Answer The First, Second, Or Even Third Time
Jonas Salk is quoted as saying, “What people think of as the moment of discovery is really the discovery of the question.” Instead of diving in with an answer, ask a question that will trigger a dialogue and uncover what the true question is. Then listen without an agenda to the answer and experience the power in that moment. Questions open the door for the other person to take time to actually think and sort things out for themselves. In all likelihood, answering your question is probably the first time they have heard themselves verbalize what they’ve been thinking aloud. Resist the urge to jump in after your first, second, or even third question. Keep asking questions that help both you and the other person focus on what the challenge is, what they need to resolve it, and what they can do, and when you’ve finally gotten to that point you can then ask them, “What do they need from you?” And then you listen again.
Don’t Disguise Advice As A Question
Preparation is key in asking questions that support dialogue rather than advice that masquerades as a question. Choose a few all-purpose, open-ended questions that you can pull out whenever you need them. They can be as simple as: “What’s on your mind?” or “Under the present circumstances, what might you find helpful?” And one of my favorites: “And what else?” Keep them handy at first until they become second nature to you.
Banish the following questions, which are really a wolf’s advice in sheep’s clothing: “Have you thought of…?”, “Did you consider…?”, ”And have you tried…?” Always opt for the questions that curb your desire to give advice and lead to more opportunities for the other person to go deeper and explore their thinking. Remember too that this isn’t an interrogation, so asking one question at a time is key. Complex multi-part questions qualify as more than one, so also avoid asking those.
Recap And Ask Them If This Was Helpful
When the time comes and the person has really had the chance to explore and talk about what’s on their mind, you now have a great opportunity to guide the conversation toward a natural conclusion that may or may not include sharing your viewpoint. Recapping the highlights of the conversation and asking the other person what they found most helpful to them is a good way to gauge where they are and if they still need something from you—namely advice or perspective. You can simply ask them, “What might you need from me so that you can take the next steps?” If they ask you for your thoughts, now is the time to share them, and because you’ve listened intently you can better craft your advice to meet their needs. Remember it should be in the form of future-focused advice and things that they can absolutely take action on themselves. You can close out by offering your support and willingness to be an accountability partner too.
Asking questions doesn’t make you unsure, lack confidence, or even lack expertise. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Empowering others to discover their expertise, talents, and solutions guides them towards self-reliance and builds momentum in a powerful and personal way. It creates an enduring cycle of discovery and learning that breaks through bottlenecks and motivates all involved. What are you going to do to listen more and give less advice?