We give advice by the bucket, but take it by the grain.
– William R. Alger

C&H advice Over the holidays, a wise leader suggested to me how it is very rarely useful to tell someone else what to do. We all love our own advice. How much do recipients appreciate it? She mentioned a study that showed that when giving advice our brain’s pleasure center fires; when receiving advice the brain indicates we are experiencing pain. I’ve searched somewhat elaborately and haven’t been able to locate such a study, but it’s a good parable if nothing else.

Writing in Psychology Today’s Freedom to Learn, Peter Gray (2010): “For good evolutionary reasons … we human beings naturally crave freedom. We resist control from other people. We do this regardless of our age and regardless of whom it is who wants to control us. Married people resist control from their spouses; old people resist control from their middle-aged children; children of all ages resist control from their parents. And, of course, students resist control from their teachers, which is one reason why schools as we generally know them produce such poor results.” Now that may be a bit provocative and you can read the slew of comments if you like. But it does get at one of the central barriers to advice.

We have a basic need for autonomy. So rather than giving advice, what if we listen more to what people are saying and see if they are open to an invitation to look at things in a new way? What we often do as coaches is ask questions to open up new perspectives. Another coach described it this way, “An internally created insight is simply a fresh way of looking at things; a new meaning attached to existing data.” Often people benefit from constructing a solution or new approach rather than being given an answer.

Clearly there is more complexity and several caveats to all of this. Yet unless advice is solicited, it tends to be more of a thrill for the giver than the receiver. (The irony of the implied advice is not lost on me.) One of my biggest follies is my exuberance to share what I think will be useful ideas. When I’m actually “out here” with another person, I’m more likely to be curious and assist their own discovery.

Hunter S. Thompson said, “To give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania. To presume to point a man to the right and ultimate goal — to point with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself.”

I resolve to listen. And to listen to advice not to advise.

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