THE BLOG

Giving Advice Doesn't Work. Here's What Does.

02/20/2015 03:36 pm ET | Updated Apr 22, 2015
Nicolas McComber via Getty Images

I am what you might call an 'aggressively helpful' person. I have never shied away from sharing my opinion about what you should do with your challenge, your job or your life (my family and friends are nodding knowingly as they read this). I have had a tendency to try to fix people and situations, or to think that my personal experiences are the gold standard for experiences everywhere. I have consistently struggled with this know-it-all aspect of my personality, particularly in reconciling it with my spiritual belief that all of the answers that we need are within us.

One book, Quiet Leadership by David Rock, provided me with the information that I needed to change my behavior. It completely altered the way that I engaged with people and helped them with their problems. If you also suffer from a case of "know-it-all-itis", this mindset shift might prove to be useful to you too.

The individual brain is unimaginably complex. There are around 100 billion neurons; within these neurons, there are up to 100,000 dendrites which gather information and 1 axon that transmit them. These connections are the maps that guide our thoughts, behaviors and actions. There are so many ways that a neuron in a brain could be connected that it's a larger number than there are atoms in the known universe. Your individual brain is completely, uncompromisingly unique.

No two brains in the world are alike, because there are unlimited different ways that individual brains can store information. No two people look at the same situation, understand information or hear messages in the exact same way. If you were to compare your brain against your parent's, your partner's or your manager's, you would find them to be substantially different in many ways. Every single thought, feeling, and experience changes our brain or molds a new pathway.

Our world is based on the unconscious assumption that all of our brains are the same: our schools, businesses and relationships all operate under this misconception, informing the way that we behave and engage with them.

Take the following example from my own life: My friend comes to me with a career problem that she is trying to deal with. She explains the situation to me. I immediately make the unconscious assumption that her brain is the same as mine. I input her problem into my brain, see the connections that my brain would make to solve the problem, and spit out the solution that would work for me. I tell her what I would do in that situation and therefore, recommend that it is what she should do.

Every single day, we think through someone else's problems for them and then provide them with the output as 'advice'. Instead of using our greatest individual asset - our special brain - we turn to others to do the heavy lifting for us, hampering our ability to develop new connections and strengthen our brains. Giving advice is actually an active disservice to the person getting it: my friend here had an opportunity to think her way through her situation and develop new connections in her brain - by sharing my brain's take on her situation, I'm hampering that opportunity.

When a person is struggling to perform their best in a given situation, it means that they have not been able to 'think' their way through the situation yet. There is something in their way that they haven't been able to get around. The greatest service that we can give to someone is listening to someone about their situation and helping them to think it through for themselves.

After reading this book, I tried to stop giving any advice and see what happened to my relationships. I worried that I might lose the bonding and connection that comes out of talking about someone's issues. I was so happy to see the opposite was true: my human interactions became richer, more meaningful and more satisfying. Now, I try to stay away from giving advice and instead focus on putting myself at service to my friends and colleagues, trying to help them to think through their own situations.

If you want to try it for yourself, there are two major components to test drive.

First, when someone comes to you for advice, we should focus on asking "thinking questions", which are focused only on the other person's thinking. When you ask these questions, it allows the person to actually make new connections in their brain, drawing new roads on their map that get them from A to B more effectively. When these new connections are made, we have those "aha!" moments that can change our lives.

These questions could include:

  • How long have you been thinking about this?
  • How clear are you about this issue?
  • How do you feel about this?
  • What insights are coming to mind as we discuss this?

Second, try adopting a new listening model called "listening for people's potential". It means that while you listen, you listen to and believe in another person completely. You listen like the other person has all of the answers that they need inside of them. You listen as a service to the other person. You listen so that they can explore their ideas out loud and get to the 'aha!' moment themselves.

As human beings who thrive on connection, we are naturally inclined to try to help people to be happy and to eliminate their suffering. We can truly help others by putting ourselves at their service to help them think through their own challenges, building their brains, and empowering them to grow.

If this topic interests you, I'd highly recommend checking out Quiet Leadership to gain more incredible insights than can be summarized here.

My brain sees many ways that this finding can change our world, from the way that we teach children in school, to the way that we work, to our personal relationships. Your brain might see different implications that would never even occur to me. Isn't that amazing?