Giving Advice is Not Giving Solutions

I feel a bit awkward when people ask me for advice. As somebody perpetually suffering from imposter syndrome I feel, who am I to give advice! What do I know?

On an average, I get asked at least 10 times a day for some kind of advice related to business, management, relationship, productivity, negotiation, mental health, life, etc. To make sure I don’t do a sloppy job, I’ve devised a framework to give advice that I’ve polished over the years. The same framework can be used while asking for advice as well.

People generally ask for advice when they need validation for something they already know. That is okay, but it limits the extent to which an advice can be helpful.

The real purpose of advice is to help us see what we are missing—by walking around the problem, or looking at it from a different angle. While we are stuck among the tress, advice helps us see the forest.

Suppose you are holding a ball in your hand inside a moving train. From your frame of reference, the ball is static. But from somebody else’s perspective, one who looks at you from outside the train, it’s a completely different picture. They see what you cannot see. Advice helps us realise that the ball, along with you, is moving at the speed of the train.

When people ask for advice, I consciously try to avoid giving any specific solutions. It’s best that the person who faces the problem comes up with the solution. All I do is help them come up with some ideas, find the missing pieces, and connect the dots. Instead of solving their problems, I try to understand them instead. Therefore, giving advice, like therapy, is more about listening—not speaking.

It’s about asking them to tell us what they see, so that they can see it again through our eyes. It’s not just about listening to the problem at hand, but also about walking us through their thinking process. Giving advice is more like a discussion where we try to understand a situation as much as we can before proceeding further.

Even after understanding everything, I rarely give advice on the actual problem. Telling people what to do and what not to do doesn’t help. It’s their problem, and therefore it’s very important that they understand everything about it. Because unless they see and accept the problem as it really is, they won’t act upon it anyway.

For example, the quickest antipode to procrastination and lack of productivity is fixing a chunk of time for work while blocking off all kinds of distractions. Even though no sane person would disagree with it, this advice falls flat, and doesn’t help the concerned person in anyway.

They already know this. Unless we help them look at it differently—for example, do they realise that avoiding distraction is equivalent to getting work done—we cannot help them.

Sometimes, the solutions are straightforward. For example, when a friend asks you how they should talk to their boss for a promotion, simply telling them the steps to follow is not good advice. Blindly following a solution creates unhealthy dependency. They should come up with their own ideas, and take responsibility for their actions, no matter how easy the solution is.

This is why it’s recommended to allow kids to struggle with their lessons. Solving problems should be full of mental struggle and frustration—be it a math problem or a life problem. The process of finding a solution is more important than the solution itself.

When we tell them what to do rather than help them figure things out themselves, we raise kids who don’t know how to deal with adversity. Like the old saying goes, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”—giving advice is similar.

People often confuse advice with feedback. They aren’t the same. Feedback is geared towards a solution, and comes into picture near the end. It’s like saying, “Here’s what I’m thinking. What do you think of that?” You are free to take or reject feedback. Advice, on the other hand is saying something like, “Hey I’m stuck. Need your help to find a direction.”

Most people don’t want their problems solved by somebody else. They want to be understood and listened too. They want to solve their own problems. Giving advice is giving them the right tools, to help them see something they haven’t seen before.

This is the same attitude you should take while asking for advice—from your parents, your spouse, your friends, your business partners and your investors—ask them to help you see the problem from their point of view so that you can find the solution yourself.

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