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I want to be a coach, not an advice monster

Priya Narasimhan
Priya Narasimhan
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I want to be a coach, not an advice monster

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Priya Narasimhan
Priya Narasimhan

A good part of my job involves giving advice on a daily basis. As a professor, I have to give advice to my graduate students. As a manager, I have to give advice to my reports. It’s my job to see how my students and reports can be great, and to work to make them great. In fact, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t give advice, sometimes (read: often) unsolicited.

But, I don’t want to turn into an advice monster.

Advice can grate on people. I don’t want my advice to erode someone’s confidence, their independence, or their creativity to figure out their own solutions. I don’t want my advice to be perceived as interference or a judgement on someone’s inability to figure out their lives. I don’t want to impose an advice-giving relationship onto someone who hasn’t asked for it.

If I’m being honest, I don’t know the answers and I don’t know better. I have made a ton of mistakes in my personal and professional career, and it’s not like I’ve figured it out all out. What might look like success to others is just me still finding joy in my work despite having failed at my work countless times. When I am asked for advice, I only know what I would/should have done (or, what I did, what I failed to do, or what I wished I had done) when confronted with a similar situation. That still does not mean that I have the answer or that I know better. Also, what works for one person may not work for another. Advice is situation-dependent and person-dependent

Photo by Yaopey Yong on Unsplash.

The best approach to advice is to have someone discover it for themselves. I like Michael Bungay Stanier’s approach’s to giving advice, by using a set of leading questions.

  • What is the real challenge for you here?
  • What else?
  • What do you want?

When someone goes through this self-questioning process, it helps their confidence and it helps them think out aloud. Perhaps that is the best service you can do for someone if they ask for advice: coach them to think out aloud and solve things for themselves. This process also gives them a set of tools to use to arrive at the answers themselves when they find themselves needing advice the next time around.

So, when one of my students/reports presents me with a situation that calls for advice, I first use the questions-based approach. And even when I do offer my opinion, I try to use words that reveal my ignorance (after all, I am not in that person’s shoes nor should I pretend to know what it feels like), and simply say one of two things:

  1. If I’ve never encountered the situation before: “Wow, that’s a new one. I have no experience with that, but here are some ways I would handle it, if I was faced with it. I don’t know if I am right or wrong because I’ve never had to deal such a situation.”
  2. If I have encountered the situation before: “I’ve faced that situation. Here’s what worked for me. My experience may work for you, or it may not. Let me throw some ideas out, and if they are useful to you, fantastic. If they are not, that’s totally okay, too.”

It’s important to remember that when we seek advice, we are seeking inputs, not decisions. It is a privilege to be asked to give one’s inputs in someone else’s life. But, each of us wants to — and should — decide for ourselves.

The best thing that I can do, when someone honors me by asking me for my inputs, is to be a coach and not an advice monster.