“I think the main reason you employ me,” Bob once said, “is to hear yourself talk.”

Bob was a savvy coach who’d run Harvard’s Career Services and then gone into private practice. 

I sometimes consulted him for advice. Except that he hardly gave any. And when he did, I usually ignored it.

His role, as he saw it, wasn’t to tell me what to do. It was to engage in dialogue so I could figure things out.

Advice isn’t bad.

(Advice from Bob that I took: “Study stand-up comedy—then go do it. Not to become a comedian, but to sharpen your writing & speaking.” Years later, a business show on CNN  hired me to present some fast, offbeat commentaries. Thanks, Bob!)

When you have expertise, and the other person doesn’t, your advice may be useful. I give lots of advice, for example, when coaching executives on presentations.  (Please see below.)

But most problems aren’t like that.

Suppose you’re a manager and one of your employees comes to you with a problem.

How will you respond? 

1) Advice: You tell them what to do.

2) Dialogue: You say, “That’s an interesting problem—what options are you considering?”  Then, after they suggest a few, you guide the discussion with questions: “Let’s look at option #1,” you say:

  • What’s the upside?
  • Downside?
  • What would be your initial steps?   
  • Who would you need to involve?

That kind of Socratic dialogue takes time. But there’s a  long-term payoff for the other person: resourcefulness.

Sometimes, when people ask me for advice, I listen for a while, and then ask a question like this:

“Suppose you were talking to a very wise person. What would she or he advise you to do?”

“She’d advise me to stay put,” said a colleague who’d been wrestling with whether to jump to another company. Suddenly, he knew the answer.

A similar question: “What would Person X do (where X is a role model)?”

Movie director Steven Spielberg, while making “Jaws,” struggled with a mechanical shark that didn’t work.

He could have called Alfred Hitchcock for advice. Instead, he asked himself, “What would Hitchcock do?” 

Answer: Don’t show the shark. It’s scarier.  

Tip: It’s scarier to let people solve problems on their own. It’s easier—for you and for them—to show the answer. 

But the next time someone knocks on your door with a problem, remember: that’s a coachable moment.


1) DYNAMIC SPEAKING/BOSTON/2020.  Limited to 7 people; March 16-17, 2020

2) YOU’VE GOT 8 SECONDS, the #1 Amazon Best Seller in business communication, Kindle edition (as of 5/22/19). Also available in print and audio.

© Copyright 2019 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

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PAUL HELLMAN consults & speaks internationally on how to make your point—fast, focused, powerful. For more info: please call 508-879-0934, or email paul@expresspotential.com