“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?
- 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.
P.S. NEED ADVICE re PRESENTATION SKILLS?
1) DYNAMIC SPEAKING/BOSTON Oct. 28-29. Limited to 7 people, 3 spots left.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org