One day, my friend Alison asked me to advise her about an important upcoming meeting with her manager and her company's Human Resources director. As Alison described the purpose of the meeting, and her specific concerns about it, I realized that her situation was far outside of my experience. And the meeting would have significant consequences in Alison's personal life and work life.
I said, "Alison, I don't feel competent to advise you about this. The situation you're describing is way beyond my expertise."
"Oh, I knew that," Alison said. "But when I ask for your advice, I'm not really looking for your advice. I'm looking for my advice.
Wow! I took a moment to let Alison's powerful statement to sink in. Then for the next half hour, Alison and I talked about her situation, exploring possibilities, clarifying what she wanted and what boundaries she wanted to maintain for the meeting. Mostly I listened and asked questions to understand how she was thinking about the meeting. I offered a few bits of general advice, and worked with Alison to see how to apply them, and to test whether they fit for her.
At the end of the half hour, Alison was clearer about what she wanted from her upcoming meeting, and confident that she knew what to do to make the meeting successful.
Alison's meeting went well. I learned a life lesson. I call it Alison's Advice Advice: When people ask for your advice, they are looking not for your advice, but for their own advice.
I apply Alison's Advice Advice in two ways. First, as a reminder that when I'm consulting, my goal is ultimately to help people find their own advice, advice to which they can commit. If I have ideas, I can offer them, and we can explore whether the ideas make sense. And if I have little relevant experience, I may still be able to help. By listening fully, and by asking questions, I can guide people to discover or create their own advice. In fact, this second style—guiding people to advise themselves—is often more effective than offering my own ideas. No matter how expert I imagine myself to be, people commit more readily to their own ideas than to mine.
Second, I used to be frustrated when people would ask for my advice and then not take it. I couldn't understand why they would do that. Now I understand. Alison's Advice Advice reminds me that even when people ask me for advice, they are more likely seeking their own advice, and that sometimes my advice simply doesn't fit for them at this time. I'm now less frustrated when people don't take my advice. And when I'm less frustrated, I'm more flexible and better able to help.
I don't know whether Alison remembers our meeting. I sure remember it. That meeting was a major turning point in my consulting career, and Alison's Advice Advice is now a core element of my consulting approach.
Experiment: Notice how people react the next ten times you offer advice. Notice how you react, internally and externally, to their reactions.
Experiment: What would you do if you knew that the next person who sought your advice would take your advice without question?