Me: I like having you in class. You work hard, you have lots of interesting things to say, and that makes the class more interesting for me and everybody else.
Jeannie: Yeah, I like this class, and the work is not too hard for me.
Me: I think you can do well here, and go on to the next level.
Jeannie: I hope so.
Me: But I’m worried about your attendance. When you miss so much class, sometimes you don’t know where we are, or what we are working on. It’s hard for me to help you catch up, even though I know you can do the work.
Then Jeannie told me why she missed so many days of class. She lived with her cousin and her cousin’s husband and their two school-age children. She didn’t pay any room and board, in exchange for looking after the kids after school, and babysitting when the parents went out in the evenings. (They didn’t pay her anything for this service.) Often, however, everyone in the house would sleep late, and the parents would wake up just in time to rush around to get themselves off to work. The kids would miss the school bus, the parents didn’t have time to drive them to school, so they would have to stay home, and Jeannie would have to stay home with them.
As I listened to her, my feminist hackles rose. Jeannie’s cousins were exploiting her! She shouldn’t have to miss class because her cousins didn’t get up in time to get their own kids off to school! She should stand up for herself! The teacher in me was horrified at the thought of the school kids missing so much. and full of sympathy for their teachers.
I wanted to say all this to Jeannie, but I was in the habit of trying to make it possible for students to come up with their own solution to their problems, so I held my tongue. I asked her what she thought she could do to solve this problem.
It didn’t take her long to come up with an idea, and her solution shocked me. She said she could buy an alarm clock so she could get herself up, and get the kids up and on the school bus, but she wasn’t quite sure how alarm clocks worked.
It never occurred to me that Jeannie did not have an alarm clock. I assumed everyone had one, and the lack of alarm clock never entered the scenarios I was painting of why people in that household overslept. I would never have advised Jeannie to get an alarm clock, because I didn’t know she needed one.
My advice would have been to stand up to her cousins, or take an assertiveness course, or go to class and let the cousins deal with the kids when they missed the bus, or move out of that house—the list goes on.
Good thing I didn’t give her that advice. If she had taken it, she might have ruined the only living situation she could afford, and found herself homeless, or living so far away she couldn’t get to class at all.
Jeannie went out at noon and bought an alarm clock. I showed her how to set it, she took it home, her attendance improved to an acceptable level, and she passed my class.
The Advice Trap
When we are in a position of power, we get used to giving advice. First, people are always asking for it. And then, we have so much knowledge and experience, we think we have good advice to give. Also, it’s flattering to be asked, and we respond. Still, if we wish to treat people with respect, we will nearly always choose not to give advice.
The Connection between Disrespect and Giving Advice
It’s the unspoken message that goes along with the advice that kills respect. No matter how sensible or practical or brilliant it is, the simple act of giving advice also says:
- I know better than you.
- I have the right to tell you what to do.
- You are too stupid, naive, lazy, etc. to figure out what to do.
- I’ll take care of you so you won’t have to think.
These are not respectful messages.
How can we avoid giving advice?
When someone is looking for advice, we may have information that we would base our advice on. That information is what makes our opinion valuable.
Equally true, the person seeking advice has information that we don’t know, information that may well be essential to making a good decision.
For example, the people you supervise at work know things that you don’t know about the people they supervise and the work they do. So offer to share information: “I’ll tell you what I know about the situation, and let me hear what you know.”
Answer a question with a question.
When someone says, “What should I do?” ask a question designed to help them think about their options more fully, so they can decide for themselves.
For example, “I’m not sure what would be best in your situation. What’s your experience with those two methods?” or, “I think any one of the usual ways would work. What would be most efficient for us at this time?”
What’s wrong with giving advice?
The best thing that can happen when we tell someone what to do is that they follow our advice exactly and everything works out well.
However, that person will keep coming back to us for advice every time they need to make a decision. Not an outcome to be desired.
There are worse outcomes:
- She follows your advice, but things do not go well. She blames you, and the next time goes to someone else for advice, and badmouths you to that other person.
- He tries to follow your advice but misunderstands what you said. Things do not go well, he blames you and you feel guilty.
- She rejects your advice and does the opposite. Things do not go well, and she blames you for not being more forceful in giving the advice in the first place.
Positive Outcomes from Refusing to Give Advice
Most important, when you refuse to give advice, you do not send all those negative messages outlined above. Instead, you show respect for the person who is asking “What should I do?”
When you ask a question, and listen to the response, you give the person a chance to articulate what they know, to examine both the pros and cons of a possible solution, and broaden the scope of their thinking. This will benefit any enterprise you are both involved in.
When you step back from giving advice, you open up a space for the other person to make a contribution. When you pool the information you both bring to the table, you increase the likelihood that any decision you make together will take into account all the complexity of the situation.
Why Do We Want to Give Advice?
- It’s flattering to be asked for advice; it makes us seem indispensable.
- Withholding information consolidates our power over people.
- It seems easier and faster just to advise people what to do and how to do it, but this is a false premise.
- It is easy to give advice without thinking much, but harder to figure out what information is needed in a given situation, and what is the appropriate way to share it.
Like all customs that maintain power imbalances, giving advice to those we have power over will at first seem natural, common sense, and appropriate. We are all socialized to maintain a hierarchical social order by the way we behave.