Developing people, developing schools

The value in not giving advice

Hello managers and team leaders. I’m going to write about the importance of listening skills at work. But at the same time, I’m wondering if you’re even interested in this topic any more. Are you tired of people talking about listening, telling you to listen more to your team? That’s an oxymoron if ever there was one! Perhaps you have already become an excellent listener. But if you are like me, listening skills are something you have to keep working at. You have to concentrate on it. For some of us, listening really well is much more difficult than it sounds. Sometimes you just can’t help yourself, you have some good advice to give and you’re going to give it. Like I’m doing now, I suppose!

Listening is central to my work and it’s central to yours too.  I’d like to say I’m a natural listener, but actually, I’m a natural talker. I’ve had to work really hard at learning how to listen, to listen properly. And I still have to work at it. And when I’m coaching it’s a bit like an out of body experience for me. I become The Listener. Everything closes down except the other person’s words.

When I find myself advising managers to be better listeners, it sometimes makes me uncomfortable. It feels like asking people to eat, or to sleep, or to do other things which should come naturally to us. But like with eating disorders or sleeping problems, we can experience problems listening properly as well.

You see, if you move into management or leadership position, it’s usually because you think you’ll be good at it, sooner or later. And part of that is about helping other people to be good at their work to. And that means sharing your expertise with them, doesn’t it? I see it all the time around me, experts and helpful people all aching to give you advice. To give you their thoughts on your problem, your challenge. They can ask one maybe two questions, and then they have all the information they need to plough back into advisory role.

Why do we feel this compulsion to give advice in order to be helpful? Well, here are some theories: from our experience, we can foresee the mistakes the other person is going to make and we want to help them not make those same mistakes; we want them to achieve success faster and we believe our knowledge will help; sometimes, it’s for self-interest, I want you to see how knowledgeable I am; sometimes it’s just to save time. But it’s usually only time saving at that moment. It doesn’t really save time in the long run.

Even the other day, an esteemed colleague who is also a coach asked me what I do when I know that the solution a coachee has come up with is not going to work, and that I, as the expert, know a better way to solve their problem or reach the desired outcome more quickly: what do you do? she asked me.

I said, it depends; sometimes I conclude that what worked for me might not work for them; sometimes, I simply realise that the coachee is not interested in my experience or my point of view; sometimes, on the other hand, they make it very clear that my expertise is precisely what they want, and yet I still decide that it is not in their best interests for me to share my experience with them, as it doesn’t feel right for some reason. Often the best idea is to revisit all the possible options available to solve the problem, whereby I may offer what worked for me as one of the options to reflect on, if the coachee has not come up with it themselves.

I found myself on the receiving end of a coaching practice situation at a conference recently. We were in groups of 3. The idea was that we would take it in turns to be the coachee and the other two people would be coaches. I presented my problem. The other two asked a couple of exploratory questions and then, unable to hold themselves back, they presented their tips and pieces of advice. “Have you tried this?” ‘What you need to do first is this” and so on. I found myself moving to the fly-on-the-wall position, from where I watched this scenario as I disengaged from being the coachee. They had fallen back into the advisory role within a couple of minutes. And although some of the suggestions were useful, they were not things I hadn’t considered for myself beforehand. You see, there is often a big difference between knowing the options available and actually being able to do something that makes a positive, lasting change. The problem with so many well-meaning coach-wannabes is not seeing that difference. They miss the heart of the problem the coachee is facing. For example. If someone says they want to lose weight, the problem is not that they don’t know about changing their diet or getting more exercise or whatever the experts say, it’s that they can’t.  Saying they haven’t got the willpower isn’t the heart of the problem. All the advice in the world makes not a shred of difference. Getting to the heart of the ‘can’t’ is what the coaching experience is all about.

So, what’s the point?

The point is, if you are a manager, and you want people to change, you have to really understand why they can’t or won’t change before they can make a positive shift. And I can assure you, even if you think you know the reasons why they are stuck, or why they ignore your voice of experience, it is unlikely you really do. How do I know this to be true? Because they probably don’t consciously know the reasons why themselves. They have to explore the dilemma, from their own perspective, to find the answers. So, if you really want to help, don’t give up on practising your listening skills, and try to hold back on advice unless they are really asking for it. And even if they ask for it, remember, they are just as likely to ignore it as to take it. And if they take it, there’s no assurance it will work for them just because it worked for you. So, after all that, it’s good to keep working on your deeper listening skills, hold back on the advice,  and help them discover their own path. That’s my advice. :)