How to avoid giving bad advice by asking better questions

You’ve had a long career, made lots of mistakes, and learned from them. And now you’re leading all these people, and they come to you with problems.

Are you eager to offer advice and share your experience with a similar problem? Maybe you even feel like it’s the only part of your job that gives you that rare near-instant gratification.

But are you actually solving their true problem? Is your advice actually any good?

Your advice is not that good

Okay, maybe it just so happens that you’ve seen and dealt with this exact issue before, and you have good advice. Surely, I’m not saying you shouldn’t share what you’ve learned, am I?

The trouble is, in many cases, we don’t really see the real issue behind what’s being said.

Even not considering the challenges of transmitting accurate information from one brain to another, we distort what we hear through the lens of our own experience. We match the landscape of a distant planet to a street pattern we’ve seen in our neighborhood, and we proceed to give directions.

It’s how our brains work. And it’s a clever design, it saves energy as long as we stick to familiar streets.

But we’re not in our neighborhood.

We misunderstand, misinterpret, and mischaracterize other people’s problems all the time — we get misled by this pattern-matching machinery in our brains. As a result, we propose a solution to a challenge we had before, not the one they’re facing right now.

To them, it feels like we’re not even listening.

Coach, don’t advise

The trick is to stop giving advice. Stop trying to solve their problem for them and help them solve it themselves.

Have you ever worked with a talented coach? How do they seemingly see right through you and call you on your BS? Or share an observation that suddenly connects all the dots for you?

Have they had so much practice diagnosing other folks’ problems that they can instantly pull the right insight from their vast catalog of experiences?

It’s nothing like that.

It doesn’t matter how experienced we are at gleaning the truth behind the words. There’s a person whom we’ll never be able to beat — the person in front of us, the very person we’re trying to help. They already have all the information. They’ll always have the upper hand.

But what they can use is an impartial guide.

Rein in your imagination

The other week, I had a client who was struggling with a choice that seemed straightforward to me. So, I thought to myself, “She must be feeling some shame around this; it’s a no-brainer!”

Cause, you know, I’ve seen this before. In other sessions with other clients. It was a familiar street.

But then I caught myself, “No, wait, I have no idea what she might be feeling. What’s actually making it a problem for her?”

I might have asked, “Is it possible you feel shame about this choice?” And that might have felt like I wasn’t really listening to her. Or we might have taken the wrong turn and wasted our session exploring the dead-end street.

But instead, I asked, “When you’re thinking about this choice, what word would best describe what you’re feeling?”

She thought for a minute and said, “finality”.

We both felt it — she made the right turn! The street opened up, the clouds parted, and somewhere on the horizon, she saw her destination. It was a straight shot from there.

What still amazes and inspires me after years of coaching is how little my own experiences matter.

My clients already hold all the information they need to find their own solutions. My job is to simply encourage them to keep exploring. And maybe sometimes to hold their hand when they are afraid to visit certain dimly lit alleys.

It’s no different in the workplace. When you think you know where the story is going, “What’s making it a problem for them?” is an incredibly powerful question to ask yourself. It allows you to escape your own story and focus on the person in front of you.

Folks often ask me for clever, insightful questions to help them guide their employees. I could list a few here. Or you could just as easily type “powerful coaching questions” in your favorite search engine and find plenty of lists like “The five most powerful coaching questions” or “100 most insightful coaching questions”. Or, my personal favorite, “567 powerful coaching questions”.

Frankly, I do not wish to contribute to this silliness.

I truly believe the exact question doesn’t matter. If you can’t think of a good one at the moment, a simple “Can you tell me more?” will suffice.

The main idea I want you to take away from this article is that by putting aside your own story, you create the space for them to explore theirs.

Instead of frustratingly trying to transfer as much information as accurately as possible from their head to yours, they are able to focus on wandering the streets of their neighborhood until they find the right turn.

You, in this interaction, often don’t even need to know the details.

As you help them clarify their story to themselves, the person you’re helping will get closer and closer to finding an answer to their challenge. And I can almost guarantee you, it’ll be a better one than what you could produce.