If I Were You…The Giving and Receiving of Advice

The Silicon Valley Junto, a discussion society Chris Yeh and I run where we bring together friends over lunch about once a quarter, convened today in Menlo Park for the topic:
If I Were You…Advice Giving, Advice Receiving, and the Best/Worst Advice You Ever Got. We were inspired by this Fortune magazine feature where various CEOs answered this question.

Our lively and stimulating discussion covered several bases on the topic of advice. Here are some notes:

  • When you give advice, give the person options, and let them choose the best path. People hate to be told what to do — need to make them feel empowered to make the decision for themselves.
  • The quality of the advice — that is, whether the advice could be considered good or bad — is not necessarily connected to the ultimate consequences of following the advice. For example, if you advise someone to invest their money prudently in the stock market, and instead they liquidate all savings and buy lottery tickets, and win the lottery, did you offer bad advice? Can the quality of advice be judged based on the results that ensue from following it?
  • When giving advice, include the word "because" — it increases eventual absorption, regardless of what you say after the word "because."
  • Are advice givers’ primarily concerned about the advice-receiver following through on the advice? Usually. Usually the you want to frame your advice in a way that will best inspire action and a change in behavior. But sometimes the advice giver doesn’t have this objective; sometimes he just wants to feel superior, etc.
  • Remember four things when giving advice:
    • The role and responsibilities of the person on the other side of the table. See the situation from their perspective.
    • Your intentions — keep them pure
    • The delivery itself — focus on tone and spirit in which advice is delivered. This is crucial.
    • Summary — close off the interaction, make sure everyone is on the same page. Whether it’s a one minute conversation or four hour meeting, get some closure and action items.
  • Much of advice giving and receiving is just good communication tactics and good sales techniques.
  • When you seek advice, should you consult the domain expert or someone who knows you best? Your mother may know you best but she may not know the industry you’re considering going in to. Domain expert knows the market but doesn’t know your individual differences.
    • Get advice first from the domain expert to get a model and assess your choices. Then consult the person who really knows you to understand which choice makes most sense for you.
  • When you give advice, it’s easy to fan the embers but hard to strike a new fire. So listen carefully to their situation and find some aspect of it that you can build upon and emphasize. This will result in best outcome, rather than trying to instill an entirely new idea or some concept that’s not already part of their framework. [BC: This is very insightful.]
  • Actionable advice is best advice. Saying "speak up more" to someone who doesn’t talk in meetings is not actionable; saying "say at least three things in the meeting" is more clearly actionable.
  • The advice giver can be changed when he gives advice. That is, even though he’s doling out suggestions to someone else, that process can change the person usually for the better.
  • People who are "unconsciously competent" are not the best people to ask for advice. True experts often can’t explain what they’re doing and why.
  • Good advice givers have self-knowledge. They know their own biases and discount them before giving advice.

Related Posts:

- We overvalue advice when the situation is hard, undervalue advice when situation / problem is easy
- You can’t give advice until you’ve thoroughly acknowledged you understand how busy the other person is
- More general thoughts on the topic of advice, including "sometimes people ask for advice but what they really want is your attention."
- Even when someone discloses their bias before giving advice, we still don’t discount the advice enough. Say our mechanic tells us we need to buy some repairs. Clearly he’s biased but we tend to forget about the bias.
- How to be a good mentee — be good at asking for and taking advice.

5 Responses to If I Were You…The Giving and Receiving of Advice

  1. Krishna says:

    *[People who are “unconsciously competent” are not the best people to ask for advice. True experts often can’t explain what they’re doing and why.]*

    I would suggest an extension to that statement – extract your own insight by watching such experts at work if you can; than having them talk about it.

    That is because the flip side of that statement is that amateur counsel from those who are articulate but not necessarily `hands-on’ are perfectly takable :-)

    How reliable could be the advice tendered by such a wordsmith?

  2. Ben Casnocha says:

    Yes. Reminds me of the old line, “If you can’t do, teach.” Sometimes teachers are teachers because they can articulate the work better than the people doing the actual work.

  3. Shefaly says:

    Ben:

    I think it is important, above all, to help a person learn to think. Most people find themselves paralysed by a crisis because they do not have the ability to ask the right questions. An advisor above all helps them see the most vital issues at stake.

    From this, generation of options will automatically flow.

    My view on this is therefore more along the lines of ‘don’t give a man a fish, teach him to fish, and also in the process, teach him how to enjoy other foods’.

  4. The most comical statement (appropriately) from that Fortune magazine feature was Tina Fey’s, where she quotes Oprah Winfrey and then mentions how sleepy she gets when her business manager talks to her about money.

    The injunction by Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO of Pepsico, to always assume positive intent was a close second in the comical department with her spurious focus (elsewhere stated) on “healthier foods and lifestyles”.

    Her credibility is nil when you consider that her company is purveyor of some of the most unhealthy ‘foods’ and drinks on the planet, including Mountain Dew and Pepsi, which are loaded with high fructose corn syrup, known to cause diabetes in children. The conscienceless gall she has, ‘sweet’ smile notwithstanding.

    And in response to Eddie Lampert, Chairman of Sears Holdings, I’d say it doesn’t do much good to keep practicing and preparing if you never get to play the game.

  5. Mark says:

    Very interesting article – thanks.

    I’d like to second the recommendation to give “options” as opposed to “you should do this”. In my own experience giving advice, discussion of options, including pluses and minuses, is usually easy for the advisee to hear – it eliminates a lot of the power dynamics (“I teacher, you student” or worse, “I successful, you failure”).

    I like to start with something like “well, I’m sure that there are a lot of complicating factors. I can think of some potential approaches…”

    This may sound formulaic or just lame, but acknowledging – at the beginning – that the other person’s situation has factors that I don’t know about and understand (this is always true!) – acknowledges her power in the situation and eliminates the “I’m telling you the answer, stupid” that permeates so much advice giving.

    Just my experiences – Mark

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