When Giving Advice to Peers…

It’s hard to give advice to a peer or an especially prideful person of any sort. Advice giving can be interpreted as a power move, and if you don’t deliver the advice in the right way, the other person — a colleague, a partner, someone who’s close to you in terms of professional trajectory — can feel subtle resentment. Even if he asks for your feedback, a part of him is asking himself: “Who are you to be giving me advice?”

I handle this in two ways.

“I’m Trying, Too.”

Make your advice come off as less condescending by acknowledging your own on-going quest to live up to it or your own on-going need to be reminded of it.

In her brilliant book of advice columns, Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed writes to a reader:

You need to stop feeling sorry for yourself. I don’t say this as a condemnation–I need regular reminders to stop feeling sorry for myself too. I’m going to address you bluntly, but it’s a directness that rises from my compassion for you, not my judgement of you. Nobody’s going to do your life for you. You have to do it yourself, whether you’re rich or poor, out of money or raking it in, the beneficiary of ridiculous fortune or terrible injustice. And you have to do it no matter what is true. No matter what is hard. No matter what unjust, sad, sucky things have befallen you. Self-pity is a dead-end road. You make the choice to drive down it. It’s up to you to decide to stay parked there or to turn around and drive out.

She literally says: “I don’t say this as a condemnation — I need regular reminders to stop feeling sorry for myself too.” And that’s what makes it work.

Another example. Recently, a friend on Facebook recently wrote about how she is grappling with critiques of her personality. Another friend — who’s her peer, not an anointed Wise One — commented: “Be yourself, because your self is awesome. Trite to say, a lifetime to try to do. I know because I’m also trying.”

I know because I’m also trying. That’s the sort of advice given by a friend who’s a peer.

From “You should…” to “I would…”

The second approach I take when giving advice to a peer or prideful person is I avoid directly addressing their scenario and instead I make it about myself. When you find yourself saying “You should do X…” you begin to trigger people’s pride instincts. Even if they asked you directly for advice, by directly telling them what to do, you risk unleashing subtle but very real swirls of resentment.

So if you tell me about an employee you’re trying to hire and a dilemma you’re facing in the hiring process, and ask me what you should do about it, I would talk about a similar experience I’ve had and how I handled it, or construct a hypothetical parallel experience and talk through what I would do in that scenario. I’m avoiding the phrase “you should do X, you should think about Y.” I’m instead saying “I would be doing X, I guess I would be thinking about Y, I wonder about Z…” I’m trusting in their ability to connect the dots between my experience or my constructed parallel scenario and their own situation.

Note that for people who are clearly my junior, or where I do not fear at all any status offense, I will sometimes be quite direct in my advice. But relationships with peers at work and the associated status considerations are rarely quite that simple!

One Response to When Giving Advice to Peers…

  1. LR says:

    Great advice, Ben — simple to follow but very impactful. Thank you.

    Reply

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