When one of your team comes to you with a problem, it’s tempting to jump straight in and solve it for them – hand out some advice about what you think is the best action to take, and tell them what you would do yourself in the same position.

Giving advice feels great – you’re sharing your knowledge, it makes you feel smarter and in control, and you may even feel you’re really helping and making a difference in someone else’s life. Unfortunately, however well-intentioned your advice is, it’s unlikely to be the most helpful thing you can do for that person, for a number of reasons. In this post, we’ll explore why that is – and it’s not just the case at work, but in home life and family relationships as well.


1 – You might be solving the wrong problem


Often, the problem you hear about is really a symptom of something bigger. Like an iceberg, this problem is just the tip of what’s going on – there’s a lot more happening underneath the surface that you can’t see. The difficulty with that is you have no idea of the full picture: what the background is, or why the person is reacting to the challenge in the way they are. The problem may seem like a very simple thing to solve, on the face of it, but without knowing the whole story and what’s really going on for that person, you could be giving advice that’s more damaging than useful.

“Advice is like being handed a large amount of foreign currency. What do you do with it?”

–  Rhik Samadder


2 – Your advice may not be as good as you think


Your advice is based on your experiences, your history and how things have played out for you in the past; but just because something worked out well for you, it does not necessarily follow that it will for this person (mainly down to that big iceberg under the surface that we mentioned before). Your brain is naturally adept at picking up patterns – spotting things it knows and applying past experiences to them – so it will be jumping to conclusions and coming up with all that brilliant advice, without knowing all the facts of what the other person is experiencing. It’s based on your past – not theirs.


There are also lots of biases at play that you may not even be conscious of – especially if people have followed your advice before, and it’s worked out well for them. But really, there is no valid basis for comparison to say that your advice is better than anyone else’s – or even that it’s better than the course of action the person could come up with themselves.


3 – One-upmanship


Putting yourself in the advice-giving role immediately puts you above the other person in the conversation. You’re subconsciously saying ‘I could handle this better than you, and here’s what you should do’. You shift from a Helping role to a Directing role – which is not going to foster the independence and creativity needed to develop problem-solving skills (more on this in point 4…).


4 – It has a far more negative effect than you realise


If giving advice is your default setting, rather than letting your team figure out problems for themselves, it’s going to stifle their initiative, creativity and resourcefulness – which will in turn impact their resilience. This is even more true in a family dynamic; to become fully-functioning adults, our children need to learn how to come up with their own solutions. If they are constantly receiving advice and being told how to do things, instead of being allowed to figure it out for themselves, it’s going to be much tougher for them to develop those skills.


What we can do instead


The most important thing you can do is to keep quiet. Listening is one of the most powerful tools we have to help someone who’s got a problem: just being given a listening ear and the time to talk will help them start to form ideas about what they’re going to do. As they talk it through, without interruption or advice from you, they will start to reveal what the real problem is – the rest of that iceberg. This is when you can start helping, but not by giving them advice; by encouraging them to take ownership of the problem, and come up with some solutions.


This is one of those perfect opportunities to have little coaching conversations. They only need to be a few minutes long, and sometimes only one question needs to be asked – but it can be so healthy and so powerful, especially if it becomes a frequent, embedded part of everyday life. We’ll explore more about this coaching, and how to help people solve their own problems, in the next blog post.


When we take ownership of a solution, our competence, confidence, self-sufficiency and autonomy grows too. And that is your goal: to be surrounded by people who can make independent decisions, and that goes for colleagues, team members, children and partners too.


If you’d like to find out more about giving support over giving advice, contact me today for a free chat.