The Dance of Advice (Catalytic Thinking in ACTION!)

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The natural tendency of people who are asked for their advice is to give it. That natural tendency is multiplied when the person being asked is perceived to be an expert – a teacher, a manager, a consultant, a parent.

In the majority of cases when we’re asked for advice, the problem to be solved is not a simple mechanical one (e.g. my sink is backed up – what should I do to unclog it?). Instead, these are usually people problems. And people are anything but simple and mechanical!

Unfortunately, the dynamics that surround the asking for and giving of advice actually make “giving advice” in these situations the most counterproductive approach for accomplishing powerful results. The following are some observations about those dynamics.

Asking for Advice

When someone is asking for advice about a people-related problem, they are asking because they do not have confidence in their own ability. Most often, what they are really hoping for is actually not your advice, but that you will either

a) do the work for them, or

b) agree with whatever approach they are leaning toward / reassure that they’ve done the best they could.

Having been asked for advice, though, that is what we give. That asking and then giving advice is where the Dance of Advice begins. And this dance rarely ends well.

The Dance of Asking for and Giving Advice

The following is a description of what is really happening when someone asks for advice – and when we respond to their request and give them the advice they say they are seeking.

Dance Move #1: I Ask for Advice

As it is with most adults, it’s hard for me to ask for help.

Even before I ask for advice, I’m feeling vulnerable / unconfident simply because I don’t know what to do in the situation.

Then there is the vulnerability I feel because of the dynamics of asking for help.

The situation I am encountering didn’t happen in a vacuum, and it didn’t happen overnight. There is a long story that has led to this situation.

I don’t share all that back-story with you. I don’t share everything I’ve been thinking about it, all the ideas I’ve had (and what happened with those ideas). I don’t share what I’ve already tried, the ideas I’ve discounted (and why). And I don’t share how it feels to be inside this mess.

I don’t share this because I don’t want to bore you. I don’t share this because it doesn’t feel immediately relevant. I don’t share this because I don’t even realize the extent to which this huge amount of context even exists / is at play.

I therefore share a short version, a narrow slice of the whole picture. And I ask you for your advice about that small piece of the puzzle.

Dance Move #2: You Feel Concerned and Want to Help

You react to the narrow piece of the scenario I’ve shared by offering advice on that small piece of the whole picture. It’s not because you want to focus on only a tiny piece of the puzzle, but because that’s all the information I’ve given you!

Dance Move #3: I Respond by Getting Defensive

Unlike you, I DO know the whole picture!!!! And so I’m thinking, “Do you think I haven’t thought this through? Do you think I’m stupid? Don’t you think I’ve already thought of that?”

And I’m thinking, “Yes of course I tried that!” and “No, we can’t do that, and there are five million reasons why not.”

I feel like you think I’m stupid – whether or not that is true (it usually is absolutely UNtrue, but I feel it anyway, simply because you are suggesting things I already know or have discounted.)

As a result of my feeling threatened or condescended to, or several other feelings (none of which are good), I put up my defenses, because my emotional protection mechanisms have been triggered. (Our fear mechanisms are so hard-wired, there is no thinking in this process – our brain chemicals are simply triggered.)

And when my brain is triggering fear / defense responses, I act badly.

Dance Move #4: You Still Want to Help!

Just because I respond badly doesn’t mean you stop caring about me and my problem. You are surprised at my response – but you figure you’ve just come up with a bad idea (even though you think it’s a good idea).

Now YOUR defense mechanisms are triggered. So I have reacted to you from a purely chemical trigger, and now you are reacting to me from that same place!

The combination of your bruised ego and your sincere desire to help motivates you to push forward, coming up with another idea, and another.

And the more I meet your ideas with resistance, the tighter and faster the cycle devolves, each of us feeling worse and worse.

Leaving the Dance Floor

When all is said and done, we both leave frustrated.

I still can’t solve my problem. And now, on top of that, I feel unheard and stupid and disrespected, none of which was your intent, or even in your mind!

And you feel frustrated because I asked for your advice, then didn’t take it and/or argued with you! You leave the dance thinking, “If you didn’t want my advice, why did you ask for it in the first place?”

You can see from this description that this dynamic is set up to fail. All of us have encountered this scenario innumerable times in our lives – whether it is with a coworker or with an elderly parent, with a client or a son or daughter.

And all of us experienced both sides of this issue. We have felt bad as the recipients of advice, and we have felt bad as the givers of advice.

That is because our reactions to the dance steps are rooted in the dynamics and mechanics of both our cultural psychology and the chemical and mechanical response mechanisms of our brains.

And if certain actions ALWAYS trigger defensiveness in the person asking for the advice AND frustration in the person giving the advice, perhaps we should stop doing them!

The Dynamics of Advice: What’s Really Going On

The root of the frustration both sides feel in the advice dance comes from the fact that the request for and giving of advice is a dance of problem-solving.

As happens with all problem-solving, the dynamic is reactive from the start – I am starting out by having a hard time reacting to the problem that has presented itself. And now I’m inviting you to react not only to the problem, but to react to ME as well.

As happens with all problem-solving, the presenting problem is rarely the real issue. It is most often a small piece of the real issue, minus the greater context. And so we are reacting to the immediate questions without creating that bigger context.

As happens with almost all problem-solving, it is about the means (what we’ll do, how we’ll do it), not the ultimate highest potential end results. We know that when we focus on the ultimate highest potential end results, everyone agrees on those results. We also know that how and what are the points upon which most disagreement rests. Problem-solving therefore resides from start to finish in the place of disagreement.

As happens with all problem-solving, when we try to dig deeper to find the “real issue,” we are swimming through a sea of negativity – all the things that are wrong, that are leading to our problem, plus all the intervening factors outside our control that are also leading to our problem. The more we face what’s wrong, the more our defenses rise.

As happens with all problem-solving, the act of seeking root causes is an act of attributing blame. The more advice we receive, the more we feel we are being chastised / blamed for not knowing the “right” way.

And as happens with problem-solving, when I feel surrounded by what’s wrong, and I am feeling defensive and completely devoid of confidence, I am not going to try something new, something outside my comfort zone, which is often what advice is all about – trying something new. The more I am the type of person who exudes confidence on the outside, the more I will be putting up a wall to protect myself, and the LESS likely I will be to step into that place of uncertainty.

Bringing Out the Best in Others

Everyone has wisdom and experience they can bring to bear on their own problems. While some of us may have data / specific “how-to” information to add to a conversation, the people asking for our advice know more than they think they do – more than they have the confidence to rely on.

When we learn to elicit the wisdom in others, those other people become more confident. They feel safe to explore and try new things. And when we advice-givers don’t feel pressure to have all the answers, we, too, are free to explore and learn and listen!

It all starts with simply asking for the other person’s wisdom:

  • Tell me what you’re thinking.
  • Tell me why you’re thinking about that option.
  • Tell me what you’ve tried / done already.
  • Tell me what others have suggested, and what you’re thinking about those options.
  • Tell me what’s worked for you in similar situations.

With these invitations, both dancers are free to trust each other, free to dance with grace and joy, free to explore new moves together. Like seasoned ballroom dance stars, there is no stepping on toes, no storming off the dance floor. There is only the joy of what is possible when we both hear the same music and naturally move to the same beat.

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