by Sue Weston

2-step process: give and take advice

Mar 26, 2018
IT Leadership

Embrace the power of the people around you: connect, share, grow and learn.

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Credit: Thinkstock

Growing up, life seemed simple. I relied on my education and intuition, because I thought I knew better I routinely dismissed the advice my mother offered.  Years later, I understood that her wisdom was timeless. My mother said, “if everyone put their problems in a bag, you would choose your own.” The lesson was not to compare yourself with others, because you never know what is really going on with them.  Sadly, I did not appreciate this advice.

When I am told what to do I react negatively. While men tend to accept constructive criticism seeing it as a suggestion, women become defensive seeing it as a personal shortcoming. Rather than considering the suggestion, I reject it, and my mind shuts down.  At work this prevented me from benefitting from feedback offered during performance reviews.  

The best way to receive criticism is:

  • Take a deep breath and keep an open mind.
  • Paraphrase back what you heard; this allows the other person to know you paid attention.
  • Ask for specific examples and suggestions.
  • Always say “Thank you, I’ll take it under consideration.”

Without criticism, it is difficult to improve.  Women ask for feedback less often than male colleagues, and women are 20% less likely to receive difficult feedback. Managers may be hesitant to deliver feedback to women because they are afraid it may sound mean.  As a result, when women receive feedback it may be vague which is less constructive. Feedback should enable others to improve; keep the dialogue positive, constructive and actionable.

People have a natural aversion to accepting advice especially when they did not ask for it and may even be unaware there is an issue.  Your reaction and acceptance of advice often depends on the way the advice is offered.  When feedback is offered using “YOU” it is seen as being accusatory. Once the listener feels threatened they may shut down and think only about why the advice does not apply to them.

Presenting the same guidance using “I” appears friendlier.  If the advice giver feels that they are superior, the situation becomes a power struggle. I may have dismissed my mother’s advice because of our relationship dynamics.  She was sharing wisdom, but I was unable to benefit from it.  Understanding how your communication will be received can change everything.

An effective way to provide advice is using a story from your past and waiting for an appropriate teachable moment (where the commentary is aligned and relevant to the situation). By focusing the advice on your situation it becomes non-threatening and gives the listener the freedom to consider your recommendation. Because it is your story (and not about them) it can lead to a discussion. Advice should not be presented as a directive “don’t do this” but rather it is situational, which allows an objective review of cause and effect.

Unsolicited advice can be seen as criticism and can cause feelings of resentment or inadequacy. You can avoid this by creating a dialogue, which allows for a dispassionate examination of the situation. Instead of offering solutions, use probing questions to allow the receiver to think. Rather than saying “don’t” explore the circumstances.

For example, instead of telling someone “don’t swim there” step back and collect the facts. You might ask “what is your swimming ability?” and explore further “Are you aware of the risks?”  Each situation is different.  An accomplished swimmer stepping into a pool runs less risk than a novice diving into a shark tank. Use simple observations to get to the crux of the matter, keep the message simple, judgment free and positive. This lets each party understand the other’s perspective.

While people seek expert opinions for medical or financial matters, they are less apt to value unsolicited advice. Part of the problem is trust and doubt – how do you determine if the person providing advice is offering an expert opinion? Do you suspect alternative motives: are they spiteful, showing off or manipulating the situation? Three people you should accept advice from are:

  1. People who care about you and have your best interests at heart
  2. People with expertise
  3. People who use your services

Just because you are given advice (even if it is from a good source) does not mean you need to act on it.  You still need to test the advice and make sure it matches with your situation.

There are benefits from sharing advice. Learning from someone else’s experiences is better than repeating their mistakes, advice provides different perspectives and can help you avoid potential pitfalls. Mentoring relationships are specifically designed for an open exchange of ideas, and to elicit feedback. Both parties can benefit from sharing advice, as long as they each maintain open minds and keep the conversation judgment-free.

Advice shared in the right context can strengthen the bond between people and lead you in directions that you never would have dreamed of before. Giving and taking advice effectively can expand your horizons, professionally and personally.  Embrace the power of the people around you: connect, share, grow and learn.