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Why Questions Are Better than Advice

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

If a friend or colleague asks you for advice, you may be tempted to give her advice. If so, I have some advice for you. Do not do it! Offering advice without fully understanding a problem is a mistake for three reasons. Firstly, you probably fail to understand her problem. Secondly, she probably does not completely understand her problem either; if she did, she would not be looking for advice. Thirdly, she is the one who will have to follow the advice, so it is better if she can work out how to solve her problem.

A far better approach is to do what you would normally do when you do not fully understand a situation: ask questions so that you and your friend properly understand her situation and she can determine what she will do.

Consider this sad tale

Cartoon: Frank and Harriet talking about problem in caféIn my experience, when someone is too quick to offer advice, that advice tends to be good, but it solves the wrong problem. Here is a rather extreme example.

Harriet is very distraught and calls on her old friend Frank for advice. Frank suggests they meet in a quiet café. They do.

After ordering their coffees, Harriet explains: "I came home from my business trip a day early, yesterday, planning to surprise my husband. But when I went inside, I could hear grunting upstairs. So, I ran up and found my husband in bed with Glenda. She is... was... my best friend, you know.

"When they saw me, they didn't even stop. Glenda just smirked. I didn't know what to do. I just dropped everything, ran out of the house and jumped into the car. I was so upset, I kept stalling the car as I tried to back out of the driveway. But, I finally got away and checked into a hotel, but I still don't know what to do. Everything seemed to be working so well. You can imagine my shock...."

Harriet wiped her eyes and took a sip of coffee.

Frank thought for a moment and said, "Well, I'm not sure, but it sounds like there might be a problem with the clutch. I know a good, honest mechanic who can look at it for you." He felt pleased that he was able to offer such helpful advice.

Don't Be Like Frank

Don't be like Frank. Instead of offering useless advice, ask questions. Questions help you understand what is really going on. Questions help you work out what is truly troubling your friend. Questions help your friend understand her situation better. Questions enable her to see solutions.

So, when a friend asks for advice, do not advise. Ask questions, lots of questions, like these:

Tell me about the situation

How do you feel about it?

How did you find yourself in this situation?

Why did this happen?

Who else is involved in this situation? What do they want? How do you think they feel?

How would you like things to be? What's preventing this?

What have you tried? How did that work?

What do you need? How can you get it?

What are the alternatives?

What do you feel would be the best thing to do?

What can I do for you?

And so on.

Notice that these are all open, non-judgmental, non-advising questions. Try to avoid closed questions (that is, questions that demand "yes" or "no" for an answer). Definitely avoid judgmental questions, such as "How could you be so stupid?" Likewise, avoid questions like, "why don't you buy her a box of chocolate and apologise for your actions?" A question like this is nothing more than advice pretending to be a question.

Open, non-judgmental questions help you understand your friend's problem better; they help your friend understand her problem better; they identify other factors that may affect the problem; and they enable your friend to advise herself.

Help Your Friend Advise Herself

Hopefully, you will not even need to give any advice. Rather, by asking questions, you enable your friend to work out for herself what she needs to do. This can be difficult for you, because it is entirely possible that her solution will be different to yours. Very likely, you will feel that your solution is better than hers. If so, I have some advice for you: keep your solution to yourself! Your friend is the one with the problem. She is the one who needs to take action. A solution that she feels comfortable with is more likely to succeed than one she feels has been forced upon her.

However, if you believe your friend is making a mistake − for example, if she decides to start mugging people to solve a financial problem − you should speak out, ideally by asking questions about the viability, ethics or whatever you find inappropriate in her solution.

Advising Yourself

Incidentally, you can and should use this same approach if you are looking for advice. Rather than immediately seeking solutions to a problem, ask yourself questions about the problem and then answer yourself. Write the answers down. Better still, call on a friend, colleague or associate whom you know will ask questions rather than fling advice at you. In my experience, having to answer someone else requires deeper thinking than answering yourself. In particular, you often need to explain your assumptions to the other person; and it can be those assumptions that are part of the problem.

Unsolicited Advice

The only thing worse than giving immediate advice when someone asks you for advice is to give advice when it is not asked for. Think about it the other way around. How often has someone given you unsolicited advice that resulted in your actually following the advice? Not often, I'd hazard. If anything, you probably find yourself resentful, particularly if the advice seems wrong. You may be surprised to know that other people also tend to feel that way about your unsolicited advice. Really.

Instead, if you feel compelled to advise a friend, perhaps because she seems to be going through a difficult period, do not advise. Instead, ask her questions and invite her to open up to you. By doing so, you better enable your friend to find her own path out of her rut. Moreover, instead of being resentful of your unwanted advice, your friend is likely to be appreciative of your empathy, concern and helping her to find a better way.

Appreciation

Perhaps surprisingly, when you do not give advice, but ask questions that help a friend find her own solution, she will probably be more appreciative than if you just give her the advice. This is because listening, caring and asking questions requires more time, thought and empathy than a quick word of advice.

Your friend may even credit you for giving her the advice that she actually worked out herself. She will also come to learn that you are a wise person to talk to when she has problems. Not because you give advice with wisdom, but because you listen and ask questions with wisdom.

Don't Forget

So, when someone comes to for advice or seems in need of advice, even if that person is yourself, do not proffer advice. Instead, you should ask open, non-judgmental questions. By doing so, you will help her find her own solution.

 

 

 

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