On Giving Advice

Ever since I was young, I’ve loved to read.  My reading has broadened over time, and sometimes I have 3-4 books that I’m working on at the same time.  I liken myself to a cow munching on grass all day.  There are downsides to this.
​The biggest downside to reading a lot of books (or maybe also consuming a lot of information) is that it becomes easy to “should” all over people.  I have been guilty (very guilty, actually) in the past at this, but I’m working on becoming better at it. 

A typical scenario would arise when I had a friend who was starting or operating their business and they share a problem they’re having in their business.  Now, either I have had a similar problem or, more likely, I’ve read a book that could remedy the situation.  So, of course, I tell them matter-of-factly what they “should” do:  “You should hire more people”  “You should have a better employee evaluation process”  “You should change your KPIs”  “You should expand faster”.  What’s interesting is that the easier the solution to their problem appears to me, the more forceful I am with my “should-ing”.  And it’s difficult to hold back sometimes, because occasionally the answer (to me) is clear as day, and I care about this person and their success, and I already know how to fix it – so why wouldn’t they listen to me?

Humility was difficult for Benjamin Franklin to master

Fortunately, I’m not the first person to struggle with humility.  While re-reading the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, he describes his now-famous project of listing and tracking his desired virtues on a weekly basis.  Initially, “humility” was not a virtue that was included on the list.  It was added after a friend let him in on a secret: Franklin was generally thought to be arrogant and self-centered: 

[The Quaker] kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point but was overbearing and insolent.

This was an especially difficult virtue for Franklin to master, and his first efforts were so stumbling and inconsistent that he had to make it a “hard rule to forebear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others,” even expressions “that imported a fix’d opinion, such as certainty, undoubtedly, and so on.”  Instead of telling people what they “should” do, he would say things like “you might consider that…” or “it might be of interest to you that…”.

The Guy Spier framework might help

I was reminded again of the importance of humility while reading The Education of a Value Investor by Guy Spier.  In this book, Guy discusses something that entrepreneurs and investors know all too well – seeking advice without being “should-ed” on.  His framework is taken from the discussion framework used by Entrepreneurs’ Organization, and is as follows:

1.  The conversation must be strictly confidential;

2.  Neither person can tell the other what to do as this tends to make people feel judged, so they become defensive.  In fact, it helps if you don’t even know whether the person is thinking of buying or selling the stock since that knowledge muddies the waters;

3.  We can’t have any business relationship because this could skew the conversation by adding a subtle or not-so-subtle financial agenda.

The goal is this framework isn’t to reach the “right answer” or engage in a debate, but rather to share experiences and information by asking open-ended questions.  For example, if a friend comes to you with advice about what to do with an underperforming team member, you could say something like “Here is an experience I had with an underperforming team member…” and then just let them sit with that information.

This framework would have been personally valuable to me in times when friends have asked my opinions about investments or business opportunities, and instead of offering my opinion and advice on what they “should do”, I could have helped them think through the problem a bit more or asked questions to help them discover more about the issue so that they could make the decision that was correct for them at that point in time.

​Not giving the answers may build character

In a last related note, I was recently reading a book by Ram Dass on how to help others cope with the grieving process.  And what he wrote (I’m paraphrasing) is that everyone gets through the grieving process with different methods and in their own time.  He also wrote that it is through struggling with grief that character is built – that the journey, not the destination, is the important part. 

And so, I relate Ram Dass’s teaching to giving advice because sure, when a friend comes to you for advice or mentions a problem that you have the its-so-obvious-you-should-do-this-to-fix-it solution, it might be helpful to think about how much of your own character and success was built from the trial-and-error process, and focusing on being a good listener rather than the One Who Knows All.  Humility is a difficult skill to master, but I’ve found that even improving my own by 1% has led to much better relationships.

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