Is Giving Advice Futile?

I read recently about how giving advice is futile, an article written by Edith Zimmerman who’s been editing an advice column for 2 years. Edith says,

I’ve decided that there is no such thing as advice. There are only problems and the ways people handle them. Advice, on the other hand, is when you hear a description of someone else’s problem and then tell the person something about yourself.”

I think Edith has a point.

When advice is coming at you, your brain will perceive and interpret it just as it does with anything else happening in the environment around you. A car rolling by. Someone yelling in the street. The smell of coffee. A nagging reminder about that thing you’ve got to get done by 5pm.

It’s pretty likely that your brain won’t assimilate the advice in the way it was offered (as a suggestion of action leading to a solution), but will instead take what it thinks is relevant and throw away the rest.

It could focus on the wrinkles in the shirt worn by the advice-giver and make a judgment about their cleanliness. It could remember something similar an old friend once said and focus on that memory and what happened to that friendship. It might hear the advice-givers story and, while it might be interesting, consider it irrelevant due to the very personal nature of it and the myriad of differences between their life and yours.

Or it might raise its┬ádefences, perceiving the advice on offer to be a threat to the way things are done – “I’m running the show here peppy.”

It’s not looking good for advice…

To make matters more complex, your brain will encode a lesson told to you differently to a lesson you’ve learned personally.

Advice offered is external and stored as a piece of filtered environmental data. Something learned through personal failure or triumph (or anything in-between) is integrated at source as personal experience to draw from.

And we haven’t even got to the bit where external advice needs to be assimilated, processed, trusted and turned into new behaviour before anything remotely useful comes from it.

Add all this up, and advice seems to be as much use as a tit on a fish.

Be honest, how good are you at taking advice?

Yep, thought so.

So where does this leave those people in your life who offer you advice? Where does it leave you when you’re offering advice to a friend, family member or colleague? Where the hell does it leave me and this blog?

Isn’t what I’m doing here all about giving advice so that you can gather your natural confidence and go dent the universe?

Shit, I could be in trouble here…

As mentioned above, there’s a whole process of assimilation and insight that needs to happen internally before anything different can happen, and this is as complex and deeply nuanced as you are.

But hang on to your hats just one second here.

What if advice was framed in such a way that it gave rise to a new thought in the brain of the receiver?

What if the advice could enter the receivers brain, then do a bunch of magic shenanigans that created a new, wholly owned thought; something that came from the inside-out rather than the outside-in?

Something like a fresh insight

An internally created insight is simply a fresh way of looking at things; a new meaning attached to existing data.

It’s like opening a window to watch the clouds rather than thinking you have to crawl into the fireplace and clamber up the chimney to see them.

Reaching a fresh insight about how things can work for you is the result of new thinking, and so advice that’s focused on creating new thinking can only ever be useful.

Caveat. Advice that creates new thinking is a technique that’s hijacked by numerous people in their pursuit of wealth, status and power (like misguided sales people, cult leaders or the worst of the personal development industry). These people strategically manipulate emotions to create thoughts in their target that favour them. It’s to be derided.

So here are my 3 rules for giving advice:

  1. Frame it in a way that gives rise to new thinking.
  2. Guide it so as to help, support or enable the recipient.
  3. Make sure it’s outcome agnostic.

I’m a great believer in the power of new thinking and fresh insight, which is why I became a coach in the first place.

But I’m interested to know your thoughts and whether I’ve got the balance right here.

Do you think advice is futile?

  • I like the idea of internally created insights. I heard a similar strategy in a radio program about public speaking. Basically, he was saying instead of telling yourself “I can do this,” ask yourself, “Can I do this?”
    That way, it doesn’t feel like someone else telling you, but rather challenges you to figure out the steps to making your plan a success. You have to write the path to success, rather than just believing it exists.

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