Saturday, March 14, 2015

The 9 Principles of Giving (and Receiving) Advice Effectively

Wise men don't need advice. Fools won't take it. - Benjamin Franklin

For by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counsellors there is victory. – Proverbs 24:6 (ESV)

Those of us who have been around for a bit can attest to the reality that we are often asked to provide advice on Life, work, relationships and the like whether we feel (or actually are) qualified to answer such questions.  Most of us who have been taught by Life (either at our request or against our will) eventually discover that we are often asked more questions than we ask of others when it comes to such guidance.

After a couple of very deep conversations this week, I got to wondering about the process of giving and receiving advice, the best ways to accomplish it and the  reasons for doing it.  In addition to my own conversations, as someone who spends more time than I should in coffee shops where free advice flows copiously and as an ardent observer of the human experience, I am fascinated by how advice is offered and accepted.

As I reflected today on the conversations I participate in or observe and I thought about the exchanges that went well versus the ones that failed miserably, I got to thinking that maybe a checklist of how to make the exchange more helpful might come in handy.

Here’s how my checklist would look for giving and receiving advice effectively.

For those who offer advice

  • Listen

You have been asked to offer advice.  What does the other person really need?  Why are you the person who has been solicited?  Are you  qualified or have you agreed because you like to hear your own voice?  Were you asked for advice or are you offering it without solicitation?  If not solicited, your opinion may not be relevant or welcome.  Listen carefully – solutions are often revealed early in the conversation by the person seeking advice.  And remember, even free advice is never free – do you (and they) understand the cost of offering your advice and whether your advice is accepted or rejected?  Time itself is of immeasurable value regardless of the advice offered and received.

  • Give counsel to the doubtful

Many people who seek advice actually know the answer to the questions they are asking but a level of self-doubt or hesitation has set in.  Don’t presume that just because you are being asked for help that the other person doesn’t know what they are doing or what they need.  It is possible they just need an affirmation of self-worth or value.

  • Instruct the ignorant

Ignorance comes in multiple forms and may exist as lack of knowledge, lack of understanding, lack of Life experience or plain old stupidity that needs to be corrected.  Understanding the difference is tremendously important when it comes to understanding the type of advice being offered and how it is being delivered.  If you don’t know the answer, say so.  Don’t send someone spinning in the wrong direction because your voice of authority and Life experience doesn’t have the humility to say “I don’t know” or “I can’t help you”.

  • Admonish sinners

When people screw up, you have to be direct and tell them so when asked (and sometimes, even if not asked).  Candy coating answers is likely to send a message that their mistake was minor enough that repeating it is acceptable when doing so may be fatal.

  • Comfort the afflicted

The strongest of people need support whether they admit it or not.  Words of support that lift rather than tear down are important.  Even those whom you believe have everything going perfectly in their lives need to hear and feel “the love” more than you realize.  However, don’t insist on comforting the ignorant who don’t accept advice well (or at all) while they keep coming back to your well of knowledge.

  • Forgive offenses

People make mistakes, especially the people offering advice.  It is because those who offer advice have made mistakes that their advice is so valuable.  Lecturing from a belief in self-perfection does not work and is not helpful.  That being said, repeat offenders requesting advice and offending anyway should be approached cautiously, lest they manifest as the person who claims to want help but is merely a time-waster, a dreamer not grounded in reality or an emotion / energy vampire.

  • Bear patiently, the troublesome

Nobody’s perfect, being a product of their Life experiences and genetics.  If you had their Life experiences and genetics, you would be exactly like them in behavior and potentially in result.  That being said, don’t let that be a reason to become a whipping post for someone who would rather drag you down with them than follow your advice or those who insist on asking for advice while repeatedly telling you that you are wrong.

  • Pray for them

However you do it, whether it is actual prayer, positive thinking about them or their situation, or some other way, thinking about how you feel about them will impact the quality and intention of the advice you offer.  Negative thoughts will produce negative results for both of you.

  • Listen

The conversation is over.  Did you offer the right advice, the right way for the right reason?  Was it received well?  Was it acted upon or rejected?  Was it appreciated?  How do you know?

For those who receive advice

  • Listen

You have asked to receive advice from someone. Have you asked the right person?  Do they seem to care about you or do they just want to hear themselves talk?  For those whose opinion you respect, are you really listening or are you disrespecting them and their time by dismissing or rejecting the advice they are offering because you already know you are right and wanted them to say so?  Did you ask for this advice?  If not, does it still have value and if so, do you have the humility to accept it?  Even free advice is never free – do you (and they) understand the cost of accepting or rejecting their advice?  Time itself is of immeasurable value regardless of the advice offered and received.

  • Give counsel to the doubtful

Does the person offering you advice understand that maybe you just need some moral support or encouragement or do they talk over that need with the belief that you need to be told what to do and why to do it?  Do you point this out if it happens?  How do they respond?

  • Instruct the ignorant

As someone who has asked for help, you may need guidance because you have lack of knowledge, lack of understanding, a lack of Life experience or that you made a major mistake that needs to be corrected.  Do you have the courage to admit the difference and to know which one applies to you?  Does the person helping you know which one applies?  How do both of you know?

  • Admonish sinners

If you screwed up, you need to admit it.  Pretending you haven’t or being upset with someone who cares enough about you to tell you that you have screwed up is not going to help you get back on course and may discourage them from offering help in the future.  That being said, do not accept unnecessary criticism, unfair criticism or criticism meant to diminish as opposed to correct.

  • Comfort the afflicted

One of the greatest issues with pride is that we can’t ask for help when we need it.  We need to learn that asking for help requires more strength and courage than traveling a difficult path alone but produces a much greater harvest.

  • Forgive offenses

If you have made a mistake, it will likely be pointed out and you must accept responsibility for it.  As human beings, we need to be more gentle and forgiving with ourselves as well and accept that we make mistakes.  If we are repeat offenders, however, we deserve to be punished for it (whatever punishment means) and need to understand the reasons behind such punishment.

  • Bear patiently, the troublesome

When we ask for advice, we walk a fine balance between not wanting to be too much trouble for someone while at the same time, not presuming that a request for help is a bother to others.  Do you show that you are learning from those who offer advice and do you put those lessons into practice or do you insist on wasting their time for a variety of reasons known only to you?  How do you know?  How do you demonstrate to the person offering advice that you value it and are putting it into practice?

  • Pray for them

However you do it, whether it is actual prayer, positive thinking about yourself or your situation, or some other technique. think about how you ask for advice, how you receive it, how you weigh what is appropriate, how you put good advice into practice, etc..  How you feel about yourself and the people you ask for help will impact the quality and intention of the advice you receive and how it is offered.

  • Listen

The conversation is over.  Did you  receive the right advice, the right way, for the right reason and from the right person?  How did you react to it?  Will you act upon it or reject it?  Did you show appreciation and gratitude for it?

Whenever you ask a question, whether it be offering advice or listening to it, make sure that it stands up to the scrutiny of “Why?” (why am I saying this, why am I asking this, why am I doing this, etc.) and “How do I know?”.

Because if both parties cannot answer these two questions honestly and adequately, then the advice exchange will not produce the desired result.

The Bottom Line

We must always remember that it is easier to offer advice rather than to receive it and it is always easier to solve someone else’s problems (or so we think).  We must also pay attention to the exchange when solicited for advice because we may discover that we learn more than the person who asked for the advice in the first place.

We must also remember that advice comes in many forms and sometimes the greatest advice we will ever receive doesn’t come because it was solicited or from the sources we would have expected.

Sometimes we are qualified to offer advice.

Sometimes we are not.

It is important to know the difference.

We must remember that it is always ok to ask for advice as long as we appreciate and honor those whom we ask advice from.

And finally, offering or receiving advice must be grounded in true listening and true humility.  It cannot be offered or accepted properly without both in play at all times.

When I am asked for advice, people are often surprised by my directness, that I get right to the core of a matter quickly, specifically and in its raw form and during the exchange I call things the way I see them.

Such directness is not a licence to offend, to be rude or to be insensitive although those who are used to more passive conversations or who merely seek affirmation that they were right all along tend to react with surprise (or anger) when on the receiving end of such directness.

However, when they realize what my motivation is for getting to the matter so quickly and they recognize that a heart of humility accompanies my direct, inquisitive mind, they acknowledge that my approach is refreshing and was something they needed.

Do you have a specific approach to offering or accepting advice?

Does it work?

Is it right?

How do you know?

Someone in your world needs help or advice today.

Maybe it’s you.

What are you waiting for?

In service and servanthood,


PS Outside of the principle of listening, the remaining 7 principles are from the The Spiritual Works of Mercy as listed in the Roman Catholic Daily Missal (1962 edition).

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