Advice-giving in a coaching, mentoring, or peer assistance relationship appears to be a controversial topic. Yet, access to such advice is often the most frequent reason why clients seek the help of coaches, mentors, and peers. How can there be such a disconnect between the anti-advice-giving training that these practitioners receive and the desire on the part of clients and partners to obtain such advice? This article identifies the origin of the no-advice principle and provides a concrete alternative that enables clients to maximize their needs and coaches, mentors, and peer leaders to maximize their skill.
Prohibitions Against Advice-Giving
Lesley Matile, the Managing Director of The Coach Academy and a 25-year veteran coach exemplifies the standard view of advice-giving. She believes that “in the purest form of coaching, which I believe is the most beneficial to clients, there is no room for advice-giving.” She equates “purest form” with a “non-directive” approach to coaching. She has merged the counselling technique originally developed and perfected by psychologist Carl Rogers with coaching. She thinks that giving advice hinders client motivation, ownership, commitment to change, and reduces life-long learning. She does provide two benchmarks to use to determine whether advice given by a coach has value for the client. She instructs coaches to keep track of the number of times a client will say “Yes, but” as a reaction to a coach giving advice; and (2) to track the action taken by the client as a result of coach suggestions versus ideas the client has generated as a result of asking the client a “wisdom-accessing” question.
Management expert Chris Argyris (1999) supports Lesley’s position. Mr. Argyris argues that a preponderance of advice from the “masters” is full of mixed messages and often yields a range of unintended and counterproductive consequences. Often people send these mixed messages without any awareness of doing so. And in many cases, the sender may also send a subtle message that says this advice is not for discussion or full examination. Not all advice will lead to disaster, and Argyris tempers his view by providing a basis for determining how to sort the good from the bad.
Rosamunde Bott (2007), a career and writing coach, believes that making suggestions to clients can actually have a catalytic impact and often helps a “stuck” client or session get back on track. She supports the necessity for a coach to be flexible and not become paralyzed by a coach training instruction such as “coaches should not give advice.”
It’s likely that the prohibition of advice-giving in a helping relationship was made popular almost 50 years ago when Tom Gordon, a student of Carl Rogers, created the revolutionary approach to raising children known as “Parent Effectiveness Training.” Gordon characterized the typical ways we respond to others into 12 categories called “Roadblocks to Communication.” Such messages interfered with effective communication and typically made the person on the receiving end of such messages feel defensive, blamed, angry, accused, patronized, or admonished; not the necessary ingredients for improving a relationship. Probably the most controversial “roadblock” he identified and the one that appeared to be the most difficult to stop was “giving advice.”
Tom Gordon based his practical ideas on the work of psychotherapists Carl Rogers and Alan Carr, both of whom had no place for advice in their therapy. Most of the thousands of lay practitioners who became advocates for Gordon’s communication effectiveness approach described giving advice as a “no-no.” Literally hundreds of books and articles on communication skills published after his pioneering work echoed or duplicated his twelve roadblocks approach (many without accurate attribution). Parents, teachers, and thousands of others learning the Tom Gordon system were stymied by this end to advice- giving and struggled to prevent it from creeping back into their repertoire.
The best contemporary media example of the prohibition of advice-giving in a helping relationship is depicted weekly in the award-winning TV-show In Treatment. This North American cable-TV show is about a psychologist, Dr. Paul Weston (superbly played by Golden Globe winner Gabriel Byrne), who provides weekly one-on-one psychotherapy to a series of four different clients. The show also includes a weekly session where the psychologist sees his own therapist, Dr. Gina Toll (brilliantly played by Oscar- and Emmy- winner Dianne Wiest).
The show is adapted from a popular Israeli television series and recast for a North American audience. Each week, at some point during the patient’s half-hour session, the patient will ask the therapist for advice. The psychologist always responds by asking the patient a probing question, and never gives the requested advice.
While the show is intense, moving, and very realistic, it also has some lighter moments– one of which highlighted the advice-giving dilemma. At one point when Dr. Weston is in session with his own therapist, he asks her for advice. The therapist responds with a question; to which the psychologist has a short tantrum and says, “Now I understand why my patients get so frustrated when I don’t answer their questions. Just tell me what you think!”
The Alternative for Effective Advice-Giving
But is advice-giving really a “no-no?” Isn’t getting advice often the primary reason people seek out coaches, peers, and mentors? And how many times have coaches and mentors had to “sit on” an idea they thought would truly help the seeker merely because the “no-no” approach taught by all the disciples of “effective” communication admonished them against it.
There is an alternative. Years ago when I was one of Tom Gordon’s students, I created a simple, five-point method for dealing with advice-giving. I modified my mentor’s system so that the powerful human urge to give advice and the strong motivation to get advice from a peer assistant, mentor or coach could occur without being a roadblock to effective communication.
In my system, the first step for dealing with advice-giving is to determine the degree of risk associated with giving advice. For example, start by assessing the emotional state and the visionary capacity of the person asking for advice. Is the seeker overwhelmed, calm, agitated, enraged? The more activated (at one end of the emotional continuum) or the more depressed (at the other end of the continuum), the higher the risk that the advice will be meaningless, not heard, or completely rejected. Even worse (and often a stated reason for withholding advice), the advice seeker may act on the advice and when it doesn’t work or leads to even more severe circumstances, the seeker blames the advice giver for the muck he or she is now mired in.
At the same time, a lack of vision, a low ability to forecast, or an inability to state goals, places the advice seeker in a poor position to understand advice and often leads to arguing with, disputing, or demeaning the advice giver. Persons who have a better idea of where they want to go and can articulate their goals are often able to hear advice not as a command, but as a possible option or suggestion.
Before doling out advice, then, the advice giver can reduce the risk of advice-giving contributing to poor communication by assessing both the emotional state and visionary ability of the seeker. When the assessment results in a low-risk conclusion, then advice- giving is more likely going to contribute to an improved and fulfilling relationship. (When the assessment reveals a high-risk situation, then continued deep listening and asking powerful questions are better options than advice-giving.)
When the advice giver determines that the seeker is in an appropriate low-risk state to receive advice, he or she can then extend what I call step two or “the invitation.” In many cases, the seeker has already specifically asked me for advice. But if this hasn’t happened or is implied, I will ask seekers whether they think my sharing a similar experience and what I did about it might be helpful to their situation. In other words, I want the seeker to invite my contribution. I recommend an invitation such as “Would it be useful to you for me to let you know what I did about a similar situation and how it turned out for me?” This step can help the seeker feel supported and that he or she is not alone.
In step three, which I call “the disclosure step” the advice-giver draws upon his or her own life experience and frames the advice within that experience. Rather than saying, “Here’s what you should do…” the advice-giver constructs his or her advice as a personal statement: “When I was experiencing (the advice-giver describes his or her similar situation), here’s what I did or thought…” (The amount of description of the experience may vary depending on the circumstances.) The two key elements to this step are the advice giver’s ability to “own” the advice (“here’s what I did” and not “you should do this…”) and “frame” the advice within his or her own life experience.
The fourth step in effective advice-giving is called “the open dialogue step” and is simply the next sentence that follows the disclosure step. I recommend adding a question to the end of the disclosure statement such as: “In what way, if at all, does my advice fit for your situation?” or “Having heard my description and what I did or told myself, how close does that come for your situation, challenge, or circumstance?” The purpose here is to encourage the advice-seeker to honestly react, respond, reject, or modify the advice giver’s statement without disrupting the relationship.
Finally, in step five the advice giver listens deeply to the reaction of the seeker and through asking powerful questions helps the seeker modify, revise, or create the advice as to what to do or think. I call this final step “switching gears,” (a term borrowed from Tom Gordon). The purpose of this step is for the advice giver to “let go” of the need to give advice, and let go of the need to ensure that the seeker complies with the advice. Instead the advice giver tunes in even more deeply to the seeker’s circumstances and life experience.
Advice-giving is neither good or bad in a coaching relationship. Instead, it’s more useful to think of giving advice as having risks. As coaches, mentors and peer assistants we can reduce the risk and ensure that giving advice contributes to an empowering relationship. Since giving advice and seeking advice are so strongly ingrained in our being, it’s probably more useful to figure out how to do it effectively rather than relying on the more outdated communication skills models that prohibit giving advice.
Argyris, C. (1999). Flawed advice and the management trap: How managers can know when they’re getting good advice and when they’re not. London: Oxford University Press.
Bott, R. (2007). To advise or not. Personal Success Magazine. (Retrieved April 30, 2009 from http://tinyurl.com/cjjfx6)
Underhill, B. (2015). To give or not give advice. Peer Bulletin 214, 21-24. (Retrieved August 22, 2016 from http://www.peer.ca/Projects/Peer_Resources_Network.html)
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