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 Carr 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 of of the need to insure 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.References 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. This book can be purchased through Amazon.ca (for Canadian orders),Amazon.com (for US orders), or Amazon.co.uk for international orders. Bott, R. (2007). To advise or not. Personal Success Magazine. (Retrieved April 30, 2009 from http://tinyurl.com/cjjfx6) Sweeny, B. (2010). What a mentor can do when advice seems unwelcome. Peer Bulletin 210. (Retrieved November 2013 from http://www.peer.ca/Projects/Bulletin194.html). Underhill, B. (2014). To give or not to give (advice, that is). CoachSource.
Walter Cronkite was one of the most recognizable and trusted journalists of the last 60 years. No other figure prompted as many young people to pursue journalism as a profession. And very few journalists provided as much mentoring to others as Mr. Cronkite. “Like many other aspiring journalists,” said Gordon Joseloff, “I grew up watching Walter and idolizing him. I was watching when he told us John Kennedy had died, when he said the conflict in Vietnam could no longer be won, and when man walked on the moon.”
When millions of Americans heard: “Direct from our newsroom in New York, this is the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite,” hundreds started to dream of launching a career in broadcasting.
Bob Schieffer, who anchored the Saturday edition of the CBS Evening News from 1973 to 1996 said, “Walter used to talk to the reporters, he’d call you out on the beat – ‘what’s going on, why did they say this, why did they do that.’ But, on those days when Walter would call you after the broadcast and say, ‘good job on that tonight,’ you really felt good about it because that was the highest compliment you could get.”
Dan Rather, who succeeded his mentor as the anchor of the CBS Evening News (1981-2005), said of his mentor in a report to NewsBusters: “Walter’s instructions to us in the field were always, you know, ‘Tell it straight without fear or favoritism. Pull no punches. Say it like it is, insofar as is humanly possible. Keep your own prejudices and biases and feelings and emotions out of it.’” Mr. Rather described his mentor as a person “who took the news seriously, but he didn’t take himself all that seriously.”
Katie Couric, a journalist who moved from NBC to CBS and became the first solo female anchor of a major US-TV network, also recalls Walter Cronkite as her mentor. Ms. Couric saw him as a standard setter, who could balance objectivity with compassion and emotion. “I admired his honor, integrity and decency, and his spirit lives on in a very palpable way in the hallways of CBS.”
“His legacy is extraordinary,” she recently said in an interview show. “I get so inspired when I re-read something he wrote. When I got the job at CBS he took me out to dinner and told me about some of his greatest thrills as a journalist. And in every story he emphasized how important it was to be fair and objective. When he talked about President Kennedy’s funeral he got teary and I started to cry. But he also beamed with joy when he talked about the first space capsule. His voice was full of the enthusiasm of a child. I took to heart one of his most important perspectives on the news: ‘Get it first, but get it right.’”
The American public knew Mr. Cronkite for his objectivity, seriousness, and fact-based reporting, but less known was his playful nature outside of the newsroom. As reported in The New York Observer, Don Hewitt, the creator of 60 Minutes, told an anecdote about Mr. Cronkite’s sense of humor. “A new reporter had arrived while we were at Cape Canaveral,” said Mr. Hewitt, “and Walter said to him, ‘If you just keep looking at that rocket there on that green patch at the end of the runway there, you’ll see it blast off. Just don’t take your eyes off it.’ The guy sat there for six hours waiting for it to go off. It was a lighthouse.”
Mr. Cronkite also demonstrated that being a journalist did not mean withholding opinions. He believed, for example, that “America’s health care system is neither healthy, caring, nor a system.” He also noted the limits of a mentoring relationship when he said about Dan Rather: “He and I just aren’t especially chummy.” He also was concerned about leading a balanced life and said “I think somebody ought to do a survey as to how many great, important men have quit to spend time with their families who spent any more time with their family.”
Mr. Cronkite had a passion for sailing and New Orleans jazz. The New York Times reported that Mr. Cronkite liked to exchange off-color jokes with Ronald Reagan and “whimsically competed with his friend Johnny Carson to see who could take the most vacation time without getting fired.” (Source: New York Observer)
Partly because of his significant influence as a mentor, Arizona State University (ASU) established The Walter Cronkite Mentorship Program at the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. This program pairs students in the graduate program with experienced journalists.
Mr. Cronkite was clearly the most trusted journalist of all time. While I didn’t know him personally he taught me a valuable lesson that I have never forgotten and that I use continuously, and for which I owe him a debt of gratitude.
During my graduate student days at San Francisco State University (then called San Francisco State College), I was, like students all across the US, actively involved in protesting the American war in Vietnam. My generation of anti-Vietnam war protestors owes him a significant debt. The efforts to end the US involvement in Vietnam through the mobilization of the largest anti-war movement in the history of the United States met with limited success.
But on February 27, 1968, US President Lyndon Johnson watched Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News comment that the Vietnam war was not winnable and an end must be negotiated, “not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” President Johnson is reported to have responded by saying, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Several weeks later President Johnson stunned a nation-wide TV audience when he announced he would not seek reelection.
The mentoring lesson I learned from Mr. Cronkite was that significant and lasting change can only come about from trust. It is seldom achieved through protest or aggression. I have carried that learning on in my work as a peer assistant, coach, mentor, employee, and CEO, as well as in my personal life with my family and friends.
“And that’s the way it is.”
This is a sensible request. After all, as long ago as 1999 the leading mentoring experts in the USA such as Peer Resources Network member Larry Ambrose, Margo Murray, Rita Boags, Betty Farmer, David James, Kathleen Wright, Linda Stromei, and dozens of others equally engaged in mentoring were all featured presenters at the Best Practices in Mentoring Conference at The Bolger Center in Potomac, Maryland. For several years coaching associations and organizations have been struggling to create a set of standards that reflect ‘best practices;’ and The Library of Professional Coaching includes a whole section on “Best Practices.”
Multiple organizations in Canada, the U.K., and the U.S.A., including the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC), the Evidence Exchange Network for Mental Health and Addictions (EENet), Peers for Progress (PFP), U.S. Government’s National Registry of Evidence-Based Practices (SAMHSA), the National Association of Peer Program Professionals (NAPPP), Peer Resources, Peer 2 Peer (P2P), and the April 12, 2014 conference in California titled Towards Best Practices in Mental Health Peer Programming (website), are just a few of the groups striving to provide a set of best practices.
Enquiries that we receive, participants attending best practices conferences, and visitors to the hundreds of websites focusing on best practices, expect to learn about those foundation practices that identify successful mentoring that will enable them to make a difference in the lives of those touched by such practices, and to learn about how to apply those practices in their own organizations. This is the common goal of almost every quest for ‘best practices.’
What if compiling a set of mentoring best practices, for example, actually leads you down the wrong path? CEO coach Mike Myatt describes best practices as ‘evangelical’ statements that “rarely warrant being deemed as universal truths. It is nothing short of over exuberant thinking to assume that any single solution can be applied anywhere and everywhere…Just because company A had success with a certain initiative doesn’t mean that company B can seamlessly plug-and-play the same process and expect the same outcome.”
Eugene Bardich (2011) believes that the work involved to actually engage consistently in a best practice is rarely accomplished. Most of the time, one will find ‘good’ practices or ‘smart’ practices that offer insight into solutions that may or may not work for a given situation.
Internationally recognized management consultant and author Ron Ashkenas (2010) in his HBR Blog article acknowledged that many organizations are exceptionally good at “stealing shamelessly” from other companies. But while some companies thrive with their borrowed ideas others soon abandon the idea. He noted that such best practice borrowing often fails because of two reasons: failure to adapt or tailor to the new environment; and failure to adopt which is what happens when leadership fails to fully support the “borrowed” process.
Former International Mentoring Association (IMA) president and former Peer Resources Network member, the late Dr. Joe Pascarelli, had a slightly different perspective on best practices. In his email that appeared on the IMA group discussion site Dr. Pascarelli, who believes that best practices is a synonym for ‘evidence-based practice”, said:
“Best practice came out of a national context that identified those practices that were soundly based in research (and development) and were acknowledged as such. Originally there were specific criteria and standards that certain programs met and, as a result, these practices were disseminated (via federal funding) so others could learn about and consider ‘adopting.’ Herein, lies the catch. We know from decades of research that no program can be ‘adopted’ and installed in a ‘foreign context’ without being ‘adapted.’ I am not hairsplitting but pointing to the difference. In these days, we are using ‘Best Practice’ very loosely and, in some cases, based on self-nomination. So, if there is a publication based on Best Practices in Mentoring (and there is not), it would still be limited in terms of the contextual dimension that needs to be addressed.”
The late Barry Sweeny, a long-time mentoring expert and the former editor of the newsletter of the International Mentoring Association as well as their web master, agreed with his colleague, Dr. Pascarelli. According to Dr. Sweeny, “The basic question in examining and considering ‘best practices’ is best for what? What is best for one program may not be best for others.”
Dr. Sweeny suggested that a way to manage best practice enquiry is to first examine the goal of the mentoring program. He believes that the goal determines what might be best for that program. “Anyone who asserts a set of best practices must be asked,” Dr. Sweeny told me, “best for what goals, before we would consider adopting an approach, model, or solutions. That makes the process of program development more complex. There are many choices, forks in the ‘development road,’ and dead ends.”
One way to manage this complexity according to Dr. Sweeny is “to work with a program development mentor—someone who is experienced in the process and settings where many diverse goals have been addressed by different approaches and models.” He recognized that this could be “a more financially costly way to go, but then heading off on your own without such experienced guidance can cost considerable time, waste energy, and even result in the loss of good will from managers and participants if there are issues and problems along with way.” (Some of the world’s best mentor program development specialists are listed on the International Mentoring Association website.)
I agree with Dr. Sweeny and Dr. Pascarelli, both of whom I have known for years through our membership in the International Mentoring Association. Given the experience I’ve had with Peer Resources fielding questions about how to establish a mentoring program, I can add three additional perspectives.
Recognize that the Pursuit of a Quick-Fix is Innate
I’ve often found that the search for best practices is often a way of avoiding coming to grips with what is really necessary to develop an effective mentoring initiative in the enquiring organization or service. When I’ve practiced Barry Sweeny’s advice regarding asking about goals, I’ve been amazed at how few best practice searchers can actually articulate any goals. They often haven’t thought about this very deeply. There’s a common sense understanding that finding a set of best practices will enable all other elements required for effective mentoring to fall in place. At the same time, searching for best practices seems easier than dealing with some of the harder questions that require insight, reflection, internal research. Discovering a short cut seems deeply rooted in our brain functioning.
Develop a Set of Best Questions
Relying on best practices is a way to avoid engaging in thinking deeply about the issues and reflecting on the answers, and their potential uncertainty unavoidably involves some discomfort and pain. It’s natural to avoid going through this process, which is often negatively characterized as ‘reinventing the wheel.’ As an alternative, instead of working on establishing a set of best practices derived from the ideas of others, practitioners need to propose a set of best questions to ask themselves and their team members. Here are some examples of ‘best’ questions as applied to mentoring, for example:
- What do you hope to achieve with a mentoring program?
- What results do you expect?
- Why are these things important?
- What needs do the people in your organization have that can be better met through mentoring?
Assign a Risk-Level to Program Options
While a best practices guide can inspire you to think of, reflect on, or be inspired by what others have done, it can also be a barrier to creating your own path that is more likely to fit your organizational culture, values and mission. Just because others have developed a particular practice that works for them, doesn’t mean their success will transfer to your organization.
But it also means that they could work and benefit your mentoring initiative. When using best practices, take a “risk-based” approach. That is, with every ‘best practice’ reflect on the pluses and minuses of implementing that best practice in your organization. Ask yourself “How will this help or hinder the results we want? What might be an unintended or unexpected positive or negative outcome if we implement this best practice?”
The complexity of the human endeavour to live healthy and fulfilling lives is too important to leave to a set of best practices in any health and human services field whether it be mentoring, medicine, peer assistance, coaching, or other health practice. Best practices tell us about what worked in the past. If we want to live in the past, imitate them. If we want to build for the future, create practices that come from our hearts.
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Greene, J.P. (2012). Best practices are the worst: Picking the anecdotes you want to believe. Educationnext. (Retrieved March 17, 2014 from here.)
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Williams, D.D.R., & Garner, J. (2002). The case against ‘the evidence’: A different perspective on evidence-based medicine. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 180, 8-12.
Best practices’ lacks scientific credibility, but it has been a proven path to fame and fortune for pop-management gurus like Tom Peters, with In Search of Excellence, and Jim Collins, with Good to Great. The fact that many of the ‘best’ companies they featured subsequently went belly-up—like Atari and Wang Computers, lauded by Peters, and Circuit City and Fannie Mae, by Collins—has done nothing to impede their high-fee lecture tours. Sometimes people just want to hear a confident person with shiny teeth tell them appealing stories about the secrets to success.~ Jay P. Greene Professor of Education Reform University of Arkansas
Best practice is defined as the policy, systems, processes and procedures that, at any given point in time, are generally regarded by peers as the practice that delivers the optimal outcome, such that they are worth of adoption.~ Andrew Body Managing Director MOUCHEL Middle East