Healthy Leaders


A Bit of Advice on Giving Advice

Suzi McAlpineSuzi McAlpine

Every week, my mom tells me that I should “pick some olives off the olive tree in our back garden and preserve them.”

It’s a good idea. I want to take her up on this suggestion because doing so would make her happy. And preserving olives would make me feel like Martha Stewart.

I really want to take her advice, I really do.

But I never pick the olives.

Not to “dis” my mom – she is one of the most exquisite human beings I know – but the olive picking advice irks me like a low-grade toothache.

Telling people what to do feels good to us, the advice giver.  We genuinely believe we are helping them to solve their problem or capitalize on the opportunity that’s staring them square in their face.

Yep. Advice giving is a noble gesture. And if we are the boss, that’s our job, right? Well … not always.

Giving advice is rarely as useful as listening. 

It’s never as powerful as a great question.

And, usually the advice giving is premature. More often than not, it’s delivered before we truly understand the full picture or understand the real challenge for the other person.

At worst, it can make them feel disempowered, misunderstood or guilty for not acting on our “wisdom.”

Telling people what to do is overused in leadership. Sure, the odd timely bit of advice (delivered skillfully and when you sense it’s invited or when the other person is truly, truly lost) is a useful tool in your leadership toolkit.

But here’s a bit of advice on giving advice (no, the irony of that statement is not lost on me).

  1. Before doling out your pearls of wisdom, listen deeply to the other person.
  2. Check that they actually want or need your input. Often people find it immensely useful to just process their thoughts with an objective sounding board.
  3. Ask some powerful questions to deepen their insight (and yours) as to what the real challenge is for that person.Hint: It’s often not the thing that presents itself initially.
  4. Work with them to widen their options. In their book, Decisive, Chip Heath and Dan Heath compellingly demonstrate through research how choosing between two options produces lower quality results than when we choose from three or more options. Beware the binary.
  5. Be tentative and don’t get attached to them taking your suggested route. So they choose to do something different? Big deal.

Finally, tune into your intuition when delivering advice. Sometimes a mere word or phrase or facial expression might give you a clue as to where to guide the other person.

Thankfully, there is a happy end to “Olivegate.”

This week, when mom suggested I pick the olives for the 1,246,644th time, I thanked her. Then we sat down over a nice cup of tea, and after a cool conversation around why picking the olives was a BIG thing for her – a heartwarming story involving her, Dad and an olive tree in Yugoslavia in the sixties – we talked about priorities (mine and hers).

Together, we decided that SHE would pick the olives with my children instead. It was win-win all round because this way, they could create some awesome Nanny-grandchildren memories and I could smugly channel Annabel Langbein every time guests came for dinner and I flamboyantly whipped open the lid to my HOMEMADE olives “that were picked off our own tree….”

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