Tuesday, September 7, 2010

On Taking Advice

It's often the case that we confuse self-confidence and independent thinking with not accepting advice or guidance. As self-confident people, we listen to our inner voices... we go with our guts... we know what is best for us and no one one can tell us different... right? However, these examples of self-determination are often the defensive postures of a person desperately seeking to appear self-confident. In fact, self-confident people openly listen to the feedback and guidance of others. The difference lies in how they go about seeking advice and how they process it.

Information vs. Guidance
When seeking advice, try to stay in the realm of information (e.g., How does thus and such work? What would happen if...) and avoid guidance (e.g., What should I do? What would you do in my position?). Seeking information allows you to work through the process of coming to conclusions and decisions. Seeking guidance abdicates that process to your advisors.

The process of seeking information and coming to your own conclusions can take a lot longer than simply asking someone what to do (you'll start with many, many questions). However, over time, you'll need to seek advice and guidance less and less as you develop your information processing and decision making skills. After a while, you'll find that you only need to ask a few focused questions to get to the heart of the matter, questions that may not make sense to the people being asked as you bounce from here to there, but ones that will fill in the few missing pieces of your puzzle.

Seeking guidance makes you forever dependent upon advisors. Further, your decisions become increasingly influenced by trust factor and less and less by the actual information. There are many businesses that are run by content-free decision makers who act on the advice of the people whom they trust or on a consensus basis. They often have no clue about the implications of their decisions.

Taking Guidance
All that said, there are times when taking guidance trumps seeking information. There are some things that are better learned through doing than learning about doing. In particular, there are things that run counter intuitively and the more you try to figure them out, the more confusing they can get. In these cases, just doing what you're instructed to do can be the best way to go.

For example, learning to swim starts with floating. Trying to float typically leads to sinking. So, rather than figuring it all out, sometimes it's easier just to listen to your advisor who's telling you to simply relax and stretch out, and the water will lift you. The same applies to downhill skiing when the instructor tells you to lean down the mountain in order to gain more control as everything inside you is screaming lean back. And of course, there's the every present: relax with your kids and they'll figure it out.

Some things defy your gut and are best learned by doing.

The Advisor's Motivation
Aware of it or not, we're all in the business of buying and selling beliefs. In particular, we spend a lot of time selling others on what is good or bad, appealing or unappealing, should be done or shouldn't be done.
  • Eat your spinach, it'll make you strong.
  • I just know you can do this.
  • It's important to get a good education.
  • You can't have your cake and eat it too.
  • Isn't that dress beautiful.
  • What you need is...
Every comment, every rhetorical question, every insight is a belief positioned in the marketplace to be consumed.

As would-be advisors, our motivations vary and are independent of the advice given. Three advisors tell you the same thing: one wants to see you thrive, one wants you to acknowledge his sage-like wisdom, and one simply wants you to go away and stop asking so many questions. In the end, you want to evaluate the advice on its merits independently of the advisor's motivations. However, it is useful to keep in mind that it is only rarely that your motivations and your advisor's motivations are the same.

In the end, whether you seek information or guidance, the most important thing is to understand what the advisor is telling you. In doing so, don't confuse believing with understanding. You don't have to believe someone to understand what she's telling you. In fact, we often don't understand what we're being told because we can't get past the fact that we don't believe what we're being told. Our counter belief antibodies destroy the virus of understanding before it can take hold.

Let's say that your ski instructor tells you to lean down the mountain and your inner voice is screams, "If you lean forward, your gonna go fall headlong down the friggin' mountain!" In this instance, it's unlikely that a lot of understanding is going to be conveyed. Your beliefs (or lack thereof ) are getting in the way. However, understanding and belief operate independently. So, focus on understanding.

Rather than responding with, "No! if I lean down the mountain I'm going to fall!" or "I can't do it!", ask questions like, "What do you mean by lean down the mountain?" or "How should I position my feet?" or "What do I do with these sticks?"

Seek to understand fully what you're being told to do. Forget about or temporarily suspend disbelief.

This technique of learning is invaluable when receiving expert instruction in performance oriented skills from playing tennis to writing stories, from mountain biking to cooking, from interviewing for jobs to counseling your children. Sometimes it's incredibly important to close the belief market and simply gain understanding.

Today, you'll probably receive and dole out countless bits of advice from have a good day... to don't forget you raincoat... to how about getting a little exercise... to wouldn't you rather drink some decaf?

Unlike yesterday, I'd like to invite you to carefully pay attention to each time you give or receive advice. What was the belief being sold? Why was it being sold? What were you actually asking or being asked to do? How did you or others respond? Why? Did you fully understand the advice before dismissing or accepting it?

Happy Tuesday (the Happy part is optional, but my advice)

1 comment:

  1. I usually pay attention to WHOM I ask for advice - then I usually know which advice I'm looking for...


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