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The Art of Advising (or Giving Advice)

My job is to advise very smart people, some of whom are at the top of their field in their subject matter expertise. The core of my work is to help them think differently so they can create optimal outcomes for themselves and their organizations. Is there a secret to giving advice?

Through the years I’ve learned that how one advises is at least as important as what one advises. How one advises determines whether or not the recipient hears and considers the advice, and ultimately takes action (changes behavior) based on the advice. Outcomes change only after they have taken action based on the new thinking. This is why merely giving advice (even if you’ve been asked or paid to give it, and even if it is good advice) is not good enough. The advice must be delivered in an effective manner that stimulates new thinking that is so compelling that it creates a change in behavior.

Art of Giving Advice: The Old Woman and the See

Quite often, my advice is less about what to do than how to think. (When we start with the mind rather than behavior, the potential for changed behavior is exponentially greater.) Here’s a quick story to demonstrate that how advice is delivered can effectively change someone’s thinking without necessarily telling them what to do.

My wife, Carol, is quite an accomplished artist. As she works on her paintings she always asks for my opinion of the work.  She is fully aware that I can’t draw a recognizable stick figure and, while I love art, I couldn’t possibly tell her anything about how to paint better.

One day she was painting a portrait of an older Italian woman gazing out of her second floor window in the lovely town of Cortona in Tuscany. Carol had taken a photograph of the woman during one of our many visits to the town and was using the photo as a reference. As I passed by, she stopped me and asked me my opinion about her portrait.

Allow the Subject Matter Expert to Discover a New Perspective, Without Necessarily Being Told What to Do

To my eye, there was something about the way Carol had portrayed the woman’s face that didn’t quite convey the way she looked in the photograph. I asked Carol, “What’s the chance that you’re so caught up in the technique of painting her face that you’re not quite conveying her mood?”  When she asked me to explain further, I said, “Well, you’ve painted her to look sad.”  In the photo and in my memory, she wasn’t sad.  “I think that when you can describe in one word the look on her face and how it might reflect her thoughts or emotions, you’ll be able to paint her more accurately.”

The very next day, Carol asked me to look at her painting again. Without knowing what she had changed, I was absolutely amazed at how she was able to capture the woman’s face so well.  When I asked her how she did it Carol replied, “I realized she wasn’t sad. In fact I’ve used the one word I chose to describe her face in the title of the painting…A Pensive Moment.”

Here are before and after images of the painting as the woman’s expression changes slightly, from sad to pensive.

Painting to demo giving advice, before Painting to demo giving advice, after


(At the time of publication, A Pensive Moment had been selected for the Michigan Fine Arts Competition, a juried exhibition. You can see more stages of the painting at CarolCarusoArt.com.)

A Business Example of Giving Advice: The Salesman and the Solution

I offer another example of how advising someone on how to think (prior to suggesting what they might do) can compel changed behaviors.

A few months ago, my client asked me to help the head of sales at the company develop his sales team into more effective leaders. We’ll call him, Ted.

At the appointed meeting time, Ted came to see me, full of energy and speaking very fast, “I know what I’m doing wrong. I like to solve everyone’s problems. I know I should ask more questions, but sometimes I don’t have the patience.”

“And how does that work with your wife?” I asked calmly.

“Not very well,” he laughed. And then went right back to speed talking about how he just can’t stand it when people don’t think things through. They bring him the resulting problems, which he then has to solve and he can’t help but do their thinking for them.

I remembered from previous conversations with Ted that he had two daughters and I asked him how old they were.

“Nineteen and twenty,” he replied.

“When they present you with some of the challenges they face, do you always solve their problems for them, or do you recognize that the moment offers you an opportunity to help them learn how to think for themselves?”

“Well, I didn’t always, but now I do,” he quickly answered.

“That’s great news!” I exclaimed.

“Why…what…,” he stammered.

“You’ve just told me that you have the capacity to be aware in the moment, that you need to redefine your role in a communication and regulate yourself to a different behavior. You can help yourself. We’re half way home.”

I then said, “Ted, I have only one more question and then I have an idea I’d like you to consider.”

“O.K. Shoot.”

“As you know, your CEO hired me to help this company develop stronger leaders faster so we can continue to be a fast-growing company. So why are you solving people’s problems for them and working directly against that goal every time you get the chance?”

“Well, now that you put it that way, I can see that what I’m doing on a case by case basis is working 180 degrees out of phase with what I’m supposed to be doing for the bigger company goal,” he said softly.

“What if you considered this: let your direct reports know about this new realization and ask for their help. Let them know that going forward, they can’t bring a problem into your office without having at least three potential solutions. In fact, why not put a sign on the top of your door that reads, ‘The Three Solutions Door’”?

Ted immediately saw the advice as a viable solution to help him with his problem and told me that he would let his team know about our discussion and the new idea first thing in the morning.

Anyone Can Give Advice; It’s How You Give It That Makes the Difference

Anyone can give advice. Some people can give good advice. Even fewer can give good advice consistently. The real art to giving advice is to give it in a manner that helps someone change the way they think.

I believe this is the essence of my work. In fact, I can’t end this blog without taking the opportunity to publicly thank two dear friends and top psychoanalysts who have taught me so much through the years about how to listen and pose ideas to others. Thank you to two of my top, most trusted and most valuable advisors, Todd Davison and Curtis Bristol. These gentlemen are truly gifted talents in the art of giving advice.

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Are you looking for a trusted adviser for your business or organization? Contact us, and we’ll be sure to consider how we give any advice before we tell you what you might do for better outcomes.

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