Terri and her co-worker, Jamie, ran into each other in the coffee room. Jamie recalled that Terri was having some work done on her house and asked how it was going. “Awful!” said Terri. “The builder won’t listen to me and I have to ask my husband to raise my concerns for me. What a chauvinist that builder turned out to be.”
Jamie replied, “You should just ask your husband to stop talking to the builder, so that the builder has to communicate with you in order to move forward with the work.”
“We tried that approach,” answered Terri, “and the result was even worse. The builder just made his own decisions and we ended up having to move a light fixture after the wallboard was already up. What a mess.”
“Well,” said Jamie, “Have you tried sitting the builder down and letting him know that he needs to be able to listen to both of you? He clearly needs a talking to.”
“It’s not as simple as that, Jamie. We’ve thought of all the obvious approaches.”
“Then maybe you should find another builder, Terri. No one should have to put up with such blatant sexism in their own home.”
“Jamie,” asked Terri, “what part of my brain do you think I’m not properly using? If it were that simple, don’t you think we’d already have done that?”
Incensed, Jamie started to walk away with her coffee, saying under her breath, “Don’t take your frustration with the builder out on me. I was just trying to help.”
There’s nothing like the desire to help manifested in a most unhelpful way. The problem here was not, of course, Terri’s frustration with the builder or Jamie’s desire to be helpful. The problem Jamie’s ineffective advice giving as the only way she knew how to offer help.
First, she offered advice without asking whether Terri wanted any. Then she proceeded to offer suggestions without having any real knowledge of what had been tried so far or what had been considered and rejected as a strategy. She plunged in with minimal knowledge of the situation and its complexities, which resulted in Terri having to explain why each piece of advice wasn’t helpful, something that’s just wasteful replay for Terri. She also insulted Terri’s intelligence inadvertently, since it’s likely that Terri and her husband were probably capable of generating the obvious solutions on their own. In essence, Jamie ended up making the conversation all about her own “good” ideas instead of doing anything that Terri might find truly helpful. Neither woman needed more tension in their lives.
Next time you find yourself opening your mouth to give advice, close it again, at least for a moment. If you’re an inveterate advice-giver, you’ll have to work extra hard to break a pattern. Instead of blindly giving counsel, ask:
Can I be helpful in some way? What would help?
What have you tried so far?
Are there options you’ve considered but haven’t tried?
I have some ideas you haven’t mentioned yet. Would you like to hear them?
Think “coach” instead of “fixer.”