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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies

Take My Advice, I'm Not Using It

Much of the work I do is as an executive or team coach and when I embody those roles, one of the fundamental tenets is that the client or clients have the answers they need and my job is to hold the space to allow them to discover those answers. Coaches do this through thoughtful questioning, paraphrasing back what we've heard, recognising subtle changes in physiology, language or energy and bringing the client's attention to these - along with lots of other techniques which help the client reflect, think, pause and dig deep. What we DO NOT do, is give advice.

In other aspects of my work, however - such as consultancy, facilitation or keynote speaking, I'm much closer to advice giving. I typically do this by sharing things I've done, seen, heard or read about and offering these as potential opportunities for the clients to consider. It's never as simple as saying 'You need to go away, stop what you're doing and do this exact thing instead!' however it is a case of offering up suggestions of ways forward to overcome challenges that they're facing and helping the client to unpack these and consider which they might find useful or beneficial in developing themself as a leader or supporting their team or organisation.

Something that never ceases to amaze me, whenever I'm doing this type of work, is how often I come across nuggets which I either don't do myself or which I used to do, but have got out of the habit of doing! In my design work for a training course on impactful presentation skills, for example, I might come across a specific approach to structuring a presentation which I'd completely forgotten about. Or when designing a session I'm running on influencing without authority, I come across a gem of an idea which would have been really useful to me, had I used it the previous week, in a difficult negotiation!

That got me thinking about how often we can be guilty of suggesting things, either inside or outside of work, which we don't do ourselves. How often have you given a friend relationship advice and thought in the back of your head 'I should probably do that myself!' Or in a work environment when someone has a difficult boss, you give them a top tip which you know, deep down, is really meant for you and not them.

We give out these pearls of wisdom easily, because the challenging situations that our friends, colleagues or family members find themselves in seem so straightforward to resolve from the outside. The neutral vantage point removes us from the emotion of the situation and allows us to be rational and use logic to find the next step.

When we are facing our own challenges, however, it's not as simple. We ARE clouded by our own emotions, experience, history and being too close to the situation and so those 'simple' next steps, don't feel simple at all. Logic is hard to utilise.

This is a consequence of something called the fundamental attribution error, also known as correspondence bias or attribution effect, which is a bias where we underemphasise situational and environmental factors for the behaviour of another person, while overemphasising personality factors. It can be described as a tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are or to over attribute their behaviours to their personality and under attribute them to the situation or context.

This tells us that we often explain our own actions by the circumstances in which they occurred, but we judge others’ behaviour as signals of their character flaws. If I take a day off and sit on the sofa, it's because I needed the rest due to how hard I've been working lately. If YOU take a day off and sit on the sofa, it tells me you're lazy. If you're preparing for a presentation, you should do X, Y and Z, but for ME - a skilled and experienced presenter, those rules somehow don't apply and I need not follow them!

There's also the important consideration that when we suggest a course of action for someone else, we recognise the value of that action, irrespective of how it might make the other person look if they take it. We don't have any skin in the game and we're not directly affected by the outcome. On the other hand, if we were to take that advice ourselves, we'd have to face up to the consequences, both good and bad. Telling someone to march up to their boss and demand a raise might seem like the right thing when they've been treated poorly and underpaid, but it's a whole lot easier to suggest it to someone else than to do it ourself, even if we're in a similar situation. Doing that can impact a relationship and needs to be done carefully and with tact, which our advice to another might not necessarily reflect! That being said, perhaps we need to use that kernel of truth - that a conversation with our boss is long overdue - and take our own medicine, finding a way to stop avoiding the conversation and have it in an effective way.

The past few weeks have been a real eye-opener and I've been able to get back into a few work habits which have really benefited me, all because I suggested them to someone else! Keep this in mind the next time you're giving someone advice or suggestions. You might, without realising it, be speaking to yourself!

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