It happens daily. The friend, colleague, or family member who comes to you with that seemingly innocent question, “What do you think I should do?” From there they spiral out in all directions like the Octopus carnival ride from days gone by. They are ever spinning at breakneck speeds, dizzying heights, and around a central point without ever really getting The Point. Then, after feeling fully satisfied that you have absorbed all the necessary facts and moving parts of the present situation, they once again ask, “What do you think I should do?”
You want to help. Really. Why? Because you are a decent human being and your people know they can come to you for assistance. Your history with them has proven that you are a good listener, empathetic and wise beyond all measure. And, let’s face it, nobody else answered their phone call so there is that. I digress. The real problem you’re having, however, is what are they really asking? Do they want you to listen? Are they wanting your expertise in such matters? Are they seeking validation for a course of action they are already taking? Are they trying to win an argument of right vs. wrong with some external third party you know nothing about? Really, without knowing more, you cannot truly be of service.
This is where I come in. After years of coaching, leadership development, educational leadership, social services, etcetera and so forth, I’ve learned a thing or two about advice giving and those who ask for it. I’m going to share it here. Before you can give advice to anybody, you need to know what they are truly seeking. Below are the filters and steps I have created to ascertain the true nature of the often confusing question, “What do you think I should do?”
I. Active Advice
Defined as the individual who is seeking concrete action steps to reach a predetermined goal. This person is generally not interested in the emotional aspects of the goal but rather the pragmatic steps necessary to reach that goal.
- Suggests movement– This individual can be identified by list making, note taking, immediate feedback and the continual what’s next inquiry. There is rarely a pause unless it is for restatement and clarification.
- Frames outcomes– This individual uses if this then that dialogue. If I burn 3,500 calories on Tuesday, I will be one pound lighter on Wednesday is a key indicator of a framing mindset.
- Creates urgency – Much aligned with suggests movement from above, there is no pause in the dialogue and no reflective speech. This person wants it done yesterday and that is the way it is.
- Defined by objectives – Finally, you will know an active advice seeker because they have clear objectives and will insist that you become a part of their vision and path towards achieving them. If you decline the invitation, be prepared for disappointment and even a bit of hostility. They tend to see their objectives as global solutions and cannot understand why there will be any dissent amongst those invited to the table.
II. Reflective Advice
Defined as the individual seeking an external internal partner for discussion, feedback, and assessment. This person is not interested in immediate solutions but rather wanting to talk about the experience(s) involved in the process of achieving a particular goal which may or may not yet be fully determined.
- Suggests internal discussion– While the individual has contacted you for advice, what they are seeking is a discussion partner to their own internal dialogue. People generally do this for one of two reasons: because they are unsure of their own abilities or they are unsure of their focus. Your role is not to solve or drive the conversation but to reflect their positions and keep the light on their self-perceptions.
- Frames desires– While the individual may not know the specific origin of their inquiry, much like the Octopus ride above, they will circle the center until they either stumble or are lead there. Your role is to reflect the individuals thoughts back to the center and frame the desired outcomes. This takes a lot of time commitment from the advice giver and is why some people burn out and don’t answer the phone calls of people who do this more often than not.
- Creates options– Once the internal desire is created, identified, and committed to by the reflective advice you have both participated in, it is time to create the options that work best for the individual. While this may be simple in writing, if the purpose hasn’t been clearly and meaningfully defined, expect resistance, denial, anger, and sadness. Failure to launch brings on the stages of grief and the internal chatter goes wild. Be prepared for more calls.
- Defined by potential– Reflective advice can be defined by both negative and positive potential. The negative reflector will continually ask things like, “Is this good enough? What if I do this? This whole thing could blow up.” On the other hand, the questions of the positive reflector look like this, “Can you believe nobody has done this before? How hard can it really be? I’m going to nail this!” Once you hear that banter, you will know who you are talking to and can advise accordingly.
The individual who contacts you isn’t interested in what you have to say, offer, or contribute but rather they are seeking positive feedback and enmeshment that provides immediate kudos and gold stars for their already conceived plans. That’s not to say you can’t be helpful and your effort is a waste of your time but recognize that this is more of a great opportunity for you to see inside their mind with minimal effort of solution involvement from your end.
- Suggests plan is set – This is pretty straightforward. You will hear phrases such as, “After spending 3 months working on it, I am launching my website tomorrow. Would you take a look at it tonight?” “I love the look of the bright orange I painted on the walls while you were away on business. What do you think?” In no way, shape, or form are they asking for your honest feedback nor should you provide it. That is a fool’s game and will only lead to mistrust, argument, and hurt feelings on the next (hopefully authentic) go round.
- Frames plan as success– You will feel as if you are either on a high pressure sales call or the individual is running for office and wants into your wallet. Either situation creates a visceral reaction due to the feeling of being trapped and limited in your desired feedback because you know they are sold on whatever goal they have set up and you are just a visitor to their banquet. Enjoy the feast but don’t question the chef. Ever.
- Creates roadblocks to dialogue / input– The only phrase necessary in this segment? “But…I…”
- Defined by resistance –You will know your advice isn’t truly welcomed and the octopus would rather seek its eternal high-fiving revolutions because the individual will tell you as much. Will they be gracious and tell you outright? Heavens, no! Should you disregard the above three indicators where I told you to not provide input and go ahead and do it (bless-your-heart), every single bit of insight, advice, and suggestion you provide will be met with the wall of, “Here is why it won’t work…” Trust me. Test it for yourself.
When you find yourself on the receiving end of the pseudo-flattering question, “What Do You Think I Should Do?” be prepared to do the investigative work to know what is really being asked. Is the individual seeking advice asking you to simply give advice or is there something else going on? Remember, advice comes cloaked in all sorts of fancy finery and is best given at face value. Identify it, name it, and proceed: Active, Reflective, or Validating. Now sit down, buckle up, and get ready to spin the advice they are truly asking for!
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