Michael Bungay Stanier on Advice During Trying Times
Written by Jim Knight.

It’s hard to get through a day without Googling how to do something you’ve never had to do before or texting someone for guidance on how to get through some unique and complex challenge. Sometimes, it’s even harder not to chime in with our own advice if we believe we have some expertise to offer others. As we barrel forward into the future with all of its uncertainty, navigating advice—both seeking it and giving it—is a critical skill.

In the weeks leading up to ICG’s most recent TLC conference, Jim Knight had a conversation with Michael Bungay Stanier, founder of Box of Crayons and author of The Coaching Habit (2019) and The Advice Trap (2020). Their topic was how advice fits—and doesn’t fit—into our unprecedented, pandemic-centric reality. Their hour-long conversation on Facebook Live covers a lot of ground, offering insights from Michael’s books and suggestions that can help us all side-step the Advice Trap and encourage us to be more curious.

 

THE COACHING HABIT

Michael’s goal for writing The Coaching Habit (2019) was to teach people how to be more coach-like. After countless drafts and rejections from his publisher, he ended up self-publishing the book, and his ideas resonated with a huge audience. Michael attempts to democratize coaching. He is not intending to turning everyone into a coach but trying to make everyone more coach-like. And to do so, he reminds us that we must stay curious longer and give way less advice.

Can you make it part of your coaching process to stay curious longer? Can you delay rushing to judgment or advice-giving? In considering these questions like these, we’re trying to change our behavior. Coaching is most effective not when it’s a formalized event where you “get coached” but rather when it’s a dialogue, an exchange.

Being coach-like can even transcend something as seemingly insurmountable as a language barrier. Michael recounts coaching someone and asking—in English—what their challenge was, only to have the person answer in Finnish. After their first response, Michael asked, “Is there anything else you’re struggling with?” Another response followed. After several exchanges, Michael asked, “Of all of that, what’s the real, central challenge for you?” And the response just poured out. They didn’t even need to speak the same language as Michael; they found their solution themselves. Coaching is all about creating a space to work things out.

 

THREE PRINCIPLES FOR SUCCESSFUL COACHING

  • Be Lazy
    • Stop solving other people’s problems for them. Let people own and solve their own problems. Not only does this mean less work and energy for you, but it also leads people to identify the real challenge and then create the correct solution.
  • Be Curious
    • We’re wired to jump to opinions, advice, and solutions. Delaying those impulses creates room to be more curious about the factors at play.
  • Be Often
    • Any interaction can be more coach-like. For instance, to begin the interview with Michael, Jim pointed out an interesting point from The Coaching Habit (2019), to which Michael responded, “Tell me about your long game.” Given that response, you would never say, “Michael’s coaching Jim,” instead, you could say, “Michael’s bringing an attitude of curiosity to this conversation in a coach-like way.” He’s interested in Jim “as a person, not just a mouthpiece for questions.”

 

THE ADVICE TRAP

Advice is not inherently a bad thing. It can be useful. But when advice-giving is your default response, everyone loses. If you’ve already thought of a useful thing to tell someone while they’re talking to you, you’re not really listening to them. You’re just waiting to impart your wisdom upon them. That’s the Advice Trap.

“If the thing that I help [someone] with is figuring out what [their] real challenge is, that’s a much greater contribution than coming up with a fast, wrong answer for [them].”
– Michael Bungay Stanier

When asked, the first thing that people tell you is the problem is usually not the real problem. It’s just their best, first guess. So, if you listen to their first response and then encourage them to elaborate or to look at the situation in a new way, you’re opening up a space where they can explore the many challenges they face and identify where they can make impactful changes.

 

EMPOWERMENT & AUTONOMY

Michael contends that people facing challenges need “clarity around the challenge and ownership of the solution.” If our goal is to empower people to find their own solutions to their own problems, then—in the literal sense—we need to give up some of our own power to them. Resisting the urge to jump to solutions for them will help people find the solution that will actually work for them.

Giving advice is a high-status action. It essentially communicates, “I know more than you, and you cannot solve this problem on your own.” But when we refrain from giving advice, we encourage others’ ability to create their own solutions, building confidence along the way.

 

WHEN SHOULD YOU GIVE ADVICE?

There is no one answer to this question. Sometimes, specific questions require specific answers. So, if someone asks a direct question, it would not be helpful to respond vaguely or evasively. There are other times when directives are necessary. For instance, we want our leaders to create certainty in the middle of the unnerving pandemic the world is currently facing. Countries whose leaders have issued strong, clear advice such as “stay at home” or “wear a mask” have fulfilled the need for simple, straightforward directions to avoid danger. But in less dangerous situations, just trying to make the first few minutes of your conversation curiosity based can make all the difference.

 

WHEN NOT TO SPEAK

As hard as it may seem, try to resist the urge to talk. It can’t go horribly wrong. If you’re not contributing enough to a conversation, you might be asked more questions or you might be called out for acting strangely or you might have to ask questions of your own to clarify what exactly your partner is facing. But all of those possibilities pave the way for greater understanding of the challenges at hand. If your default is to give advice, you run the risk of misunderstanding the issue at hand and creating an unbalanced power dynamic.

 

IN A CONTACT-LESS (OR CONTACT-LITE) WORLD

Ideally, human interaction is always preferable in coaching situations because it creates a space to work things out. But we are currently faced with more obstacles to face-to-face interaction than ever, and to overcome those barriers, Jim mentions during the interview that he has tried to create that space for himself on his own by using question sets to guide his thinking. Though it isn’t the same as interacting with others, coming up with the right questions to consider can be an invaluable reflection tool. And now more than ever, we need to use all of the resources at our disposal.

 

THE YEAR OF LIVING BRILLIANTLY

While researching The Advice Trap (2020), Michael asked many leaders from different fields to teach him something important, impactful, and actionable. They all sent him videos filled with unique and specialized knowledge presented in easily digestible formats. He has compiled all of their short videos into a free resource on his website called the Year of Living Brilliantly. Challenge yourself to be more curious this year and watch a video from a new teacher every week.

Enjoy the full interview between Jim and Michael Bungay Stanier below:

 

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