When Someone Comes to You With a Problem...

Maybe you’ve experienced a similar situation: A friend you haven't talked to in awhile calls and tells you he recently sold his business and moved five states away to be with his girlfriend. He sold his house, most of his furniture and got a new job. Months into his new life, the relationship fell apart and he’s now faced with…what?

You can feel your heart beating harder.  You feel a rush of compassion for your friend. You want so much to help him move past his anxiety and confusion to a solid plan of action. But you also know that he’s not in a place to think clearly.  And you feel responsible.

You immediately come up with a couple of great suggestions for what he can do and start sharing them. You’re so focused making your friend feel better that you don’t notice the silence on the other end of the line. All of a sudden, your friend breaks in: ”Listen, I can solve my own problems. I just wanted to talk with you as a friend, to bring you up to date on what’s been happening with me!”

Different versions of this exchange happen all the time. In my experience, advice giving is one of the most common forms of communication there is.  As a coach, I’ve been trained to refrain from giving advice if other forms of communication—such as listening deeply, paraphrasing, and asking powerful questions—will help the person find their own solution.  I deeply believe that is the best way to be helpful to someone. Yet all of us are tempted to fall into the advice-giving trap for various reasons.

In a recent conversation, I came face to face with my own form of temptation.

A colleague had approached me with a big scary challenge and I took it on. From the beginning of our conversation, I owned that challenge like it was mine. I was invested in helping her get past her anxiousness to a clear place where she could start planning. And I was determined to get there in the shortest time possible. Not surprisingly, the conversation was awkward. She was gracious but I was left feeling clumsy and unskillful. I asked myself, “What happened there? What produced that result?” And mainly it was that I had been more invested in solving her problem than she was.

Since then, I’ve paid special attention to clues that I need to back off. For me, it can show up as passion or enthusiasm for a particular course of action, over-eagerness to help, or an attempt to push the person’s thinking along.

There’s a great Harvard Business Review article called Who’s Got the Monkey? It describes the tendency for managers to take on others’ “monkeys” (i.e., responsibilities) without even being aware that they are doing so. Advice giving is one form of taking on another person’s monkey. Next time you feel tempted to give someone advice as a first response to their problem, ask yourself, “Who’s monkey is this, anyway?”


P.S. I highly recommend this video: It's Not About the Nail

Take a look and you’ll see why it’s so perfect.