Advice-Giving. The Ultimate Buzz Kill.

I think we all know this.  Unconsciously.  We’ve told our spouse how to load the dishwasher, our assistant how to set up the report, or (God forbid) told our teenage son how to drive a car. And there is there is the eye roll.  The exasperated sigh.  Once you start giving the how…all engines shut down.  Buzz. Kill.

If you think about it –  where is the engagement, the decision making, the buy in; the autonomy in someone else telling you how?  Dr. Srinivasan Pillay explains this in his book, Your Brain and Business. According to Dr. Pillay, “brain imaging shows that when advice is given, it “offloads” the value of the decision options from the listener’s brain, so that there are no correlations between brain activation and attributed value when advice is given, as compared to when it is not given…that is, advice turns the brain of the listener “off”.

Whoa.  I need to rethink my next road trip with my 17 year old at the wheel.  So if I tell him to “put both hands on the wheel” or “slow down”.  It is shutting his brain down.  Not a good thing when traveling down the freeway at 55 miles an hour.Buzz Kill 5

I am the same way.  I had a coach tell me what goal I was working on for the next two weeks and I felt myself slide back on my heels.  I didn’t lift a finger towards the goal; not a finger.

OK. So how do I stop giving unwanted, unsolicited, mind-shutting-down  advice?

These are the FOUR Not so Easy Steps:

1. Listen.  Isn’t this always the first step?  Is your spouse just really venting about the frustrations of the day?  Do they really just want some understanding? a comforting smile and nod? instead of you jumping in with a 25 step guide on how to fix their problem.

2. Ask.  Use open-ended questions like “what do you want to do?” or “what options do you have?”  Having the listener give you their ideas creates buy in and helps them brainstorm their own options.  Guess which idea will have the most weight? Yup, their idea.

3. Don’t Judge.  Unless they are asking for feedback…don’t jump in and start giving them all your wisdom.  If they ask for the feedback, give it constructively and sparingly.

4. Brainstorm.  If it’s going no where and the listener can’t seem to decide or is requesting your wisdom, ask for permission to brainstorm.  In brainstorming, there is no “how” or “wrong answer”.  Just throw out some off the wall ideas and see if the listener can glean their own answer or muddle their own idea from piecing together different ideas.  Making them their own.  Don’t take the lead. Or there will be no buy in, no finger lifting.

Doesn’t this make you wonder why “Dear Abby” was so popular for so many years?  Did anyone ever really take her advice?  Was the column there just for all of us armchair advice givers to live vicariously through Abby?

So I have to say, I try to keep my mouth shut when my son is driving.  Instead of advice, I say, “I got snagged for going 15 over the speed limit here.  Did you know those tickets are over $200?”  I’m just telling a story.  Enlightening him on my experience.  It’s not easy but I must say it’s a much less frustrating experience and he usually slows down.  Keep your advice to yourself.

Setting Expectations

Last week’s post was looking back over the past year to craft an annual performance review; perhaps even more critical than that is setting expectations for the coming year.  This may be for yourself (I’m finally going to pay off that credit card), for your assistant (he’s going to be an Excel ninja by May) or for your family (Disney in 2013 or bust!).  These can be called development plans, business plans, goals, intentions, metrics, departmental vision statements…it’s all pretty much the same thing.  We all need a plan. images 6

Your family isn’t going to get to Disney unless you’ve outlined a few things.  When can you go?  How are we going to get there?  How much do we want to spend?  How much can we afford to spend? What do we want to see when we get there?  All of this requires research, discussion, cooperation and planning.  Your family can’t decide today to go to Disney tomorrow.  It’s going to take a plan.  The same is true in getting your assistant to be an Excel ninja by May.

So how do we go about planning and setting expectations? Here are a few ideas:

1. Reflection.  Take some time to reflect.  This might sound crazy when you have technology and commitments fire hosing you all day.  It’s hard to make a plan if you don’t close the door, turn off your notifications, take a deep breath and reflect. The stage of your prefrontal cortex is so full of actors, it’s important to sweep the stage, send the actors to lunch and let your grey matter get some breathing room.

2. Storm.  Brainstorm some ideas.  Dump it all on paper. Disney. Sea World. Busch Gardens. Grand Canyon.  Las Vegas. The Moon.  There are no bad ideas.  You can eliminate ideas after the fact.  Afraid of heights? Grand Canyon. Allergic to fish? Sea World. You get the idea.  Dump first and then eliminate.  What about your direct report? Excel training, Powerpoint class, karate retreat, Outlook seminar.  Get a manageable list of options and then move on to the next step.

3. Collaborate.  Sit down with the family, the direct report or your partner.  Go over your list of ideas.  Get some feedback.  Ask for help.  Get on the same page.  If your spouse hates gambling, nix Vegas.  Your kids have been to Disney twice and want to try out their Spanish, add Cozumel to the list.  If your assistant really wants to try their hand at Access instead of Excel; on the list it goes.

4. Align.  Now we have to figure out what aligns with the family budget, the corporate mission or your long term plan.  If the corporate plan is to move to a different platform from Access, we may need to investigate other platforms.  If we really want to be able to purchase a new home this year and need to keep costs to a minimum, we may just want to drive to Miami, stay at a friends place and test our Spanish out on South Beach.  Make sure the expectations align with the long term goals.

5. Resources.  What’s available to make this happen?  Do you have an internal expert on Access?  Did your colleague just send their assistant to Access training last year?  Do some research on best practices.  If you want to increase customer satisfaction by year end, what do you measure now that you can use for a baseline for next year.  Or what can you create.  Is your car going to make it Miami?  Does your swimsuit still fit?  Sometimes the investment into a different, seemingly less expensive goal can out weigh the original goal.  Make sure you know the resources available.

6. Memorialize.  Put pen to paper.  Write down what you have agreed to and how you are going to measure success.  Need to have $2,000 saved by June for the trip in August.  Your assistant needs to select an Access class to take by March 15th and to complete it by June 15th.  Spell out what the plan is.  Make sure we all have a copy.  Writing it down creates a greater commitment.

7. Check points.  I frequently drive to Charlotte, NC.  I know that there is a rest area right outside of Greensboro which is about half way.  It’s my checkpoint.  My feedback.  Even if I don’t need the facilities, it’s a mental checkpoint of my progress.  When working on performance goals or planning the family trip, make sure you check in with each other to see how progress is.  Hotel reservations? Budget on track?  Class signed up for? Customer service scores going up?  Project started?  Don’t set up a plan and leave everyone in the dark.  Set up some check points.

Arriving at your final destination is what it’s all about.  If you want to get from Point A to Point B, you’re going to need a plan.  If you don’t have a business plan, or don’t have buy in from your assistant, or haven’t collaborated with your family, it’s likely to fall flat.  Don’t head out aimlessly, make sure you have planned your goal and communicated your expectations.