How (and When) to Give Advice

Great leaders reserve their advice for the people and situations in which it will do the most good. And they never forget one key secret.

One afternoon when American League baseball umpire Bill Guthrie was working behind the plate, the catcher of the visiting team repeatedly protested his calls. Guthrie endured this for three innings. But in the fourth inning when the catcher started to complain again, Guthrie stopped him.

“Son,” he said gently, “you've been a big help to me calling balls and strikes, and I appreciate it. But I think I've got the hang of it now. So I'm going to ask you to go to the clubhouse and show them how to take a shower.”

There is a time to provide advice and offer an opinion, and there is a time not to. Don’t be too quick to offer unsolicited advice. It certainly will not endear you to people. You have to be judicious in doling out advice, and it’s generally better to wait for people to ask.

Before you advise, breathe

Over the years I have been asked for business advice, career advice, public speaking advice, writing advice, travel advice, fundraising advice, and advice on topics I’ve never even heard of. Each time, I take a deep breath and hope what I have to offer will be helpful and pertinent.

Before you respond to a request for advice, heed habit five in Stephen Covey’s classic, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

To my mind, Covey means this: When you have the strong urge to make someone understand your point of view, step back and think before you speak. Why? Because you need to ask yourself what kind of situation you are commenting on. Has your opinion been requested? Do you have the experience or authority to offer help?

If you give advice, will it be appreciated, or rejected out of hand? If the other person truly is seeking help in solving a concrete problem, then advice might be appreciated. If not, you should consider that the other person might merely be looking for someone to listen to his problem. In this case advice is not usually appropriate or desired by the other party. This is a skill that is learned over time: determining the best response to another’s needs.

The golden rule of giving advice

And never forget, the real secret of giving advice is this: Once you’ve given it, don’t concern yourself with whether it is followed or not, and refrain from saying “I told you so.” When advice is freely given, the receiver is free to use it as he or she sees fit.

The bottom line is to be picky about when you give advice, and to whom you give it. If you think your words may make you responsible for undesirable results beyond your control, think twice before you speak. If you know the person is asking for your insights just to be polite or politically correct, don’t feel obligated.

And as you are choosing your words and who will benefit from them, keep this in mind: The best way to succeed in life is to act on the advice you give to others. If you wouldn’t follow your own advice, don’t offer it.

Mackay’s Moral: A person who is silly takes no one’s advice. A person who is ignorant takes everyone’s.

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