Is advice pointless?

When I was growing up, my favourite TV show was Frasier.

One of the many things I liked about it – second perhaps only to his awesome apartment – was the way it portrayed the job of a psychotherapist.  In essence Dr Crane would listen to people’s problems, dish out some sage advice and move on.  A pretty cool way to make a living I thought, and who knows, perhaps it somehow influenced the job I’ve ended up doing today.

Looking back however, I now realise that this isn’t anything like how psychotherapists actually operate in the real world.

Far from dishing out opinions left right and centre, real shrinks are often at pains to keep their views to themselves – preferring instead to return the responsibility to the patient by asking “how do you feel about that?”, and other such therapy cliches.

No doubt this often extremely frustrating to their patients, who are probably aching to be told what to do – but alas this isn’t the way the game works.  Even if the therapist knows exactly what to do, they keep it under their hat, insisting instead that the patient come to their own conclusion.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic recently, since far from being constrained to the field of psychotherapy, it concerns the problem of advice in general.

Should we actually give advice?  Does advice even work?  Are entire fields of advice-giving service, including my own, built on shaky ground?

Well recently I read a book on coaching, and it shone an interesting light on the subject.  In short the conclusion was no, advice doesn’t work.  This isn’t necessary because the advice is unwelcome or wrong – indeed the advice may be flawless and very much sought after – it’s more that the person receiving the advice isn’t capable of internalising it enough to action it.  Rather than sinking in it “skips off the surface” of their consciousness, so that even if they agree with it rationally, they don’t truly take it on board.

Have you ever had a moment in your life when you suddenly understood the real value of something that technically you’d known for years, but never fully appreciated?  This is the same thing.  There are many truisms that we all “know” intellectually but which only truly hit home when the time is right in our lives.  Everyone “knows” how to lose weight on paper, say, but not everyone has “downloaded” that knowledge and made it part of their “operating system”.  I’ve heard this described as the difference between knowing something in your head, and knowing it in your bones.  The former you’re aware of but it doesn’t really effect your actions in a meaningful way; the latter you live.

In truth the only way we ever really change is by arriving at the conclusion ourselves.  By having it bubble up within us, rather than being implanted from outside.  The content of the conclusion may be identical to what people have been telling us, but it only counts when we feel we have “created” it.  Only then does it have “roots”.

This is why therapists and coaches don’t give advice.  It’s not that they don’t have advice to give, it’s just that they know you won’t listen – not unless you’ve figured it out for yourself.  Hence their craft is not to tell you what they think, but to guide you to the same destination… perhaps with the odd nudge or steer along the way.

In terms of business strategy, looking back I can see that this dynamic rings true in my own work with clients.

Although all of them “agreed with” and “accepted” my strategic recommendations readily, the extent to which they truly internalised them of course varied.  Sometimes it felt like I needed to remind them of the strategy every time we met, like it was going in one ear and out the other; other times they grasped it deeper than I did myself.

The difference between these scenarios I now realise was nothing to do with the nature of the strategy itself, but rather then process by which we arrived at it.  The strategies which stuck easily were those which the client felt like we arrived at together, gradually and emergently.  The strategies which needed repetition and lacked traction were those which I developed and simply “told” them, as a totally external piece of advice.

Fortunately the former have largely outnumbered the latter, but this wasn’t by design.  It just so happens that I use a very informal and conversational process, which lends itself to “therapeutic discovery”.  Now however, having thought about the above, I am doing this far more consciously: focusing on drawing the strategy out of the client, rather than imposing it on them.  In either case the content is probably the same, only the way it arises is different.

(Incidentally it’s worth pointing out that externally imposed strategies / advice aren’t “doomed” by any means; they simply need a long period of chewing over and constant rearticulation in order to sink in)

Of course I realise the irony here – telling you that advice doesn’t work in a newsletter which is explicitly framed as “strategic advice for founders”.  However realistically I don’t expect you to read any of these pieces and immediately go off and do what I told you.  No, the value, such as it is, comes more from implanting the ideas so that they emerge at a later date when you need them – in a manner where you perhaps don’t even remember where they came from.

Just as a seed will only germinate in the right soil, in the right location, and in the right season, so too will advice only stick under the right conditions.  So for anyone in that game, they should be 50% of the focus.

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