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Sometimes the Best Advice is No Advice

How was your most recent interaction with your board chair?  How about the last one you had with one of your direct reports? Did you leave the conversation feeling better off for having had it?

I have the privilege of facilitating group discussions with two exceptional organizations: Sheena’s Place and EPIC Leadership. While these organizations focus on different areas—eating disorders and nonprofit leadership respectively—there are interesting similarities in how discussions are conducted. Some guidelines are intuitive, such as fostering respect for others. However, both spaces have a seemingly counterintuitive rule: participants are explicitly discouraged from giving advice, including the facilitator. You might expect individuals attending a group at an eating disorder organization to seek advice for their recovery, or executives attending an EPIC meeting to seek leadership tips. So, why is advice-giving discouraged?

In the scenario above, if your direct report left the interaction feeling no better, it indicates an unmet need. Various needs can emerge during an interaction, often more than one. Unfortunately, we sometimes overlook the crucial step of identifying these needs. What obstacles prevent us from doing so?

“Seek first to understand…” -Stephen Covey

Throughout our lives, many of us, myself included, have developed reflexive responses. One common reflex is the urge to rescue. Whether fueled by a genuine desire to assist or a need to control the situation, we rush to provide advice without first understanding the other person's true needs.

Another prevalent reflex is the tendency to judge. When our minds begin to formulate negative thoughts like, "Are you serious?" or "Not this again," it hampers our ability to empathize and comprehend the underlying issue. Judging is often based on unfair assumptions and can lead to erroneous conclusions.

At times, we may become distracted by our own concerns or tangentially related topics. I used to seek support from someone who inadvertently redirected our discussions to their own issues. Unsurprisingly, I stopped seeking their support. Some of us default to providing validation and emotional support, which, while well-intentioned, can be frustrating if the person seeks specific guidance.

The antidote? Curiosity. 

Curiosity is what turns mistakes into learning opportunities." -Amy Edmonson

Approaching situations with curiosity disrupts our tendency to react and allows us to gather the necessary information to respond effectively. And when managers approach their team members with genuine curiosity, they spark engagement. As neuroscience suggests, curiosity activates the brain's reward system and stimulates the release of dopamine, which enhances attention, motivation, and memory. By showing interest in their team members' experiences and perspectives, leaders can cultivate an environment of psychological safety, where individuals feel comfortable expressing their opinions, sharing their concerns, and taking calculated risks. Amy Edmondson, a renowned leadership expert, emphasizes the importance of creating a safe space within teams, stating, Here are a few strategies to cultivate curiosity:

Pause: Recognize the impulse to speak and hit pause, even mid-conversation. Some individuals begin formulating responses while the other person is still speaking. When they finish, take a moment to breathe and allow them to conclude before responding.

Assess the person's needs: If the person is experiencing strong emotions, start with validation. If they pause after sharing, encourage them to continue by asking open-ended questions like, "And what else?" This fosters self-reflection and problem-solving.

Early in my career, I held a role with significant responsibilities and frequently made mistakes, which carried significant consequences for others. Instead of resorting to formal disciplinary action, my manager chose curiosity. Through probing questions and support, she helped me increase my self-awareness, ultimately leading to an ADHD diagnosis. With adjustments to procedures and support systems, my performance improved, eventually leading to a promotion.

“Asking for permission signals empathy”-Dr. Frank Castro 

Last year, in a New York Times article, Jancee Dunn discussed the power held in a single question, when asked to an upset child. “Do you need to be heard, hugged, or helped? This question effectively asks for permission before swooping in with assumptions. I now try to use this routinely with my kids. It blocks my default response, and gives my children agency. It has also improved our relationships. A modified version of this question can provide value in the workplace. Embracing curiosity supports us to effectively listen, assist, and create space for our teams. Adopting this practice will likely require effort and practice, and likely pay off with improved relationships, increased resilience, and a team that feels supported.

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