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Is Giving Advice Helping Others’ Vertical Development or Stealing Their Learning?
“Every time you give advice, you steal someone’s learning.” The first time I heard this statement from my first coaching mentor, many years ago, I was shocked.
What do you mean by ‘advice giving is stealing’? Isn’t it helping? Isn’t it showing the person a path forward? Isn’t it the gift of your lived experience put in the service of others’ growth? How about when people really want your advice and explicitly ask for it?
I was also more than a little embarrassed. I had been a master at solution-finding and advice-giving. I took pride in what I knew and was eager to contribute that knowledge any time someone asked for it. And more than a few times when they didn’t.
My biggest gain from years of coach training, exams and certifications and tons of uncomfortable feedback has been unlearning my addiction to giving advice. Over time, and with lots of trial and error, I’ve started to pay closer attention to the mysterious process by which people struggle with a challenge, problem or dilemma and noticed that not all paths to a resolution are made equal. Some paths are more conducive to growth than others.
And sometimes, in our desire to help, we end up taking away others’ power, robbing them of a precious learning experience and, paradoxically, robbing ourselves of the gift of learning something new - as nothing new is ever learnt when we simply playback to others what we already know.
Often clients bring their challenges into coaching alongside a need to be heard. Many of them, particularly at the beginning of a coaching process (and especially if they had not received coaching before), also explicitly seek advice from the coach. “What would you do in this situation?” is a question I’ve heard in coaching many times. “What would you lose if I shared what I would do?” is often my follow-up question.
It’s a question that baffles clients because the first answer is “Nothing. I want to know your opinion”. But the truth is something very precious would be lost: a developmental opportunity that only comes about from the friction in the client’s mind, from them facing their feelings, sitting in confusion, stretching into a different perspective, the discomfort of feeling lost and then figuring something out - all through their own efforts and stimulated by a combination of deep listening, timely mirroring and curious questions from the coach.
So how exactly does offering advice steal someone’s learning? And how does it hinder their vertical development?
Vertical development describes a very specific aspect of human growth. It is not WHAT you know, but HOW you know. It occurs when your current worldviews, beliefs, assumptions, and ways of being in the world do not make sense any more. When the context changes, when life doesn’t go our way, when massive change comes about that forces us to change in turn - that is when people are confronted with disorienting dilemmas. There is a gap between who they are and who they need to be. Or a big shift in identity. Or a crossroad of some sort where they are facing what seems like an impossible decision.
With the disorienting dilemmas come very challenging emotions - the kinds that researcher Kaisu Malkki calls “edge emotions”. These are the hard emotions - fear, confusion, anxiety, grief, shame - that arise in that very moment when the old scaffold of our thinking cannot hold anymore. It is in-midst of these emotions that people seek help - from coaches, mentors, and friends. And in that seeking lies an urge to be rid of these emotions.
We seek advice as a way to alleviate our edge emotions, to get ourselves back on safe ground again, to a place where the world makes sense once more. But the funny thing is, in seeking to be rid of these emotions, we start to step away from the edge of growth itself.
The paradox of vertical development is that the best way out is through. To gain the precious gift of a perspective shift, of a stretch into more maturity and wisdom, we need to face our edge emotions and navigate through them to the other side. And the person that gets on ‘the other side’ is no longer the same person who started the journey in the first place. All human growth seems to come with growth pains. And ‘edge emotions’ are the growth pains of the mind and heart towards the next stage of maturity.
Now coming back to giving advice. Sound, well-intended advice from people who have ‘been there, done that’ is like a breath of fresh air when you feel out of your depth. And yet, in receiving that advice, you have just taken yourself out of the tunnel of the edge emotions, but walking backwards, to a known place. It might feel like a relief for a while. You’ve got an answer and your disorienting dilemma is no longer so confusing. The struggle seems over. But often that respite is only temporary. The advice might not work. Or you might know what to do but find yourself incapable of putting it into practice, because the developmental capacity required to enact that sound advice, the ‘muscle’ you need, is not present. You haven’t done the work of growth yourself.
When you’re the one offering advice, it feels really good in the moment. You’ve done something useful. You’ve spared someone some pain. And yet, in telling them what to do instead of accompanying them on the struggle and helping them figure out how to do it themselves, you have just taken away a bit of their power, a bit of their self-esteem and a bit of the confidence and wisdom they would have gained had you let them walk through that tunnel of pain towards the other side.
You might have entered the tunnel with them instead. You might have sat with them in their confusion, trusting them, nudging them with your curious questions, getting them to consciously keep on putting one foot in front of the other inside that tunnel, even not knowing when the light at the end will show up. But you’ve chosen to give advice instead. Often because it’s easy. Sometimes because you get an instant boost of confidence yourself, in ‘knowing’ when the other does not. And quite often, you might realise you’ve given advice to spare yourself the pain of ‘feeling with’ the other person all those edge emotions they are struggling with.
Most of the leaders whom I coach struggle with being ‘the knowers’ and the impulse to advise that flows from that. “Who would I be if I didn’t have the answers for my team?”. “What would they think of me when they come in for help and I asked questions instead of giving solutions?”. “Where does my value rest if not in being the most experienced on the team, who always knows the path forward when everyone else gets lost?”.
Only today, a wonderful, empathetic, extremely self-aware leader shared how she is challenged by her identity as a ‘doer’ and ‘solver’ which seems to often clash with her love of mentoring and coaching her team. She acknowledged her pattern of taking on problems on behalf of the team and shared a recent story of struggling with a very gnarly problem. It was an issue that would impact all her team and she felt under immense pressure to solve it. She thought it through, trying to figure it out with all her might, until she simply could not do it anymore. She realised she did not have the answer and feared she would let her team down. So she called a meeting to admit defeat and shared her struggle. She put the problem to the team and was met not with dismay or disappointment, but a wave of great ideas she had not considered, which unlocked the problem in record time. She was amazed at the resourcefulness of her team and the depth of their knowledge and perception. She was also humbled to discover nobody looked down on her for not having the answer - instead, people were excited to contribute and appreciated her seeking their input. People felt like they were given power by having their voices valued. And my client realised that by protecting them from the hard problems, even with the best of intentions, she had been ‘protecting’ them from development too. She was forced to face the disorienting dilemma: “Where does my value as a leader lie?”. Is it in the problem-solving? Or in becoming a facilitator of others’ thinking, a space holder for the collective intelligence to emerge, and an enabler for people to learn and grow from the challenge?
It’s grown much easier to refrain from giving advice in my professional life. But the better I’ve become at asking my clients curious questions and sitting with them in discomfort, the more aware I’ve become of the many times I’m not walking the talk in my personal life. I catch myself giving my partner unsolicited advice much more often than I’d like. Same with my child. Their edge emotions are so much harder to bear. Their struggle is so much more painful to me. The discipline required to breathe through their pain, which instantly becomes mine, is incredibly harder to master than the one needed to support a coaching client. That healthy professional detachment allows me to access compassion much more easily and let go of any agenda in my work, whereas the same feels at times impossible at home. And yet, I’m not giving up. I know our biggest growth lies in our sharpest edges. And whatever comes hardest is often the thing that has the most to teach us. So I’ll keep on striving, imperfectly, to give back the power to the people I love, as well as to the people I’m privileged to accompany in their learning and growth in my professional life.