You don’t have the answer

One of my pet peeves is when people tell me what I should do. Normally, this is because they did something that worked for them, and they want to tell me I should also do it. I generally don’t want such advice for a variety of reasons:

  • I don’t want the same thing that they wanted.
  • My situation is different than theirs was at the time that their actions worked for them.
  • Even if we share the same goals and same context, what worked for them wouldn’t work for me.

So why is it that people can’t resist the lure of saying “Do what I did!” as if they have the one and only answer?

I suspect that humans have pattern-seeking brains, looking for the “secret” that will move them towards their goals. And in American culture, we can earn status by being an expert that shares the secret to help other people succeed. So when we find something that works, we want to share it. This may even have been evolutionarily selected for, as tribes where good ideas spread fast may have outcompeted those tribes where people kept advancements to themselves (but I suspect most evolutionary explanations of sociology are just good story-telling).

So how can one share one’s experience without making those above assumptions about goals or context? I recently came across the idea from the Conscious Leadership Group of making “unarguable” statements about your thoughts, feelings and sensations. In other words, rather than telling people the “right” way to do things (or telling somebody they’re doing it “wrong”), you can share your experiences (e.g. “When I was in that situation, here is what I did”) or your thoughts (e.g. “the story I am telling myself about this situation is…”).

As an executive coach, I have learned to be careful to avoid the temptation of telling people what to do for all the reasons I listed above: their goals might be different, their context might be different, and what worked for me might not work for them. The last point is particularly true because I have all the societal privilege as a white-passing tall able-bodied man, so I often got away with behavior that would be career-ending if done by women or people of color (I’m thinking particularly of my second job where I told the CEO he was an idiot at a company all-hands meeting) (in my defense, he was forced to resign from his next company for similar behavior).

In other words, I try to take a moment to understand the other person’s situation before offering advice or what I would do. I try to treat them as an equal partner and ask “How can I help?” This is particularly important in complex situations – I have heard of a couple situations from clients where a manager jumped in to help without asking, and their “help” was counterproductive and even insulting. And the manager then expected great praise for their intervention because they “helped”.

Don’t be that that “helper”:

  • Don’t expect praise for jumping into a situation and “solving” it without ever actually checking your understanding of the problem. You’re likely making things worse.
  • Don’t assume you know better than the people involved; if they’re not doing what you expect, ask why, and learn their context before you take any action.
  • Do treat people around you with respect by assuming they are competent and know their own situation best.
  • Do ask them what support or resources they need.

In other words, remember that you don’t have the answer, just your own experiences to share. With that humility, you might connect with the other person as a fellow human, and provide them the support and space they need to find their own way forward.

P.S. I’d been working on a draft of this post for a few weeks, but posting it now in part because of seeing anti-abortion zealots swarm every post where somebody shares their abortion experience with “advice” and “help” that is seriously lacking in compassion or even an attempt to understand the situation, just the same mottos and talking points repeated over and over. I was already firmly pro-choice, but seeing those responses reinforced my belief that such zealots are seriously lacking in empathy and the ability to treat other people as whole people deserving of respect, rather than subjects to impose their will upon.

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