Best Practices for Seeking and Giving Advice

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Stage 1: Finding the right fit.
Each request for advice is unique, reflecting a distinctive combination of circumstances, personalities, and events. But because time is often of the essence, you won’t want to search anew for potential advisers in every situation. Put together a personal “board” in advance, including people you value not only for their judgment and their ability to keep confidences but also for their diverse strengths, experiences, and points of view. All of them should have your best interests at heart and a track record of being really willing to tell you what you don’t want to hear. Try to find at least one person you can turn to in a variety of situations, because that adviser will develop a multifaceted sense of the problems you face and your natural proclivities and biases.

Stage 2: Developing a shared understanding.
At this stage your primary goal as an advice seeker is to convey just enough information for your adviser to grasp the problem you face, why it poses a challenge, and where you hope to end up. That will allow her to offer informed, unbiased recommendations without getting lost in the weeds. So ground your narrative with telling details and provide context—but avoid taking her on a lengthy tour of antecedents, diverse interpretations, and potential consequences. Otherwise you may distract her from the central issues or lose her interest.

In the telling, you may need to acknowledge some uncomfortable truths about your behavior or weaknesses. Your discomfort with revealing certain information may actually signal its importance to fleshing out the story. An adviser can be only as good as the personal and organizational portrait she has to work with, so share all key details—even those that are unflattering or difficult to discuss. It will help her get past your biases and blind spots.

Stage 3: Crafting alternatives.
Because decision making improves dramatically when diverse options are available, seekers and advisers should work together to come up with more than one possibility. Even go/no-go decisions yield improved results when nuanced alternatives are described and considered.

If you’re the adviser, think of yourself as a driving instructor. While you provide oversight and guidance, your ultimate goal is to empower the seeker to act independently. Our interviewees were unanimous in saying, essentially, “It’s the seeker’s job to find the path forward.” You can never fully step into the advisee’s shoes, and it is important to acknowledge that clearly. As you’re helping her generate viable choices, spell out the thinking behind each possibility. Describe the principles that are shaping your advice, along with any experiences you are bringing to bear or using as analogies. Articulating your thought process—and your possible biases—can help both you and the seeker determine how well your reasoning and perspective fit the situation. If you are senior to the seeker, you can shrink the power difference and increase the likelihood that your advice will be useful by explicitly asking what doesn’t seem quite right.

Stage 4: Converging on a decision.
When it’s time to narrow down options and choose a course of action, seekers often fall prey to confirmation bias, picking the “easy way out,” or other forms of flawed reasoning. So test your thinking by reviewing discarded or briefly considered options and by asking your adviser to play devil’s advocate. And don’t hesitate to solicit a second or third opinion at this stage—particularly if you remain uncertain. This can offset any biases or conflicts of interest your adviser may have. Experimental evidence suggests that two opinions are generally enough to yield most of the benefits of having multiple advisers. But for complex, ambiguous, highly visible, or contested problems, or when implementation is likely to be complicated, a few additional points of view are often helpful.

Stage 5: Putting advice into action.
As a seeker, you’ll need to act on the advice you’ve received and make real-time adjustments. Advice is best treated as provisional and contingent: It should be a cycle of guidance, action, learning, and further guidance—not a fixed path forward. Especially if the advisory process has occurred over an extended period, circumstances may have changed by the time you are ready to act.

So follow up for further advice if needed. You may benefit from multiple meetings, especially if you have gleaned new information from your first steps forward or have a series of decisions to make. It’s also considerate and helpful to let your adviser know what you’ve done and how it’s working out. It’s a way of expressing your gratitude, strengthening the relationship, and helping the adviser learn as well.

Overall, our guidelines for both seekers and advisers amount to a fundamental shift in approach. Although people typically focus on the content of advice, those who are most skilled attend just as much to how they advise as to what they advise. It’s a mistake to think of advice as a one-and-done transaction. Skilled advising is more than the dispensing and accepting of wisdom; it’s a creative, collaborative process—a matter of striving, on both sides, to better understand problems and craft promising paths forward. And that often requires an ongoing conversation.