How To Be Unhelpful – Give Others Advice

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by Brenton Russell on

I’m a smart guy (just ask me!) with a lot of life experience.  I’ve lead and managed diverse teams from 2 to 200 people. I’ve served in the Army in three combat zones, trained senior Iraqi Army officers, negotiated with Afghan warlords and shared meals with Taliban insurgents. I have an honours degree in Engineering, have traveled widely and am now self-employed.  People should listen to me!

At least that’s what I thought until I recently read a very interesting book called Quiet Leadership by David Rock.

Hold On: Here Comes a Paradigm Shift!

Reading this book gave me a flash of inspiration, an ‘A-Ha’ moment:

Giving advice rarely works so why bother

Why does advice has such a low effectiveness? Because our brains are all very different. The way we store, organise, manage and retrieve information is very different. When we give other people advice we make the unconscious assumption that the other person’s brain is the same as ours.  As David Rock puts it:

“….we input their problem into our brain, see the connections our brain would make to solve this problem, and spit out the solution that would work for us. We then tell people what we would do and are convinced it’s what they should do.”

Take The ‘Advice’ Test

After reading David Rock’s thoughts about the ineffectiveness of giving advice, I thought that it made sense but reading something isn’t always good enough for me. So I undertook the simple activity that David includes in his book to prove his thoughts for myself. This activity required me to carry a pen and paper for a week and to record every time someone gave me advice and whether this advice was useful or not.

I lasted three days before being completely converted to David’s opinion.  Here’s what I recorded in these three days:

Total Advice Received = 15

Useful Advice Received = 2

Percentage Useful Advice = 13%

Extrapolate this out to a full year and it is reasonable to assume that over the course of one year I will receive 1825 pieces of advice of which 87% will not be useful!

Prove it to yourself and start this activity now for the next seven days. It certainly changed my perspective!

A Better Way: Help People Think

So if giving advice only helps in about 13% of cases, what is a better way to assist others? Help people to think instead.

Thinking for yourself and creating your own brain connection to solve a problem is what creates those ‘A-Ha’ moments. The energy given off from the creation of these neural pathways is what creates internal motivation and drives action. Whether this energy is actual or metaphorical is a question for your local neuroscientist. What I do know is that whenever I experience an ‘A Ha’ moment when encountering a challenge I can barely contain myself from moving into a heightened state of motivation and action.

How To Help People Think?

For my mind, the easiest way to help someone to think is to ask useful questions.  Useful questions are ones which allow someone to put the problem into perspective, clarify their thinking and create their own solution to their problem. There are thousands of sites on the internet that provide great lists of useful questions.  Rather than me re-create the wheel, search for ‘coaching questions’ to find a lot of great example questions.  Here are a couple of good links to get you going:

What Now?

Next time you find yourself about to give some advice, remind yourself that the overwhelming odds are that  your advice will not be helpful for them.  Instead ask some useful questions and help them think instead!

Hopefully my advice in this post beats the odds and sits in your 13% of useful advice received!

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Riley Harrison February 16, 2011 at 8:02 am

Well I’m either going to have to stop reading your blog or get a part time job. You keep turning me on to excellent books! Great blog!

Riley Harrison recently posted..Contribution And Service


Brenton Russell February 16, 2011 at 5:58 pm


You clearly suffer from a similar affliction to me: too many books and not enough time! With online bookstores like Amazon it is just too easy to keep a constant stream of great books flowing towards you! With so many info products (including good old fashioned print books!) out there I am really valuing recommendations more and more. Not sure if you follow Chris Brogan’s website but I have read some of his business/internet book recommendations recently and they have been great. I highly recommend you check his website.


Murray Lunn February 16, 2011 at 8:33 am

Oh man, Brenton, these are my thoughts exactly.

Lately, I’ve been having trouble with regularly digging into my blog because it always feel like my advice and tutorials fall on deaf ears. It always seems like people are thankful for the content but I can immediately tell that they’ll probably never put it into action (hopefully they will, down the line though).

This is a great mindset that you bring up. When I think about it now, posts that have helped me the most are ones which sparked my interest in wanting to pursue something. Of course, I’d then go and find tutorials on the subject but that’s often elsewhere – perhaps there’s a perfect balance of getting people motivated to act and then providing people with the steps.

There’s lots to think about here. Thanks for the greatness :)
Murray Lunn recently posted..Changing the Dead Channel of Lost Opportunities


Brenton Russell February 16, 2011 at 6:04 pm

Hey Murlu,

I think that it can be really challenging to provide actionable info for readers without stepping over the fuzzy line into giving advice. I do think that some advice is useful, particularly from trusted experts, but knowing when and how to give (and receive) it can be challenging.

I really like your thoughts about getting people to think about something for themselves and then providing them with information (rather than advice) to feed their thinking process. There is definitely an art to providing people with information to allow them to help themselves rather than tell them what you would do!


Ivan Honey February 16, 2011 at 5:45 pm

Hi Brenton, Thanks for another great article. We live in a world of experts and have become conditioned to not thinking for ourselves. Much of education is rote learning with little emphasis on thinking skills Sadly, many people perceive coaching and counselling as giving advice. While it is helpful to provide information (which I think your article does!) I agree that advice should be minimized . I would recommend the problem Solving approach of Reality therapy as a fabulous approach to helping people help themselvesas well as helping their own creative systems to work out the solutions that are appropriate to them. By the way, its also a good process for self evaluation . Just a question : What is the title of that book you were reading about the Brain ?
Ivan Honey recently posted..December Training


Brenton Russell February 16, 2011 at 6:13 pm

Hi Ivan,

Its always great to have our resident psychologist stop by to share some words of wisdom!

As you would know, some of my writing and thoughts include Reality Therapy/Choice Theory and as always, while I don’t claim to be an expert (like you are!) I do find that aspects of Choice Theory really resonate with me. I am not overly familiar with the Solving Approach of Reality theory that you mention. At the risk of being too cheeky and putting you on the spot, maybe you would consider writing a guest post for Uncork Your Mind?

The book that I just finished was called Brain Rules by John Medina. I found it most interesting and his writing is very engaging. John Medina is a microbiologist but has a real knack of being able to explain concepts that are most likely already anecdotally familiar in terms of contemporary neuroscience theory. I highly recommend it.


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