The right – and wrong – way to give advice

A friend's beliefs or habits are holding him or her back. Should you say something? If so, what?

Americans are swimming in advice. Countless experts tell us what to eat, how to date, and what to do when interest rates rise. Success is just a seminar or self-help book away!

Is it any wonder, then, that so many of us try to be life coaches for our friends? Reality TV has assured us that people like extreme makeovers, so the temptation to point out a friend's flaws and offer to help is great indeed.

But no matter how noble the motive, this is dangerous territory. We've all been burned by offering – or receiving – unwelcome "words of wisdom." On the last day of my final corporate job, my then-boss offered me a little unsolicited advice: "If I were you," she said in a conspiratorial tone, "I'd open up a chain of check-cashing places in impoverished neighborhoods." Ouch!

That said, true friends lift each other up in times of need.

At a critical juncture in my career, I asked a trusted companion for feedback. His insight proved to be a gem: "You always think you're going to fall a mile when you make a mistake, but it's only an inch – an 'oops.' Mistakes are not only human and normal, but perfectly OK."

I had been unaware of my fear of mistakes, which was driving me to be both relentlessly perfectionist and controlling. Nor was I aware that it was so obvious to others. That simple yet powerful observation helps me to this day.

When we notice things about our friends, peers, or colleagues that could really assist them, should we help, and if so, how?

Some principles I've learned as an executive coach are worth noting.

First and foremost, it's best to be invited to the party. The person in question must give you permission to speak freely and get into potentially sensitive issues. And the nature of your relationship must give you standing to be a trusted adviser.

The exception? If the proverbial boulder is plummeting toward someone, then by all means step in.

The more common and challenging scenario relates to beliefs or behavior that you observe repeatedly over time. You see the issue and the impact, but your friend does not. What to do?

In fact, we all have blind spots. Jack doesn't listen well. Sarah is obsessive about work, but not very productive. Tim is constantly choosing professional situations that bore him, then bailing.

We need help from trusted advisers to learn what's in our blind spots. What we learn tends to be embarrassing. But, if we can absorb the shock, the clarity we gain can help us take a giant step forward.

Even the simplest observation of another can be life changing, so long as you've been invited to offer your insights and your only agenda is to help them.

What about advice? It's so easy to confuse telling others what they should or shouldn't do with helping them.

As a coach, I try to avoid dispensing advice to others. Why? Because it assumes I know what's best for my clients, and 99 percent of the time, they have the best answers, not me. Practicing and learning how to look for one's own answers is more effective, sustainable, and valuable.

Assuming you've been invited to be an adviser, how can you promote this process of self-discovery?

I like to ask results-oriented questions. I would ask a procrastinating client: "What's at stake if you don't complete the project?" and "What advice would you give someone else in your position?" Of course, coaching works best when the person is capable of making a change and willing to work on resolving the issue. If either of these elements is missing, then life experience will likely be the best teacher.

Try asking some questions, listening, and letting the conversation itself guide you to your next question. For example:

What is the issue? What results are you currently getting? What would have to be true, and by when, for you to feel overwhelmingly good about the outcome? What barriers do you imagine or see that would have to be removed for you to get there? What's your role in changing things for the better going forward? What do you need? What is the most powerful step you can take to resolve it/get it done? How would you like to do that? How do you want to be held accountable?

Listen deeply and open your mind and heart to seeing the situation through the eyes of your friend. By releasing your own preconceptions and ego, you will be able to learn what your friend is truly up against, and where to help your friend find his or her own answers.

In fact, by detaching from your own advice-based arguments and helping a friend discover his or her own solutions, you will enable more insightful decisions to be made – now and in the future.

Taken together, these guidelines and questions will help us help one another, an important part of being a friend.

David Peck is president of Leadership Unleashed, a coaching and consulting firm. He writes "The Recovering Leader" blog.

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