Giving advice is an art form in its own right.  Knowing what to say requires a mixture of wisdom and diplomacy and a high degree of emotional intelligence.  People ask others for advice everyday and few, whether consultants, counsellors or friends, are usually backward in coming forward with ideas and suggestions.  In fact, telling people what they should do or how they ought to act seems to be a particularly compulsive human activity.

The problem with all this advice giving, however, is that it rarely works. Providing the ready-made solution frequently fails for a number of reasons.  Firstly, ownership for the solution rests with the wrong party.  If you are going to act differently then it needs to be for your own reasons rather than for someone else’s. Secondly, it is unsustainable.  If every time we have a problem the solution is provided for us then we will never learn to think for ourselves.

When it comes to changing behaviour or thinking the trick is to let the other party arrive at their own solution.  And the way to achieve that is through judicious questioning. By using incisive, open questions you can get them to reframe the issues, see through blockages and find their own way to solve the problem. That way they see the light in their own way and in their own time.  The solution is theirs and the change will be all the more real because it comes from them.

A friend of mine recently spent the whole day on a trip in the company of his CEO.  They were talking about internal communications when suddenly, the CEO said: “I know. I’ll write a monthly business newsletter that we can send to everybody. That would work, wouldn’t it?”  My friend said nothing, but his silence said it all.  “Why don’t you agree?” asked the CEO.  “I’ll tell you at the end of the day” said my friend. Their day together continued, visiting an operational centre and meeting people far away from the corporate head office.  At the end of the day the CEO said: “Actually, I’ve got it.  What I should do is write a blog every few days saying who I’ve met, what I’ve found and ask people to let me know their thoughts.” “What a good idea.” said my friend.

That interaction could have gone two ways.  My friend could have immediately knocked down the CEOs original idea and replaced it with his own.  Instead what he did was effectively to make his boss think of what he’d like to receive as a communication rather than what he thought he ought to give.  He came to his own solution.  He owned it and the outcome will be far more effective and authentic as a result.

This approach, of course, goes against the grain.  Since our schooldays we’ve become used to a top-down, didactic approach to problem solving and learning.  We’re told to pay attention and learn how solutions are arrived at.  Of course, absorbing information like a sponge and learning how to regurgitate it effectively is marvellous for achieving success on the treadmill of examinations, but rarely does it lead to insight or creative thought.  Isn’t it surprising how the teachers we most remember tend to be the ones least bothered by exam results and most bothered by holding debates, asking good questions, and encouraging us to say what we really thought.

The truth is that we all need advisors.  Much of life comes down to coaching; indeed, that is the true basis of leadership.  Telling people what to do, in a command and control way, is increasingly counter-productive.  Perhaps the coaching and consultancy industry can take a lead and stop trying to provide solutions and start by active questioning to allow the true change to emerge from within.