Why being curious is better than knowing the answer

Imagine your best friend has just broken up with her husband or partner.

He just walked out, with no warning or sign that something was wrong. And she’s devastated.

She calls you up and opens up about everything. The disappointment, the anger, the utter loss of confidence.

She’s heartbroken and bewildered. So what do you say?

Of course, our first urge is to offer comfort, to jump in and tell her everything is going to be fine. Maybe he’ll come back, if that’s what she wants and if it isn’t she’ll soon meet someone else or learn to stand on her own two feet.

We want to comfort her and reassure that life will be okay again, that she won’t feel this way forever.

And maybe we offer advice, like changing the locks, blocking him on her phone, booking an appointment with a solicitor.

Could be though that advice is really not that helpful, in this situation or any other.

Advice-giving may be well-intentioned, but it often can do more harm than good.

This is where you start giving her space to figure out what she wants now and encourage her sense of possibility for what could be next.

A new book, The Advice Trap: Be Humble, Stay Curious & Change the Way You Lead Forever by Michael Bungay Stanier suggest giving advice is always the worst thing we can do. He advises that we engage with curiosity instead.

There are three places where an increased sense of curiosity becomes a leadership superpower.

The first is on its impact on individuals. What you do when you ask questions is you say to the person who you’re asking those questions of, “Hey, look, I trust you. Hey, I’m connected and committed to your growth. I am attempting to grow your sense of competence and confidence and autonomy and self sufficiency, because I know you can be smarter.”

The second level is at a team level. When you have a team that’s driven by curiosity, they’re more likely to be focused on the stuff that matters. Let’s face it, nobody’s sitting around at the moment going, “I just don’t have enough to do.” We’re all over-committed, overstretched, too much on our plate, too many distracting priorities. And a sense of curiosity is also a willingness to say, “What’s the real challenge here? What do we, as a team, need to focus on? And how do we become more resilient around that?”

And then of course, if you have an organization that has a curiosity at its heart, so they’ve moved from advice-driven to curiosity-led, you’re likely to have an organization that is more innovative, more agile, more resilient, more adaptive, more able to adjust to these uncertain and confusing times. So there’s a lot of research that just points us to the advantages of curiosity as a leadership superpower that echoes at an individual level, at a team level, and at an organizational level as well.

One of the reasons we instinctively jump to offering advice is that we genuinely want to be helpful. Is there value to withholding advice when we know the right answer?

Well, there’s an implicit belief in that question that we know the right answer.

There are three ways advice-giving goes wrong. Most of the time, we don’t actually know what the real challenge is. Often when somebody comes to us and says, “Here’s what I’m up against,” that’s often not the actual thing that they’re up against.

But even if it is, even if you know exactly what the problem is, exactly what the real challenge is that needs to be solved, then here’s the second thing where advice goes wrong, which is actually your advice is not nearly as good as you think it is.  We have all these cognitive biases in our head that make us think that our advice is always awesome.

But let’s just say that there’s this moment where you’ve got this perfect definition of what the real challenge is. You really know what they’re up against. And you have this glorious answer. It’s gold dust. It’s brilliant. It’s extraordinary. Then you have a moment where you ask yourself, “What’s the leadership act that’s appropriate right now?” Because you could give them the answer. And that might be the right thing to do. For sure. But there may be a moment where you say, “Even though I have a great answer, is the better thing for me to be doing to give them the opportunity to find their own answer?”

Because in doing that, you say to them, “I trust you. You’ve got this. I believe you can grow your competence and your confidence and your autonomy and your self-sufficiency.”

And if all of those sound like a better, longer term investment, then there is a moment to say, “Even though I know what the problem is, even though I know what the real answer is, the best thing for me to do is stay curious a little bit longer.”

So let’s say you’ve sold us on the value of asking more questions, both with our colleagues at work and our family at home. What can we do to tame our “advice monster” and stay curious a little longer?

The first thing you’ve got to do is acknowledge your advice monster. There are three main types of advice monsters or personas you need to be aware of: TELL IT, SAVE IT and CONTROL IT.

TELL IT has convinced you that the best thing for you to do always is to have the answer, give the answer, have the answer, give the answer. The expectation of that advice monster is that you need to know all the answers to all the problems all the time.

The second advice monster is SAVE IT. Save it has convinced you that your job, the way you add value, is to make sure that nobody ever struggles or stumbles or finds it difficult or sweats or fails. Your job is to rescue everybody. Your job is to save everybody. And if anybody struggles even just a little bit, then you fail.

And then the third of the advice monsters, the quietest, maybe the sneakiest of the three, is CONTROL IT. Control it has convinced you that the only way you win is that you never give up control. You never let anybody step up. You’ve got to hold onto the steering wheel the whole way out. Because if you give up control even for a minute, then you’re going to fail.

So all three of the advice monster personas have at their heart a belief that if you don’t control it, tell it, save it, then you are going to fail and those around you will fail. So someone asks how do you start managing your advice monster, the starting point is for you to ask yourself, “Which is my advice monster? What am I holding onto?”

What are these ego states that keep us a little bit stuck and convinced that our best response is always almost unthinkingly to jump in and offer up ideas, solutions, and advice?

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief insight into the book, and found at least one valuable aha that you can use right now. You can learn more about The Advice Trap, by going right over here.

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