There is a story about a man driving down the road when a woman comes past the other way screaming at him “PIG, PIG”.  He looks round and makes a rude gesture at her and as he turns back he runs into a pig in the middle of the road.


OK it is not a new joke. More recent than “When is a horse not a horse?” but not much more. But it does have a message about taking and giving advice.  The fact is that, no matter how sharp or blunt is the way in which advice is given it can carry a gift for us. If someone shouts “DUCK!!!” maybe you should hit the deck. Enough from the farmyard.  Even that uptight little fellow who tells us, with invective, that we are driving like an idiot, may be right, and heeding his nasty little message may save our lives, or someone else’s.

But what about giving advice? 

We are NOT good at giving loving advice.  Chris Argyris, through his Left Hand Column exercise, made it quite clear that even when we try to be fair and loving as we give advice, we usually fail and deliver our message in an unpleasant way. And anyway, do you really intend to give the best to this person, or are you just getting busy with them?

I have recently been on the receiving end of some intense advice.  And I have chosen to take out as much learning as I can.  While I do this though I have also received some uncompromising, yet caring coaching.  One of the topics that came up in the coaching was the difference between coaching and giving advice.  An insight was that to give advice we make the assumption that the person does not know what we are going to tell them.  And when we are in advice-mode our ego finds it hard to accept this.  I heard myself saying “yes I know this”.  I said it often.  But to no avail.  We plough on in our advising.  Long past the place where a good coach would ask “Well if you know all this what is stopping you from doing it?”  Not “Well if you are so smart why aren’t you doing it?” But, “There must be an obstacle, let’s find it”.

When we get the bit between our teeth we cannot stop ourselves from giving advice. Here are some pointers I want to reflect on the next time I feel the need to give advice.

  1. First check your motives. Is this for the person you are advising or for your own gratification? Is there something serious where you have to step in, or are you just peeved at where you find yourself? I read a post that asked “have you spent a night in prayer about the person and the advice you are about to give?” That would sort out the advice from the fare of busybodies.
  2. Then check your story. What are you telling yourself about the person you are going to advise? Does your self-talk elevate them as a human being?  Perhaps someone walking this journey with you who is behaving in a way you don’t understand. Or are you telling yourself a story about how they are a dirty dog. Or a super-hero. Neither of these will contribute to a successful advice session. In the language that makes people a little nervous in business, ‘are you ready to love this person, unconditionally’?
  3. Now check your message.  Do you really want to help or is your advice actually a put-down? And be careful with this. This sort of behaviour comes up in our blind spots. Therefore you may be the last to know this
  4. Check your bank account. Are you stocked up on appreciation? Most advice carries a payload of criticism. And if we are honest with ourselves, sometimes we do need criticism. And it does not need to be damaging. Nancy Kline suggests a healthy rate of Appreciation to Criticism is 5 to 1. When last did you appreciate the person you are about to advise?
  5. Finally check your process. Giving real, considered criticism and advice is a skill. There is a process required. And what is more, giving good criticism is part of the learning process. When you know what to look for and you observe someone else in action you learn what you want to emulate and can mark those things you will never, ever do. A good feedback process looks like this:

Observe: Watch the person in action.

Record: Write down what you see. This may be a short-hand verbatim account of what they said and how they carried themselves (body-language). You may even, with their permission, record their conversation or video their actions.

Categorise: Work through all of your notes and recordings to categorise their behaviours, with examples of each.

Analyse: Look at the categorised information and analyse the patterns with reference to relevant literature and models.

Once you have done this ORCA process you are ready to share your criticism. I have found the best way to do this is through a crucial confrontation in which you describe the gap between what is expected and what is happening. Then you complete your input with an open question and you give the floor to the person you are criticising.

And finally.

Can you take advice or criticism?

What about if you are receiving the criticism or advice?  Here is a strategy for dealing with advice or criticism. The original list came from Julia Cameron.  When receiving feedback consider the following steps which are best handled with your journal open in front of you:

  • Hear the criticism all the way. Don’t interrupt or defend. Just listen.
  • Remember the grieving process and know that you are going to go through it.
  • Weigh the criticism for a time. Sift it against your inner sense of truth. Note what bothers you and what is useful. Allow hours to pass. Or days.
  • Take time and space to feel your feelings. Note the feelings. Welcome them as they rise and acknowledge them as they subside.
  • Do something nurturing. Read a good review or recall a compliment. Sit under a tree.
  • Write out the criticism.
  • Write out your criticism of the criticism.
  • Does the criticism remind you of the past? Is it triggering grief over a long standing or deeply hidden wound?
  • This would be a good time to address your inner team to ask who got hurt.
  • Share your notes with someone you trust.
  • Absorb this persons’ response. Do not defend or argue. Sift the feedback against your inner sense of truth
  • If you decide to defend or argue, put your thoughts in writing. Reflect on whether to share what you have written. If there is even a hint of rage, put it aside.
  • Make an action plan. List concrete behavioural changes you can and are willing to make.
  • Get back on the horse. Creativity is the cure for criticism.
  • Carry out your action plan.

The photo of the pig came from the Daily Mail.