Are you often quick to give advice? You’re not alone, but sometimes our advice may not be as helpful as we think. In this podcast episode, we explore the concepts of the advice trap and humble inquiry, which shift communication from telling to asking and encourage us to stay curious a little longer.
The late Edgar Schein, PhD. was a renowned figure in the field of organizational psychology, with significant contributions to the understanding of organizational culture and leadership. As a Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, his academic work spanned several decades, educating countless leaders and thinkers. Holding a Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Harvard University, Dr. Schein was widely recognized for his groundbreaking theories on corporate culture and process consultation. His seminal works, including “Humble Inquiry”, “Organizational Culture and Leadership” and “The Corporate Culture Survival Guide”, continue to be pillars of study in the field. Dr. Schein’s dedication and influence earned him prestigious accolades, including the Lifetime Achievement Award in Workplace Learning and Performance from the American Society for Training and Development. His insights continue to shape modern approaches to organizational development and leadership.
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Mentioned in this episode:
Our recent newsletter on communicating with patients
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The Advice Trap Link
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In this pod, we discuss…
We love to solve problems, and that can be a problem
We are natural problem solvers, it’s just how our brains are wired. Professionally, we are heartily rewarded for this. problem-solving. So offering our unsolicited advice becomes almost a reflex.
There are indeed times when an immediately directive answer is needed, but more often than not, advice gets plopped right down in the middle of a conversation and can serve as a premature closure for all parties.
In this podcast episode, we present two interrelated concepts that push back against our seemingly ingrained habit of answering as opposed to questioning: The advice trap and humble inquiry.
The Advice Trap
Written by Michael Bungay Stanier, The Advice Trap centers on mitigating the all-too-common habit of jumping to give advice and instead, suggests that we stay curious for just a little longer and ask more questions. Once we start paying attention to the inflection point where we feel compelled to tell instead of ask, we may find that our curiosity reserves are palpably low.
Why even good advice can be bad
Most of us love to give advice, but so often, that advice is suboptimal. Not that the advice itself is inherently incorrect, but when someone gives advice, they are doing so from their perspective, sensibilities, upbringing, ethics, mood of the moment, and recent experiences. The issue is seen through their lens.
Sure, our advice works some of the time. You’ve likely given good advice. Great advice. But our advice works less than you think it does.
There are a few reasons for this. First, when we dish out the advice, we may very well be giving a solution to the wrong challenge. We think the first problem is the real problem. It’s often not, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that the first problem is in fact the real problem. When we jump in with advice, it’s often second-rate. Why is this? Because we make a lot of assumptions and don’t have the whole picture. There is also a bias here, a self-serving bias where we are disproportionately delighted with what popped into our heads.
The paradoxical pitfall of how we see our value
How do we THINK we add value to any interaction? By offering our advice!
Here’s another catch, early and easy advice can demotivate the other person – because what motivates people? Autonomy, mastery, purpose. Can you tell someone their purpose?
Where this comes up in coaching
One of the foundational concepts of coaching is that the coach probably doesn’t have the exact answer that the client is looking for. One reason for this is that no one will know you as well as you.
The best coaching happens when I tell less and ask more.
You are in the coffee shop with your best friend
Let’s pull this back to any conversation, not just in the context of coaching. Someone comes to you with a problem/difficulty/challenge – they are stuck.
Imagine you’re watching the flow of the conversation as a fly on the wall. What’s the difference between, “Ahh, you’re stuck, just do this,” versus, “Ahh, you’re stuck, tell me more about what’s going on. OK, so that’s going on, what else?” The second approach, where we don’t jump in with quick advice, is building the picture for you and also helping the other person build the picture for themselves.
Hearing yourself think
How many times have you found it helpful to talk something out and hear yourself say it – put a nebulous thought into context? It can help clarify and frame your own understanding of what was going on in your head.
This is the title of a book by psychologist Ed Schein who was a thought leader in the realm of organizational culture and communication. A humble inquiry was and is a revolutionary form of communication where we prioritize asking genuine, curiosity-driven questions rather than telling, advising, or sharing our own experiences.
It’s not just to fill the awkward silence
Asking questions isn’t just speaking to fill a silence – it’s a mindset of interest, humility, and a desire to understand. This is in line with what we discussed in our recent newsletter regarding a shift in mindset where the patient has special knowledge and that is what brought them to see us, as opposed to we have special knowledge- our clinical acumen and the stuff we know.
The key to a successful interaction is getting to the point where we’ve gotten the true essence of what the patient wants and they say, “That’s exactly right, you’ve got it!”
Asking questions is not straightforward
Shchein says ‘We all think we know how to ask questions, but upon examination, it turns out that asking a question to which you do not already know the answer is a complex, risky task.”
The ‘risk’ here lies in vulnerability, openness to new ideas, and the willingness to let go of preconceived notions.
Four critical skills for implementing humble inquiry
Understand the Concept: Schein defines this as “the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.” It’s about coming from a place of genuine curiosity and asking questions without a predetermined agenda.
Cultivate Humility: Start by acknowledging your own ignorance or lack of knowledge about the other person’s experience or perspective. This is not about pretending to be ignorant but genuinely appreciating that the other person may know things or have perspectives that you do not.
Adopt an Inquiry Mindset: Approach the conversation with curiosity, seeking to learn rather than to confirm what you already know. Ask open-ended questions that invite the other person to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Don’t jump to conclusions or make assumptions about what they might say.
Active Listening and Response: Listen actively to the answers, showing interest and empathy. Don’t interrupt or rush to fill silences. Reflect on what’s been said before responding, and when you do respond, do so in a way that shows you’ve understood and appreciate their viewpoint.
The take-home challenge
The next time you engage in a conversation, particularly in a setting where you’re accustomed to ‘telling’, try implementing the principles of Humble Inquiry and notice if there is an advice trap. See how just noticing, not even doing, influences the dynamics of the conversation and the outcomes that unfold.
Ed Schein quotes from this episode
“In a hierarchy, people tend to tell things rather than to ask questions, and the consequence of that subordinates who know stuff about particularly safety or poor quality have no incentive to tell the doctor or the boss that something is wrong. So we keep doing damage because the boss says, well, why didn’t you tell me? And the answer is you never asked, and whenever I tried to tell you something you didn’t listen or even punished me for bringing bad news.”
“The way to help someone is to help them frame the problem and get them to tell you what’s really on their mind.”
“I’m not doing this to be a nice guy, which is where often people say, well, why are we wasting time on this? You’re not wasting time, you’re building a necessary relationship in order to do better medicine. And it’s the same as the airline’s pilot. This guy, who landed the plane in the Hudson, tells this very interesting story that he learned that what he had to do with his new crew, which would be the co-pilot engineer, the flight attendants is how he structures what they’re there for. He says what we’re here for… to get ourselves and all these passengers back to their families. That’s our job. Flying the plane is incidental. The job is to get back safely And he thinks that makes a difference, to get a mindset. Our job is to get this patient well and back to his family or her family, not to fix the broken bone. It’s a mindset toward the whole human being, and I think that’s what’s missing so much in professionalism.”