Women use the word “advice” all the time. We want mentors who can give us advice. Advice-gathering is one of the first steps we take when starting a new project. In women’s online discussion groups, the vast majority of the posts involve a woman asking for advice, rather than other kinds of support.
What’s wrong with that? Women have been told a million times (in a million ways) the answers lie outside of themselves — in the right book, degree program or expert opinion. The subtle message is the answer comes from a canon of knowledge developed largely by men, based on a man’s experience of the world.
Because we’re relationship oriented, we often seek advice when a new calling feels scary or outside our comfort zone. But, what we are looking for isn’t really advice, it’s reassurance we aren’t crazy and that the path we are on is okay.
When we get scared, it’s natural to look to others for reassurance. When we don’t want to make the wrong decision, it’s natural to look for guidance from those we respect. But maybe there’s a better way.
When we ask another person for advice, we’re essentially asking, “What do you think I should do?” But no other person, no matter how brilliant or successful, knows what you should do. They’ve got their own path in life and their own subjective view. They might know a good solution for you, but it's not necessarily the one that you are ready for or fits with your particular makeup.
Let me share a few alternative kinds of conversation, ways we can honor our desire to engage with others, but that are — in my experience — more respectful to yourself and more helpful than advice.
Ask others for their stories and lessons learned. “Here’s my situation. Have you faced anything like that? What did you do and what did you learn?” That way, what the other person is sharing is contextualized appropriately as what it is: their experience, not a prescription for yours.
Ask for relevant information. “Do you know anything about this market, employer, industry (whatever is relevant) that I should be aware of?”
Ask for a brainstorming session. “Would you be up for brainstorming some different directions with me? I’d love an outside perspective on the possibilities to explore.” Engaging a fresh, outside perspective to generate new ideas and help you challenge assumptions is very different from asking your conversation partner to choose the right direction for you. Studies show men do this a lot more than women do.
Ask, "Can you help me clarify where I’m at with this?" There are few relationship blessings as great as those in which you can actually say, “Help me figure out what I’m already thinking and feeling.” In these conversations, the other person is listening, reflecting back to you what they hear and asking a few good questions along the way. “You sound really frustrated about this — what’s the frustrating part?” or “Is the challenge really X or is it Y? I’ve heard you mention both.”
Ask for resources, introductions or other forms of tangible support. Again, studies show men do this a lot more than woman do. Men are busy getting stuff done for each other, while we are giving each other advice.
But what about when you are on the other side of the conversation? When you are asked for advice, you can gently steer the conversation to a more fruitful way of engaging, one that (happily) takes you out of the position of having to know the right answer.
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