Leaders – Stop giving advice. Even if they ask for it.

What is the most efficient way to go from impasse to insight to action?  We too often mistakenly think it is to tell people what to do.  Here are a few reasons why neuroscience says that does not work in the long run and sometimes even in the short run:

  1. We almost always give advice to the wrong problem.
  2. The brain rejects new things out of hand so most of the time our advice goes unheeded. Often nothing happens.
  3. Everyone’s brain is wired differently so the advice we give even if we solve for #1 and #2 above, it is still very likely wrong.
  4. Even if our advice is heeded in the short term, there is rarely lasting change.

Here is a proven alternative according to David Rock in his book Quiet Leadership, Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work which he wrote after 10 years of neuroscience research and observatioits-funny-how-im-good-at-giving-advice-to-othersn in the field.

When we are trying to help a colleague think anything through, we make the unconscious assumption that the other person’s brain works the same as ours. So we input their problem into our brain, see the connections our brain would make to solve this problem, and spit out the solution that would work for us. We then tell people what we would do and are convinced it’s what they should do.” David Rock

Below are six steps you can take to avoid this from happening.  The overall concept is to give “advice” on their thinking versus providing them a solution.*  That is, help them to explore how they are thinking about the problem so they can, as often as possible, come up with their own solution.  Many times, they will come to a better solution on their own and follow through versus you telling them what to do. Here are the six steps:

1.  Think about thinking;  Let people do all the thinking, keep them focused on solutions, stretch their thinking, accentuate the positive, and follow good process. Here is an example dialogue from the book:

Paul: (Sales Manager. has just said to Sally, his VP)“I really don’t know how to lift our sales right now.”
Sally: How can I best help you with this?
Paul: I’m not sure…I just feel incredibly stretched by the budgets.
Sally: Do you want to think this issue through with me right now?
Paul: Sure.
Sally: What’s going to be the best way to do that—what would work for you?
Paul: I’d like to use you as a sounding board and see what happens.
Sally: Great.
Notice that she does not jump in and tell him what to do or berate him to make sure he figures it our or threaten him if he does not.  Sally remembers that she hired him because she thought he could do the job but may need a bit of help to get through this current downturn.

2. Listen for potential, and to not get too close. Try to find the positive in every challenge.  If someone is unhappy at work, highlight that this could be an opportunity for an exciting change. If someone comes to you after they have made a mess of something, you could empathize and ask what they have learned from the situation so far. How might they apply that moving forward?

For instance, Paul (from above) may discover a better way to manage his team or the process – either being an important and significant breakthrough.

3.  Speak with intent. Be succinct, specific, and generous.  Succinctness starts with a picture or a vision in your mind then go about describing what you see in that picture. Specificity is about making sure people know exactly what we mean.  Instead of saying “great job”  you could say “You did a great job with your presentation. It was clear to me that you did your homework and clearly and concisely made your case as to why we should move ahead.”   Generosity is about giving of yourself, letting the other person know where you are coming from and focusing on their needs in the conversation.

4.  Dance toward insight – This is Rock’s metaphor for being in sync with the conversation. He sees it as a dance where you get clues on how to move together toward a breakthrough. You can do this by following the four steps – Permission, Placement, Questioning, and Clarifying.  Here is more detail on these four interconnected steps:

  • Permission – Ask permission to have the conversation and when.  Ask to probe a little deeper or more personally. Ask to provide your own thoughts once the other person is out of ideas.  This can remove initial defensiveness, especially with a delicate topic.
  • Placement – Anchor the conversation – Define where you are in the conversation and what’s about to happen next.  For example (permission and placement) – I would like to have a conversation with you that may be a delicate subject.  Can you talk now or would another time be better? We will need about 15-20 minutes.  It is about this month’s sales.
  • Questioning – The key is to ask questions from the perspective that they have the answers and you are helping them to find them.  Avoid asking questions that lead them to what you think is best.  Easy to say. Hard to do. Here is a short list of “thinking” questions you could ask (Rock offers a much longer list):
  1. “How long have you been thinking about this?”
  2. “How often do you think about this?”
  3. “How important is this issue to you, on a scale of one to ten?”
  4. “How clear are you about this issue?”
  5. “What priority is this issue for you in your work or life right now, top five, three, or top one?”
  6. “What priority do you think it should be?”
  7. “How can I best help you further?”
  • Clarifying – Get to the bottom line – the essence of what is being said. Many folks do this by repeating back what is said in their own words to make sure both parties are talking about the same thing but also by making sure that the essence of the conversation is captured.

5.  Create new thinking – Now that you have established the current problem or reality, the next step is to help them with insight if they have not already come to one.  Following this is to have them explore alternatives and choose the best possible option.  Here are some questions that might help:


  1. “What are some possible paths we could take from here?”
  2. “Do you want to explore a few different ideas for how to move this forward?”
  3. “How could I best help you from here?”
  4. “How do you think we might move this insight forward?”
  5. “What are some different ways we could tackle this?”
  6. “Can you see some different angles we could look at this from?”

Best Option

  1. “Shall we focus on x and get more detailed on that?”
  2. “How can I best help you think through how to make this work?”
  3. “Do you want to think through how to make this happen?”
  4. “What specifically would you do in this situation?”
  5. “When do you think you might do this by?”
  6. “How can I best support you to turn this insight into a habit?”
  7. “Do you want to take some kind of specific action around this?”

6.  Follow up – All of this work will come to nothing if you do not check back in.  Follow up can make a big difference to the emergence of new wiring in the brain.  It also shows that you are invested in their success.

* Please note that Rock recommends that you provide suggestions but ONLY if you are asked or AFTER you ask permission and feel they have gone as far as they can on their own without coming to a viable solution.

This process is a bit involved at the beginning and is hard to summarize in short post.  I encourage you to pick up Rock’s book for more details. Here is a short video of Rock talking about the book.

Bill  – Certified Scaling Up Coach

Be Exceptional!


* MA companies interested in hiring a leadership coach.  Click here to see if you qualify for 50% off my fees.

Published by Bill Flynn

Gazelles Member Advisor and early stage startup specialist with a proven track record with 16 Boston-based startups (9 to date with 5 successful outcomes, advisor to 7 others); SMB to Fortune 500 companies. 20+ years of Senior Sales, Marketing and GM experience in industries including mobile advertising, security, digital advertising, e-commerce and IT. Core Competencies: Player/Coach, Metrics-driven, Execution-based philosophy, Life-long learner

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