The Problem with Asking for Advice

Often, when asking for advice, a person isn’t really seeking something new. They’re just looking for validation, affirmation of a choice already made. And this is a problem.

Photo Credit: Major Clanger via Compfight cc

When someone asks another person’s advice, they’re usually asking two questions:

  1. “What am I doing wrong?”
  2. “What are you doing that I’m not doing?”

Sometimes, you get the same answer to both questions, and that can certainly be enlightening. But that’s not the hard part of the process.

The hard part comes when you have to do something, when you have to change your habits or adjust your attitude. When you have to get up at 5 a.m. or stop eating junk food.

For whatever reason, we resist this part. We ignore the hard work, hiding behind programs and fads that promise instantaneous results. No wonder we’re so jaded about living our dreams and finding work that matters. And no wonder these efforts so easily fail.

We don’t really want advice. We want to be right.

I don’t know why we think the rules of physics don’t apply to us or why we avoid the discomfort of change, but we do. This is why we beg mentors for “tricks” and gurus to share their “secrets.” We want help solving problems we already know the solutions to. And we want the answers to be easy.

Incidentally, this is also why sages of old are often found out in the desert, tucked away from society and technology and the distractions of the world.

They learned long ago that there is a big difference between talking about changing your life and actually doing it.

When it comes to solving our own problems, we usually know what must be done. Often, it’s the very thing we’re avoiding, the hard choice we’re simply afraid to make. And what’s required of us is that one choice we almost always refuse to make: We have to change.

In light of this, I’d like to propose a new question to ask ourselves before asking someone else’s advice. It’s a simple requisite that, I think, would change the conversation entirely.

Instead of asking what you should do, ask yourself this question first:

Am I willing to change what I’ve been doing to get different results?

If the answer is no, then the other questions don’t matter. You have your answer.

If everyone did this, the only advice given would be taken seriously. And what a wonderful world that would be where we wouldn’t have to waste each other’s time, talking about things we never had any intention of doing.

109 thoughts on “The Problem with Asking for Advice

  1. Jeff,

    Great insight, and something I’m not just going to talk about 😉 I think Ray Edwards said something similar a while back, something to the effect of we already know what we need to do; now all we need to do is do it. Thanks for writing this, it’s a post I’ll return to periodically to remind myself!

  2. You’re right up close to the heart there, Mr. Jeff. I hear you calling for honesty and a reality-check. A down and dirty where-rubber-meets-asphalt kind of living.

    In a large sense—I’ve done enough dreaming, now get the feet on the ground. Sharp knife being wielded to the gut. Thank you, Sir.

    1. Thanks, Dana! Wise? Maybe. Learned through the school of hard knocks? Definitely. I’ve heard a lot of great advice that I’ve not taken and given my fair share to only seen it ignored. Frustrating on both sides.

      1. Yes, I can relate. It’s exhausting to give heartfelt advice only to have it be ignored, but worse, not really wanted in the first place. And I’m sure I’ve been on the receiving end of the same.

  3. Spot on. I’ve had to learn this lesson many times in my life. My husband and I have talked about this topic as it relates to our goals/dreams quite a bit. Ultimately, making progress comes down to wanting a certain outcome bad enough and being willing to adjust course where need be to get there.

  4. Hi Jeff; That is so true. So many people want the easy answers. And there aren’t many of those out there. I guess this is why so many people tell me I am inspirational even though I’m just a guy who gets up every day and works hard at my website and blogs. Yes, I am blind, but there are many blind people or people with other disabilities doing the same. I hope you have more clients who are actually motivated to change because those are the clients we are all looking for. Take care, Max

  5. Ugh. I’ve been here more often than I’d like to admit…wasting my time and others. I’ve very rarely not known what I need to do when asking for advice. Sometimes, I’ll just flat out tell someone, “I know what I need to do but I could really use some encouragement in that direction.”

  6. The only lasting change in my life came in small changes made consistently over time and that added up to make a huge difference. In other words, drastic change takes time & is made up of smaller changes. If I focus on the d e astic change needed, I get overwhelmed. Focusing on small steps helps me to really change & not just keep trying to change.

  7. I can hear you now! Thanks for both gentle encouragement & firm coaching, grace & truth. Work is done under the surface, even when the results take time to break through. Consider one variety of bamboo: years of nourishment with no visible growth, only to shoot 90 feet in 30 days. It happened with you. Grateful you keep telling us to show up enough.

      1. Yep, one variety. Will track down the name of it. My favorite go-to for people who get a charge out of measurable results. With people, a lot goes on in places we can’t see. But even in little people, bam. One day they’re talking in sentences & paragraphs when all we heard before was “da-da.”

  8. Ummm… I think there is a typo in the end paragraph, Jeff.
    This is very good advice though. ;-)…. Asking advice is easy, excepting and adjusting your life accordingly to get better results, that’s indeed hard. Keep up the good work. 🙂

  9. You are gifted with the ability to speak (write) with truth IN grace. So, with that, I almost picked up ANOTHER diet cookbook yesterday and this thought went through my mind…”Just stop eating junk food.”

      1. That makes me so happy! I have a tendency to make people cry. 🙂 Not on purpose of course.

  10. Hey Jeff, it was great meeting with you with my friend Enrique at the Writers Meet up in Portland. Loved your post today. Your question is so key, “Am I willing to change what I’ve been doing to get different results?” Unless we have the urge and willingness to change what we do, we’re not going to really see any tangible change, just merely talk! Thanks for the inspiration here.

    Paul// Leadership Blogger,

  11. Hi Jeff,

    I’ve actually found that the most common reason why people want advice actually has nothing to do with receiving advice at all. Rather, the person is asking for “advice” solely because they want to be “heard” and “listened” to.

    So, anytime someone feels like they’re “wasting their time” giving advice, I try to ask myself, “Does this person REALLY want advice, or do they just want to be HEARD?” I often find that people reject advice not because they don’t want to listen or want to be “right,” but that they just want to talk and be heard by someone.

    It sounds counter-intuitive because if you’re asking for advice, you should be willing to accept the advice you receive, but sometimes people ask for advice because they don’t know what else to do and asking for advice can seem like the “catch all” solution.

    Anyway, I don’t completely disagree with you Jeff, I just feel like there’s another side to this coin that we, as advice givers, often forget.

    1. Good point Wendy 🙂 If someone asks my advice, I tend to say something like, “Do I understand what you’re asking when you say…….(mirror it back)” and then I will ask if they wanted to talk to someone or are they wanting my advice 🙂 🙂

      1. Yes! Exactly. That’s a great approach to really figuring out whether or not they really want your advice. The other person’s reaction and reply will tell you what they’re really looking for.

        Did you get that from Grey’s Anatomy? 🙂 J/k (even though I have seen this technique used successfully on the show – those clever writers.)

        1. Actually…he he…I got that from my husband who is a wonderful communicator with most folks 🙂 He usually says, “Help me to understand….” That sure opens the path for understanding what the person ‘is’ trying to communicate and shows how much you care 🙂

  12. Good question Jeff! When I ask for ‘advice’ that is just what I DO think about. Otherwise it’s a bunch of talk when I don’t really want to hear. Let me add, however, that I ask from folks that have been where I’m trying to go and who answer with Godly wisdom 🙂 🙂

  13. So true. I don’t know how many times authors have asked me for platform building advice and then you never see them implement it. Not because the advice was bad but because it wasn’t “easy” or a “one step to ridiculously fast success” sort of thing.

    I keep this quote from Ryan Blair above my desk as a reminder:

    “If it’s important you’ll find a way, if it’s not you’ll find an excuse.”

    1. I love that quote. And yes, the good ol’ platform question: “Hey, how do I do this without doing it the way everyone says to do it?” 😉

  14. Humans tend to enjoy the herd and aimlessly following whatever they see and hear. It takes more courage than most people have to really step out of the herd, whether that involves going to the desert or following their own voice through the masses.

    The internet makes it even more difficult to follow your own voice. The non stop bombardment of free advice, all built to advance personal agendas, makes it easy to think you are behind, and always wondering if you need to tweak your efforts again based on the latest post you read?

    1. Great point, Mike. I find myself pausing before going to Facebook now, asking myself, “Do I really want 100 unsolicited opinions on politics, religion, and animal rights?” Sometimes, the answer is no.

  15. Jeff, Great question. This is putting the ownership back on to the person asking. I will use this one!

  16. Jeff, you’ve hit the nail on the head. I sit and listen to people everyday who have been stuck in the same habit/relationship/circumstance for YEARS (I’m also including myself here)…all because they haven’t PUT INTO PRACTICE the principles they’ve either read in the Bible or in great bestselling books….they’ve read them all. It is definitely WHEN we actually put them into practice that real change takes place and life becomes different. Thank you!

  17. Thanks for the reminder, Jeff. I do believe that many people asking for advice are wanting to be heard, validated, and find the easy fix, as other comments describe. However, I do think that many are unable to change simply because the emotional pay-off for staying where they are is greater than the pay-off that is unknown and perhaps uncomfortable. Sometimes it takes a great deal of courage to take the first step outside of our comfort zone. Yet we must take the first step if we desire something different in life!

    Thanks again,

    Lisa Murray

    P.S. I saw you speak at last month’s HFH2014 conference. Great word then, great word today!

    1. Thanks, Lisa. I think you’re right. I always say that the pain of staying stuck must be greater than the discomfort of change before we will act.

  18. Well said. We need to look for the question behind the advice-seeking. The heart knows what the head doesn’t want to.

  19. My recent mantra as I go through my day; “There’s no magic pill. There’s no magic pill. There’s no magic pill.” lol… sounds corny but it’s my simple reminder that everything requires effort at some point so might as well get cracking.

  20. …when i checked the news feed, this is the first article that popped out…and today, i’ve been asking advice from a lot of people…yes, i wanted a change, but, ive been over-thinking..thanks Jeff

  21. Jeff, excellent insight. Thank you for sharing. I think I will expand upon this in a future post of my own. I’ll link back to this one too.

  22. “talking about things we never had any intention of doing” sounds like a great coffee table book!

  23. I like asking for advice and I LOVE hearing about my validation. My problem lately is finding someone who I trust enough to give me the honest help that I need without being a jerk about it….. Anyone have suggestions for programs or people I could go to who will help me go about this blogging thing the right way?

  24. Sounds like your next book, Jeff! “Am I willing to change what I’ve been doing to get different results?” Reminds me of the other saying, “do what you’ve always done, get what you’ve always got.” Want to lose weight? Eat less, exercise more. Alcoholic? Stop drinking. This is not rocket science. We seek advice and want to talk about it, but it comes down to one’s willingness to change. You hit the nail on the head, Jeff.

  25. I’ve always had a problem with that statement because there are some things that you cannot change.

    For instance, I’ve always disliked backstory and overloading on feeling anything. In fact, I’m probably one of a few who could change every novel into a short story by black marker, shall we say.

    So, if I hate reading those things and I can’t change that opinion without a personality overhaul, then I should just give up, correct

    1. I’m not sure, Matthew. I think the point of the post was if you are unwilling to change, don’t ask for advice. And if you do ask, be ready to change. Really, though, I think change is up to each individual. We all that power, I think.

      1. let me give an example:

        I’ve let a few people read what I have written and I’ve asked them what advice they would give.

        They cried to feel more for the characters, give them epic arcs, and add more backstory.

        I feel those three are not emotionally, mentally, and physically possible for me to change because that isn’t how I write.

        Yet, most writers will tell me I’m dead in the water, don’t bother anyone with my writing because no one is gong to care unless I radically change how my brain functions (which, inked I

    2. Maybe focus on flash fiction or short stories? It sounds like you appreciate “tight” editing – so perhaps a more compact form would work?

  26. Jeff, I couldn’t agree more! I think that often it is our fear of discomfort that keeps us from taking the steps to make the changes. The more we increase our capacity to deal with the discomfort the easier it become to follow through with the actions that are needed to make lasting change. Thanks for a timely reminder!

  27. Thanks Jeff. So, so, so true! It’s probably an escapist strategy- wanting the world to adjust to our comfort zone… Fear of the unknown perhaps- “what if things don’t work out the way I expect them to? Where does that leave me?…” and so on. To echo others’ comments- thanks for the timely reminder that change starts from within; the external environment only facilitates what we’ve already decided to do and have taken the first step towards it.

  28. Spot on Jeff. Change happened when I decided to make that change. It sucks waking up early to exercise and getting rid of side but it’s helped me trim a few pounds.

    1. I’m sure it’s hard, Kimanzi, but I doubt it “sucks.” I’ve seen how much you’ve come alive lately. I’d bet you’d say it was well worth the cost. 🙂

  29. Agreed – it’s usually not the knowledge that we lack, it’s the ability to deal with fear and implement. This is what the best coaches, writers, and speakers focus on – not on telling people what to do, how to do it, or even why to do it. They create a transformation, which allows the other person to go make it happen (Seth Godin comes to mind)

    1. Hi Kathleen. I’m not sure what you mean. You must be referring to a recent speaking gig where I linked to a page with the option to subscribe. Sorry about that. I thought what you were signing up for was clear. Truth is that I was running behind that day and didn’t have the notes ready, so I included a signup form so that you could get the notes when I blogged them (which should come later this week or early next). I’m trying to upload the slides to Slideshare as I write this. I apologize for the miscommunication. Notes are coming soon!

  30. This articulates an idea I’ve been circling for a while, now. I kept arriving at the word “execution,” but your description is much better.

  31. You’re so write, Jeff. Life boils down to Mark Twain’s quote, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got.” Change is made one small step at a time. 🙂

      1. My pastor says to get the same results you’ve always had, you do the things you always do. “To get results you’ve never had we must do the things we’ve never done”. Janelle Keith. I need to go into the “branding” biz. Lol.

  32. Jeff, thank you, thank you, thank you! This was absolutely brilliant and so true. I need to share this with so many people I know!

    1. Thanks, Kathy. I wrote this for myself, because I tend to do this: asking advice but not willing to make the necessary changes. It’s unfair and disrespectful and I intend to stop.

  33. We cannot get everyone we would like to, to do what we do, as much as we would like that. Although some seem stuck in the mud, others are out there doing a myriad of things to keep things going. Like me and others. Not everyone has their head buried in the sand, and time is valuable. We are lucky nowadays to have the internet, so time can be better maximized doing what we love rather than spending time with those that won’t do. The adages of change are sometimes lost on a busy person: We are spending our time doing. I am busy writing a children’s book and making life work. My advice? Do the same, and don’t sweat the rest!

  34. This is why I stopped talking about my dreams. I knew I wasn’t ready and willing to make them come true. Thing is, we’re never ready so it comes down to willing. We can’t just say we’re willing. We must show it. I must show it. It’s time.

  35. This is very good. I usually just read your posts through email subscription and now, this one hit me very hard. Very timely because of what I have been reading and thinking lately. Thanks so much!

  36. Great post. Let’s settle this once and for all.
    Let’s stop putting question marks, where God has already put periods. – Janelle Keith. Always find value here, from one tribe writer to another.

  37. A few days ago, I made some difficult decisions. Right ones, but full of fall-out. I’m doing the hard things. . .and they hurt. . .but mixed in is peace and gladness. Enough to keep me going. Enough to feed the courage within me to not only make the changes – but live them. This post affirms that. Thanks!

  38. I gave a talk last weekend, and I said something I tell many of my clients:

    In our hearts, we often already know what our next step is. We know what to do, we either don’t like it, don’t want to do it, or wish it was something different. Instead of just taking the next step, we keep wishing for a different step.

    Well, I’m learning that taking the step, no matter how “lame” I think it is, usually sets up the next step – the one I wished for in the first place.

    So I’m doing less bemoaning and more doing. It’s a process though, because our brains like familiar – and our brains equate familiar with safe (even when it’s really not). So it can be an uphill climb, but it’s definitely worth it.

  39. Great post Jeff. I completely agree. Changing ourselves is the hardest part. What separates individuals who successfully achieved their goals from everyone is the act of “working” or “adapting” to reach those goals.

    If you dream of being a novelist, but aren’t currently a novelist, then change is needed to reach that goal. Thanks for the motivation!

  40. Excellent: asking advice is too often “… looking for validation, affirmation of a choice already made.” There is no core strength in that.
    I’m thinking motivation is key. There is the right time and way to ask for advice or consultation, perhaps to fine-tune some work we are already doing, or at least have committed to. But usually, seeking advice is abused. We actually end up abusing ourselves.

  41. We are spending our time doing. I am busy writing a children’s book and making life work. My advice? Do the same, and don’t sweat the rest!

  42. I wrote about this just the other day Jeff – ‘opinions aren’t facts’ saying that we are often so confused and ‘lost’ that we seek opinions so that we can find a direction but then feel guilty if we DON’T follow the opinion even though it’s just advice and has no hold over us unless we allow it.

    I had a plan, a direction last year when I moved from the UK to Sydney but when I arrived I stumbled upon so many people giving out advice and opinions (whether I wanted them to or not) that I ended up more confused and lost than when I first arrived. It takes great strength to take advice and opinions and go in another direction but I liken them to ingredients in a recipe – you need a pinch here, a cup from there and eventually we’ll make something edible!

    LOVE this post Jeff; truly 🙂

  43. Jeff, what a great post. Not only did it make me think about asking for advice differently but it also made me think about the times when I overly give out advice. I think that in both situations we looking for a sense validation that is stemming from a deeper sense of doubt. However, true confidence comes from doing the work, engaging in our craft and trusting that there is a path under our feet. Like you say, it is in the action that all the good stuff is. That is where real change and growth happens.

  44. Thanks for
    this Jeff! It’s hard to let go and make a change especially on something that
    we use to do for so long. We have to make up our mind and be open minded in
    everything that we may encounter if we’re planning to make change. And in the
    end, we might ask others questions and they will give us different answers
    but we must choose what we think will give us a different results.

  45. Jeff you just hit me right in the head with this post! Come to think of it, more often than not, when we seek advice from others, its because we need validation rather than the original intention. Most of the time when we approach someone for advice, we’ve already made up our minds and have already decided on our next course of action so whatever advice we get becomes useless unless the advice agreed with what we intend to do.

    Great post Jeff as always!

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