Adam, a young employee, comes up to you for some advice to advance his career. Although you aren’t familiar with his area of work, you share suggestions because you want to contribute. Were your suggestions helpful? You are not sure.

We tend to feel flattered when asked for advice and give it, even when we are not equipped enough to provide it. According to professors David A. Garvin and Joshua D. Margolis from Harvard Business School, “Those who give advice effectively wield soft influence — they shape important decisions while empowering others to act.” They also highlight the power of advice in reinforcing the rule of reciprocity: providing expert (rather than superfluous) advice often creates an implicit sense of debt in the mind of the recipient — a debt that they would want to repay.

The key takeaway here is simple. Giving advice is great, but it comes with a caveat: the benefits of this practice only accrue if you offer effective advice in a useful context and in an empathetic manner. Here are some ways you can audit and improve your ability to give advice:

  1. Assess your expertise 

If asked to guide in a domain you’re not entirely confident about, stop to assess your level of expertise in it. Sometimes, you might be able to provide helpful insights only in a certain section of the domain. In such cases, limit your advice to that section and connect the person asking for advice to other subject matter experts who could help.

  1. Identify the type of advice required

Every request for advice is not the same. Each person, uniquely positioned as they are in their career and life stage, will need you to take a different approach when it comes to the advice you offer them. Let’s examine a few of these approaches.

  • Counsel. This type of advice is useful when someone comes to you with a problem statement that they need a solution for. They may require guidance in an unfamiliar or difficult situation that they’re struggling with. Your advice should ideally provide them with a solution or a serve as a guideline to come up with one.
  • Coaching. This comes down to assisting a person with their professional and personal development. You might need to guide the person — typically someone reporting to you or a new and inexperienced team member — in understanding his/ her strengths and weaknesses, as well as best practices to work on the same.
  • From peer-mentors to expert mentors, we’ve all experienced mentorship in one way or another. The essence of mentoring lies in understanding your mentee’s goals and providing guidance and opportunities that will assist them in achieving those goals.
  • Discreet advice. This type of advice is relevant when a person comes to you with a very specific problem and is looking for ways to navigate it. For instance, someone might come to you because they are torn between promoting one of two employees and need some very specific, contextual advice.

Identifying the type of advice that you are being asked for will help you understand the expected outcome and better assess if you have the time and expertise required to assist.

  1. Stick to facts

Sometimes, the line between providing professional and personal advice can get blurry. At other times, it might seem like you need to offer your personal judgement and opinions on certain situations. However, the golden rule while giving advice is: stick to facts. Opinions are shaped out of one’s own lived experiences and if your advice is based on opinions, it might or might not work for another person. Using facts will ensure that the advice you provide is objective and unbiased.

A good piece of advice can be fruitful to both the person asking for advice as well as the person offering advice. By offering better advice, David Garvin and Joshua Margolis observe, you help your colleague add nuance and texture to their thinking and develop better solutions to their problems. At the same time, you are in a position to practise active listening and learn from the problems that are brought to you, all thanks to the art of offering effective advice.

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