How To Get The Answers You Really Want

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
I hear women say 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 the women’s online discussion groups I am a part of, the vast majority of the posts involve a woman asking the group for advice, rather than for other kinds of support.

What’s wrong with that?

Women have been told a million times (in a million ways) that the answers lie outside of themselves — in the right book, degree program, or expert opinion. The subtle message is that 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 also often reach out for advice when a new calling feels scary or is outside our comfort zone. What we are looking for isn’t really advice, but a kind of reassurance that we aren’t crazy and that the path we are on is okay.

When we don’t want to make the wrong decision, it’s natural to look for guidance from those we respect.

Related: 10 Ways To Embrace Your Brilliance

I don’t mean to beat us up for that. When we get scared, it’s natural to look into the eyes of 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 to honor those longings within us.

When we ask another person for advice, we’re essentially asking him or her, “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, their own unhealed disappointments, 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.

Today, I want to share with you 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.

Related: How I Got My Voice Back
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Ask For Their Stories & Lessons Learned
That means saying, “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 Information
Ask them for relevant information. “Do you know anything about this market/employer/investor/industry (whatever is relevant in the situation) that I should be aware of as I navigate this?”

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 a great use of conversation — and it’s very different from asking your conversation partner to choose the right direction for you.

Studies show men do this a lot more than woman do.

Related: How To Fight Thoughts That Lead To Body Dissatisfaction

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 to that friend or family member, “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 them for resources, introductions, or other forms of tangible support.
Note: Studies show men do this a lot more than woman do. They are busy getting stuff done for each other while we are giving each other advice.

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.

What’s your experience with these alternative kinds of conversation? When have you followed others’ advice that didn’t really apply to you (you later learned...)? Do you share my sense that advice-focused conversations aren’t as helpful as these, or have you experienced the opposite? I’d love to hear — if an advice-conversation has ever made a huge positive difference for you, what was it that was so helpful?

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