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Avoid the “Advice Trap” – What Does This Mean for Legal Professionals?

I have an advice monster – there, I said it! I admit that when people share their challenges and problems with me, I feel compelled to jump in and provide advice i.e., “here are some things you could do to fix this”.

I can already hear objections from my legal profession colleagues: “Isn’t that why people come to us, for our advice?” That was certainly my first reaction. I’m asking you to hold that thought and read on. I think there is much more to this.

My mediation training taught me the power of questions and coaching, as well as the downsides of advice, and I have been working on reducing the power of my advice monster ever since. Those important lessons were reinforced by Brené Brown’s recent interview with Michael Bungay Stanier, founder of Box of Crayons. Michael wrote “The Coaching Habit” and recently released his new book “The Advice Trap – Be Humble, Stay Curious & Change the Way You Lead Forever”. He acknowledges that most humans are wired to jump in with advice – quickly. Our law school training and legal experience amplifies this approach. And, we often care about the other person and want to help them. It makes us feel good to do that.

There are times when advice-giving is really helpful. However, the problems with jumping to advice prematurely include:

  • We might be solving the wrong problem
  • Our advice just isn’t as good as we think it is because it is often laden with (mostly unconscious) cognitive biases, prejudices and assumptions
  • We deprive the other person of the opportunity for personal growth and agency by figuring out the issue themselves
  • We are, in effect, saying “I’m better than you”
  • We exercise “power over” rather than “power with”
  • It is exhausting to always be the “fixer”
  • Being the “fixer” or “rescuer” assigns others into the roles of either persecutor or victim

To minimize these downsides, Michael doesn’t recommend eliminating advice-giving altogether. He just suggests that we try to stay curious a little bit longer.

I agree with Michael (and Brené) that curiosity is a superpower.[1] But it is very hard. We need to resist the temptation to rush to provide the advice that seems so clear to us in the moment. Instead we need to linger in ambiguity a little longer, ask powerful questions[2] and give space for reflection. I personally need to continue working on this piece and reducing the anxiety that I experience during an imposed “I don’t know” space.

While this approach seems obvious for coaches, mediators or therapists, how does it apply to the practice of law? I think there are many practical applications. Consider a client who approaches you for advice on a conflictual separation involving both children and assets. In the “old days”, one of the first steps might have been to immediately issue a “Writ” (I’m showing my age). Today, I believe many family lawyers begin with a detailed intake process that seeks to find out what is important to the client before jumping to advice about the law or process. In this context, the 7 questions (footnote 2) would likely elicit important information that will inform the kind of advice that the lawyer will eventually provide. In other words, delay and explore before advising. A similar approach could be very valuable in the context of other types of matters including commercial litigation, estate planning or employment disputes.

Take a moment to listen to this podcast or, even better, read the book. You won’t regret it.

And that is my advice 😊.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Viktor E. Frankl

 

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[1] Take a look at this wonderful site: The Institute of Curiosity, founded by mother and daughter team of executive coaches (Kathy Taberner and Kirsten Siggins).

[2] Michael suggests 7 powerful questions (easy to learn and remember; perhaps harder to apply in practice):

  • What’s on your mind?
  • And what else?
  • What’s the real challenge here for you?
  • What do you want?
  • So how can I help? Or What do you want from me?
  • If you are saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?
  • What was most useful or most valuable for you here?

Comments

  1. Heather Hui-Litwin

    Love this article, Kari! I so get this! When people come to me for help, I often feel pressured to provide a solution. Sometimes, people just want you to “hear” them. I love the questions suggested in footnote 2. These are so good at allowing the professional to pause and truly consider the client’s needs. I think that as a client, I would really appreciate it when I can feel that my professional is not rushing me in an interview, and taking the time to really understand what I need.
    Thank you for posting!
    Heather
    Founder, Litigation-help.com

  2. thanks for the nice shout out, Kari
    ~ MBS

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