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How to Ask for Advice

by Nicole Arnold October 9, 2015

The other day, I was struggling with a problem, so I asked my kids for advice. They were happy to provide it. Then I explained why their solution wouldn’t work. My 8 year old asked me, “why do you ask us for advice if you think you know the answer anyway?” What a good point!

Leaders and parents do this all the time. I have been on the giving and receiving end of those interactions at board and committee tables, as well as at the dinner table. How does a child or co-worker feel when their ideas were solicited and then rejected? How about frustrated that their ideas were tossed. And resistant to future discussions. They feel a salient sense that there is a firm power structure and that they are at the bottom of it.

In a word − they feel powerless, and that’s not the result we want. We want to be empowering our children and employees.

But sometimes the ideas put forward − by children and adults alike − are ill-conceived, impossible to implement, or too narrow. Often, we leaders or parents know the answer, and are crossing our fingers, toes and whatever else we can in hopes that the people at the table will get it right, and then feel the magic of having arrived there on their own. Sometimes we don’t have the right people around the table; it would be a poor choice to tap my young kids for retirement savings advice, much like asking a group of civil engineers to design a psychology experiment.

We know we need to have these discussions, if for nothing else than the tasks involved cannot be done alone. We need the people around us to do the work. We want the workers, we want the investment, and we want them to implement our ideas through collaboration, rather than just telling them what to do. So, we reach the crux of the problem: how do we get the answers we want from people and produce in them a “Eureka” moment when we ask them a question?

The short answer is: we probably can’t. The wiser answer is: we need to change what we want. This change will get us what we really need our children, employees and co-workers to be – empowered, innovative and open to new ideas.

So what is this magical change? The change is to actually want a discussion. A well-facilitated one, with the right people, in which ideas are welcomed and explored. One person can provide the spark, another the wood, and another the oxygen. We need all the components to make a fire. The same is true for great ideas.

But maybe the thought of this is making you feel antsy. It implies that you need to give up all control.

Well here’s what we can control. We can place the appropriate people around the table for the discussion. We can give them the information that they need to be equipped with for making a decision in advance of the discussion. We can design the questions and facilitate the discussion. We can even generate several answers on our own.

Then, and here’s the challenging part, we give up the belief that we know the answer. We trust the people around us. We trust the process. We understand that if we don’t arrive at a solution during this specific time, we will at least know the next steps to take.

If someone provides a seemingly ridiculous response, give them some airtime anyway. Who knows? That could be the comment that helps generate a new solution. If not, shift the conversation away from it. Whatever the case, provide a space for everyone to give ideas. Demonstrate compassion, respect and good will.

I have been at committee and dinner tables for discussions like this. Sometimes they’re uncomfortable. Then, inevitably, we find ourselves at a new place that we wouldn’t have got to on our own. The power of a bunch of minds working together is far more powerful than one working alone.

Leaders and parents aim to develop independent thinkers, autonomous beings and creative problem-solvers who treat each other with respect and invest in what they do. All of these qualities can be developed at a dinner or board table near you. You just need to let it happen.

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