Taming Advice Monsters While Mentoring

Photo by Yaopey Yong on Unsplash

Let me introduce you to the advice monster that I got to know in Michael Bungay Stanier’s TED talk “How to tame your advice monster”. Imagine someone asking you for advice. Before they even finish explaining the problem, your advice monster awakens already waiting for its turn to burst out all the brilliant advice. That advice monster is convinced that you know the situation well even if you may not have the full context at all. 

When we think of a mentor, we often expect someone who is capable of giving great advice. We may also become mentors because we feel we have enough experience, passion, and ability to advise people. However, mentoring is much more complex than simply providing advice. And, mentoring environments usually are extremely satiating spots for advice monsters. For a better mentoring experience we need to tame our advice monsters.

Mentoring requests often start with a small description of a person’s challenges and often it ends with a question: “What could you advise me?”. The advice monster of a mentor can get euphoric here - it already knows what to say. It grasps bits and pieces that are familiar and already has all the magnificent advice ready. However, it’s so easy to slip into believing that you understand the problem, the person, and all the complexities. Likely it’s not as straight-forward as we tend to believe. 

You may say all the advice out, and… not help the person at all. Why? Because there’s a high chance you don’t understand the problem you’re trying to advise on.

Get to know the real challenges

I have had different mentoring sessions: in some of them my advice monster was uneasy and kept throwing in ideas, while in others it was quiet, tamed, and the sessions felt more like therapy to mentees. Both types could be useful depending on the person you’re talking to. An active advice monster can be beneficial, too, if you are certain that you understand the problem. Then it’s absolutely alright to brainstorm with your mentee what could help there. 

Make sure to spend some time to really get to the core of the problem a person may be facing. That can be done only by active listening and asking questions. Don’t just straight jump into giving advice. 

As Michael Bungay Stanier said:

“The problem isn’t about giving advice, it’s when giving advice is our default response.”

Embrace active listening

Advice monsters are quite terrible at listening, but if we make them listen better - the more we know, the better even the repertoire of the advice monster’s data can be. 

Best mentoring is never a one-way engagement. It requires both mentor and mentee to sometimes switch roles. We need to create a safe environment where both can ask, share, and grow. Just providing advice without listening or creating a safe space out of the blue is even dangerous and can be harming a mentee: they may consider themselves less than, it may even disempower them. That is the least we want from a mentoring session.

Listening and full attention is a gift. Try to remember the last time someone gave you their full attention. How did it make you feel? Very likely, you felt appreciated, respected, and heard out. 

You can add value not only by telling, but listening and just being there for a person, too. They may even feel more empowered by that and proceed to brainstorm some great solutions to their challenges themselves.

Stay curious longer

Lastly, the best advice is when the person asking for advice and the person giving it come to it together. For that, as a mentor, you have to stay curious longer. Michael Bungay Stanier recommends three questions that can help you guide the conversation:

  1. What’s the real challenge here for you?
    This is a focus question which repositions you to understand what is an actual issue. 

  2. And what else?
    This question can be asked multiple times. Dig deeper into the issue. This will lead you to what the real challenge is. The first answer is rarely the best answer. 

  3. What do you want?
    I love this question because it allows you to understand what is the vision of the person asking for advice. They may not be courageous enough right now to reach it and you can try to help them get out there.

In conclusion

Watch out for unprepared advice monsters taking over when you’re trying to give advice. The best advice is generated by taming your advice monster. Get to know the real challenges the person is facing, listen actively, and stay curious with questions. 

Written by Lina Zubyte


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