At the beginning of his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier says that we could all be better coaches by asking more questions and giving less advice. From those one-on-one meetings, to chatting with a co-worker about a tough relationship situation, and even to dealing with a toddler or teenager, having a habit of asking questions rather than giving advice would make us a better coach and conversational sounding board. However, our natural inclination as humans in a conversation is to give advice. Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler in The Elephant in the Brain suggest that we jump into advice giving because we are eager to show how much we know, demonstrating our skills, wisdom, and talents to gain prestige in other peoples eyes. What Bungay Stanier demonstrates in his book is that our natural reaction is counter productive, at least if we actually want to be helpful for another person and aid their growth.
Bungay Stanier accepts that changing away from our default advice giving mode is difficult, particularly because we are creatures of habit. He writes “…A Duke University study says that at least 45 percent of our waking behavior is habitual. Although we’d like to think we’re in charge, it turns out that we’re not so much controlling how we act with our conscious mind as we are being driven by our subconscious or unconscious mind. It’s amazing; also, it’s a little disturbing.”
I wrote recently about my love-hate relationship with routines. I love the habits that routines build and the productivity and time saving quality of a good routine. At the same time, a consistent routine seems to rob me of my mental decision-making powers, and time seems to pass in a way where I am a passive viewer and not an active driver of my life. The habitual aspects of our days don’t seem like they could add up to 45% of our time, but I do not doubt it to be true. Any time I have tried to make a serious change in my life, I have been confronted with the power of habits that become baked into my daily routine. Leaving work and driving home directly, rather than to the gym, can be as much of an unconscious habit as much as it can be a conscious decision. Checking my phone can easily become automatic, and something I don’t even realize I have done until I notice my hand slip my phone back in my pocket.
I don’t think there is a need to abandon all habits and try to force ourselves against any particular habit. But I do think there is a need to be aware of our habits so we recognize when we are making decisions and when we are following impulses and acting without really thinking about what we are doing. Much of Bungay Stanier’s book is about realizing the times when we act impulsively in conversation and start offering advice that we have not truly thought through. He encourages us to change our conversation behavior to ask more questions so that we, and our conversation partner, can think more deeply and find better answers to our problems. This can’t be done if we are not aware of what we are saying and simply acting habitually in our conversations and discussions. Self-awareness is a step toward addressing a habit, by allowing us to realize the opportunity for making a choice versus acting out of habit.
This brings me back to the ideas of Hanson and Simler. If we better understand where our desire to give advice comes from, and we understand how evolution has shaped human beings to behave, we can begin to push back and try to be more productive versions of ourselves. I find that I can address a habit more effectively if I understand what aspects of my biology may be driving it. Accepting that our advice is meant to make us look good and not meant to help the other person makes our advice look less sexy, and makes it easier for us to be critical of the advice we are giving and more willing to let the other person do the talking and thinking.