Don't Give Advice, Tell A Story

Erika Flora
Written by Erika Flora

The next time someone tells you about a problem they’re having, avoid the temptation to give them advice – “You really should do [this].” Sometimes people aren’t looking for a solution at all, and if they are looking for answers, telling people what to do – as counter-intuitive as it may seem – is not the best way to change behavior. Rather, tell them a story about a time you made a similar mistake and what you learned from it.

It’s a small change in how we interact (and a difficult habit to master), but it makes a huge difference. I learned this trick from the Women Presidents Organization. We advise each other this way – and it is tremendously effective. This approach works because it begins with empathy; by creating a sense of community through common experience, learning, and the understanding that we’re all pretty much on a level playing field. Treating others as though we have all the answers (we don’t) suggests we think we’re somehow above them (we aren’t). Nine times out of ten, if we have insight into a certain situation, it’s because we have already made that particular mistake, and (hopefully) moved on to new and different ones. That doesn’t make us an authority on the matter – it makes us human.

In the spirit of sharing stories, here’s a time I was able to use this technique with a colleague with great results: This colleague shared with me a mistake they had made on a project, and instead of launching into advice on what could have been done or should be done differently in the future, I instead told them a story from a time I did something similarly dumb in a project – and what I ended up learning from it. My colleague approached me shortly after our conversation to let me know how much they appreciated my not coming down on them, then thanked me for being vulnerable enough to share my mistake and make them feel as though I was on their side.

We all have lessons we can share, and when people take the time to vent their frustrations, fears, and mistakes with us, the very best thing we can do is share with them our own stories – warts and all – and help them begin figuring things out on their own. As brilliant as you and/or your advice may be – people change their behavior when it’s their idea anyhow, not yours. Oh, and my mistake? Let’s just say it’s important to know your audience and refrain from cursing at a Christian College*. 🙂

*Note: For the record, I didn’t actually say a curse word, but it was close enough.

Originally published April 04 2016, updated January 01 2019