Excerpted from the book on conscious business management, Business Black Belt
A crucial part of good listening skills is in your choice of
who you listen to and what you believe.
I recommend that you qualify the source(s) of your advice and in so doing, qualify the advice you give.
The cobbler’s kids have no shoes
I learned years ago to discount advice from someone who hasn’t been there before. You wouldn’t hire a fitness trainer who is fatter than you are, would you? Leaders must set an example in the area they claim as their expertise.
You’ve heard the saying about the cobbler whose own children have no shoes, meaning he doesn’t practice what he preaches. Of course he wants to make shoes he can sell and his kids are not paying customers. Besides, if the cobbler’s kids go barefoot, he misses a golden opportunity for market research! Nevertheless, if the cobbler’s kids go barefoot, you must not care enough about them, so why would he care about you? There’s a real problem if someone doesn’t use their own stuff or follow their own advice—especially when they’re selling it to you. For what it’s worth, I turn the solutions to my own problems into tools you can use so I’m preaching what I actually practice.
It’s important to get the right advice only from the right people. Remember to weigh the quality of your advice according to its source. Ideally, ask someone in a position of leadership—an active expert in that area. Also, ask more than one expert (a second opinion). Lacking that, there is still a way to make use of responses from lesser sources. And whatever information you gain, be sure to filter it through your own experience and knowledge. In other words, don’t deny or discount your own direct experience. Often, business leaders ignore their intuition in favor of conflicting opinions and, usually, regret it.
In the past, when I had a question, I would seek advice from everyone, regardless of their qualifications on the subject. For example, I would pose a technical marketing question to lots of people. I would weigh their opinions equally no matter what they knew or how qualified they were. On the other hand, I used to give my opinion about all kinds of things only to be upset when people didn’t believe me (even though I might not have known what I was talking about anyway). I should have said, “Look, I don’t know about that subject. I’m not an expert. But if you still want my opinion…”
Unfortunately, many people who have no idea what they’re talking about are happy to give you their opinions anyway. The ones who really make me laugh are the “consultants” who’ve just graduated from school but have yet to get a real job. Don’t ask everyone for their opinions. Just because someone has a college degree, has written a book, or leads a seminar doesn’t mean he or she is an expert. In fact, you may have more expertise than they do!
There’s a BIG difference between opinion & experience
You must distinguish between opinion and fact. Often, a person offers an opinion but states it as if it were a fact. Also, many people give advice without distinguishing its quality. You can determine the quality of the advice you get by simply asking:
How do you know that?
The explanation should give you a good idea as to where the advice sits between opinion and experience. If someone has been through the same situation and appears to be honestly successful, then you can make a pretty safe bet the advice is based on fact.
Here’s how I rate the quality levels of advice
1) Direct experience—the advice-giver was successful, has done it before or been doing it for years, offers many variations, and can distinguish many nuances in the situation
2) They were taught by a known expert [above]
3) They talked to someone with expertise who learned through his/her own direct experience
4) They observed someone else apply it and succeed
5) They read it in a book
6) They overheard a conversation
7) It seems like a good idea
Above all, the advisor must clearly understand your situation and objectives. A good sign is that he or she takes the time to ask a variety of questions. The ease with which the advisor asks uncomfortable-to-answer questions is a plus. One who leaps to solutions is dangerous.
If they share an experience with you, most people will tell you how well it went. Nevertheless, always ask, “How well did it work for you?” Even if they weren’t totally successful, you can still benefit from the experience they did have by asking, “What do you think would have made a difference?” and “Why do you think that would have worked?”
How to offer advice—an investment in your own credibility
Credibility is one of your most important assets in business and in life. Not only do you need to trust others for the information they give you, it’s just as important that they know they can trust you too.
I recommend that when you offer advice, follow it with a statement of how you came by this knowledge. That way, regardless of whether good or bad results come from the advice you give, your integrity can be maintained. “Here’s something I learned from my own personal experience and it might work for you.” At least he or she knows where your information has come from. If you give advice that is just an opinion or something off the top of your head and it doesn’t work, he or she will say (or worse, think and not say), “Your advice sucks.” However, if you had said, “I read this in a book and it worked in this particular context…” at least if it doesn’t work, in all honesty he or she will know that you read it in a book.
Your ideas will be accepted more readily if you’ve already
demonstrated success by using them yourself.
If you don’t know what you’re talking about, do everyone a favor and keep your mouth shut. Please. Maintain your credibility for the future when it counts. You don’t need to be temporarily impressive at the cost of your reputation that follows you forever.
Beware of extremes
In the past, I’ve used examples of extreme situations to illustrate a point. The mistake I made was not to state that it was an extreme example of how something might be a worst-case scenario that only happens 1% of the time, or has a 1-in-10,000 chance of occurring. Instead, I used an extreme example without qualifying it, mostly just to be funny. The problem was that people mistook me or perceived that I was either negative or a bit twisted.
While we’re on the subject of credibility, let’s address sarcasm. You may use sarcasm to be funny. Maybe you think that you’re above it all; your off-handed sarcastic commentary demonstrates such mastery of the subject that you can afford to be funny. The danger with sarcasm is that people often cannot distinguish it from your true intent. They may take you seriously, with detrimental implications, or perceive that you’re a jerk. I discovered this when someone was sarcastic with me. I wasn’t sure what he meant. I didn’t get it. From this experience, I realized that I was sarcastic a lot of the time, and I realized why people weren’t paying attention to me or understanding what I really meant. If you’re always joking, when do people take you seriously? Besides, sarcasm is usually negative and puts people off.
Remember, qualifying your advice will keep you conscious of the quality of the advice you are giving; if you can’t qualify it, then it’s probably not worth mentioning. This will prevent you from steering people wrong, being taken seriously when you are joking, or being perceived as a fool when you are serious.
Business Black Belt Notes
- Ask, “How do you know that?” (or, “Why do you say that?”)
- Choose advice givers carefully. Don’t ask everyone for their opinions.
- Did the advice giver have a direct experience? How well did it work?
- Is this person successful in general or successful with the recommendation?
- Pass along the source of your own advice to build and preserve your credibility.
- When you are doing the advising, play it straight.
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