The Challenge of Listening to Good Advice


I think I have been really lucky in the advice I've received throughout my career – and perhaps you have too. Not all of it has been equally helpful, but apart from very specific business advice, I still recall many of the excellent tips that have been offered to me at different times in my life.  

I’d like to tell you the best advice I ever had at the end of this article. But first, why is it that taking advice from others can be so – well, difficult?   

The challenges of listening to others’ advice…

I don’t think many people really value unsolicited advice – especially if it seems laden with ‘Parental’ hints of “I know better than you”. But, taking advice can be really challenging for many other reasons too.

  1. The Cobblers Dilemma.
    For a start, the more senior we become at work, the more most of us expect our role is to give advice to others, not to receive it.  And of course, listening to other’s advice requires great humility

    For example, are we prepared to run the risk of appearing weak or ignorant in front of others, especially our colleagues, who might expect us not to need others’ advice? How do we feel about the risk that someone may suggest a course of action quite different from the one we have already decided to take?  That’s not always so easy to deal with!

    To my mind, this is a version of the fabled ‘Cobbler’s Children’ - where the skilled shoe-maker was so busy making shoes for others, his own children went unshod.  You will probably know business people caught in just this dilemma too – experts at telling others what to do, but not necessarily so good at asking for advice themselves?

  2. What’s in it for them?
    Whatever our status at work, we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t also face other challenges in listening to others’ advice. 

    For example: who wouldn’t wonder what qualifies someone else to advise us?  Do they really understand our situation, and can they possibly know better than us?  Can we even trust them?  What’s in it for them?  Do they probably want something back from us in exchange perhaps that we might not want to give?

  3. Now’s not the time!
    And further, don’t you often find yourself wondering, is this advice really relevant to me right now, and is now actually a good time for me to listen and absorb it?  

Different sorts of advice

Apart from all the barriers we may erect ourselves to hearing good advice, there is also the manner in which the advice itself is presented that can be a challenge.  

For example, it may be in the form of:

  • a throw-away comment that sets us thinking.  But we have to be listening first!

  • a subtle hint that only invites our further exploration if we have the wit and inclination to ask.  

  • an open question, such as any good professional coach might ask – if not always so  innocently! (For example: “Is this situation working out as well as you would like it to?”, “How did you come to choose this option?”  “Can I ask you what other possibilities you considered?”)

  • a tentative suggestion which may more explicitly offer some alternative courses of action, but doesn’t necessarily demand our attention.

  • a personal recommendation, presumably offered in good faith, (such as: “I have found that …”; “Why don’t you give Sally a call?”

  • a quite direct injunction, which may be much harder to ignore, and possibly even less welcome: (For example: “If I were you, I would…”)
  • a personal attack: (“The trouble with you is …”;  “You ought to know better”) – at which perhaps anyone might reasonably take offence!

Because so much advice can appear to be ‘Parental’ if delivered badly or inappropriately, especially if the adviser appears to assume a position of some sort of superiority, it is no wonder that most of us waste a huge amount of others’ really useful thoughts throughout our lives. Often because the advice contained was delivered by the wrong person, in the wrong way, or even at the wrong time?

Five tips for taking advice

Given that most of us have a lifetime of receiving advice we didn’t always welcome, whether from parents, teachers, partners or other ‘well-wishers’, perhaps it is no surprise that many of us find ourselves immediately taking guard and raising our defences as soon as someone else starts to offer us advice we didn’t ask for.  

So here are some thoughts I have valued in facing this dilemma, in case you might find them helpful too.  (Not advice! Just tips…)

  • “We just don’t know what we don’t know.”
    An awful truism, but nor can we until we are willing to engage with others who may well know what we thought we knew, but actually didn’t. The wisest advisers are often those who have the greatest capacity for admitting their own lack of knowledge.

  • If we don’t ask, we may never find out.
    It costs so little to ask for others’ opinions, but often a lot more not to and if you burn off the first piece of advice someone may give you as being worthless, they may never volunteer again!

  • Taking good advice, from any source, is just as skilled a task as giving it.
    The wider our span of control, the more likely we feel we are expected to be the fount of all wisdom.  But this is not realistic!  The problem is not so much that no-one else can possibly know better than us, but that we don’t think they can.  How arrogant is that?

  • We can always learn from others and how they receive advice.
    I’ll bet, amongst your own team and acquaintances, you most value those who are willing to listen to your advice?  If so, don’t you think they may equally value those who listen to theirs?

  • Helping others so often encourages others to help us. 
    If you feel short of advice from those whom you feel could, should or might help you, ask yourself how willing you are to help them? What goes around, does come around!  

The best advice I have ever had?

So here is perhaps the best piece of advice I ever received some time ago, that was at least one of the most endurable and valuable I ever received, if only because I was least expecting it.  

At the time, I was in mid-career and making my own way forward having just started to set up my own business.  So the issue raised at this event was most certainly not on my agenda.  I had a plethora of much more urgent matters to attend to.  And the advice I received wasn’t delivered by anyone I knew personally. Moreover, it wasn’t even especially relevant to the speaker’s particular expertise. 

It was just a throw-away remark. And I could so easily have missed it!

The incidental advice I picked up was to encourage really busy career-driven business-people to spend more time on themselves – which of course I had heard many times before – but most especially, not just on family, relationships, health and work-life balance, but on our own private financial affairs which so often come last.  

Whatever the intention of this remark, I suddenly recognised that on top of all my business concerns, I had really given very little thought to much more boring and seemingly unimportant matters to me, such as my own and my immediate family’s personal banking arrangements, energy and travel costs, insurance policies, investments, wills, pensions, tax affairs, liabilities and all the rest - all of which seemed to me to be quite incidental at the time, but hopefully in other’s good hands while I focused on my business.

Some years later, with all the turmoil of worldwide economic and political uncertainty, I can’t tell you how grateful I am that I have spent much more time on overseeing these issues and finding the advisers I could rely on, than I ever might have done without it.  You too?  

Three lessons I have learned

What I have found out from this experience, as time has passed, are three really important lessons I’d like to share with you.

  • Really valuable advice can come from quite unexpected quarters, often when we are least expecting it.  But we do have to be open to receiving it.

  • Much inherently useful but incidental advice can often transcend our concerns of the moment, and it doesn’t always depend on our own immediate agenda to be invaluable.

  • Don’t ignore your own private affairs in looking after your public, professional and business responsibilities!

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