On giving advice acceptably and how to ask questions

Aggressive questioning or overbearing advising is likely to bring up the barriers: the recipient will become defensive and that will defeat the object of the exercise before it is started.

We all need to learn the skills of advising and questioning, particularly so, if we wish to become part time or Independent Directors. “I call a spade a spade” is not always the most effective way to ensure excellent communication and therefore of making a contribution to the discussion.

Rule 1

You cannot offer useful advice until you understand the matter under discussion and that means you must ask pertinent questions.

We’ve all met the person who starts making statements before we have even finished explaining the situation and what it is we wish help with, haven’t we? Find out first what it is all about; ask some questions, so that when you offer your advice, you clearly understand the position.

Rule 2

Questions need to elicit the right answers.

The right answers are given without any feeling of defending a particular position. This means the question being considered carefully before being asked, and then being posed diplomatically but clearly.
Wrong – why don’t you…?
Right – what would happen if…?
or – have you considered…?

“Why on earth did you do that?”, suggests that they should have done something different. They are immediately on the defensive and try to justify their actions so far. This will not help you to understand their thinking.

Rule 3

Have you heard all of the answer; spoken and unspoken?

You need to know something about the people/person of whom you are asking the questions. You need to know from where they are coming as this affects their spoken answers. You may need to ask supplementary questions; to probe a little.

If the person of whom you are asking the question is the sort who seeks advantage over others, then you will get an answer that promotes that position. Similarly, a person who lacks confidence is going to give you a “safe” answer, which does not expose him/her to ridicule or attack.

Rule 4

Are they genuinely seeking advice and guidance or merely confirmation that their view is correct/acceptable?

“You do agree, don’t you?” is not the reply of someone looking for an honest opinion! “These seem to be the alternatives; what are your thoughts as to which action we should take” sounds much more like a real request for advice and help.

The person who states an opinion, probably pretty firmly, and then invites you to disagree, does not really want you to do so and will defend his position strongly, if you do voice a different view.

Rule 5

Best of all is to be able to offer advice in such a way that others make the decision and therefore subscribe to it fully.
“You might like to consider…….”
“These seem to be the viable alternatives,…with these advantages…….”
“This seems to be the best conclusion because…..”
Try always to be impersonal and avoid the “I suggest you do this” approach

This really follows from the point in rule 4. If others make a decision or statement, publicly, they are committed to it. They have pinned their colours to the mast. Therefore the objective is to persuade others to adopt your ideas as if they were their own. Then they are committed. Not easy to achieve, but well worth aiming for.

Rule 6

Remember you are discussing business options – what is best for the company.

But acknowledge where you know your proposal is going to upset/offend an individual and think of a way of softening your approach. “Now I realise that this means X will have to……How can we help……..?

A manager who is being “attacked” or who feels threatened because of some proposal, will inevitably be defensive and when you are defensive your arguments become emotional and not detached. If you wish to avoid emotional discussion, it is vital you adjust your approach so as to soften or eliminate the likelihood of such a reaction.

Rule 7

If you are chairman or an Independent Director, part of your role is to play devil’s advocate and to probe the decision to make sure that it is the best one for the organisation.

But don’t be aggressive or appear deliberately stupid. It must be a constructive debate.

Putting up other ideas, even if you do not believe fully in them yourself, is not difficult if you adopt the “can I be sure we have considered all the possibilities. What would happen if…?” approach. You may even find that you change your own mind in the end as to the best solution!

Rule 8

Your effectiveness in asking questions and giving advice will be in direct proportion to the regard in which you are held by the others.

If there is no empathy, you will be a failure at both asking questions and getting the right answers as well as at giving effective advice.

None of us listen very well to people for whom we have no respect. When somebody you do not respect is talking, you are likely not hear what is being suggested and may well miss an important point. Thus it is important to respect and to be respected. Respect is earned and it is up to you to build up your respect in the minds of others, so that they are willing, indeed eager, to hear what you have to say, even if it is a little uncomfortable at times. “He only speaks when he has something useful to say” or “He doesn’t say much, but when he does, he goes right to the heart of the matter” are two statements to which we should all aspire.

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