The Advice Trap

„The Advice Trap“ by Michael Bungay Stanier is a paradox in itself. It provides advice about not giving advice.

          The idea behind the book is not refraining from providing advice altogether, but from delaying the advice instance a little longer.

The reason for this is easy: most of the time we believe we get to the bottom of the issue and hurry to provide advice. Most of the time, Michael Bungay Stanier tells us it’s not always so.

When we talk to a person and find out that they have a problem, a lot of the time, that problem is not the real problem. The more questions we ask, the more we get to the bottom of the real issue. Now, if we scratch the surface only and rush into the advice trap, we provide advice to the wrong problem and remain oblivious of the true issue.

As Naguib Mahfouz says: “You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions”.

Avoiding the trap


In his “Never split the difference”, former FBI hostage negotiator, Chris Voss tells us that initiating a negotiation is always a bad move.

People believe that, if they begin the negotiation, they will have a position of initial advantage. Nothing can be further from the truth. When we are the ones initiating the negotiation, we put ourselves in a position of disadvantage.

Our first task in an initial encounter is to gather information. When we are the ones talking, we cannot ask questions. And asking questions is the way to get to the important pieces of information. The more we get the other side to talk, the more we find out. The more we find out, the better are our chances at discovering key points.

The key to a great negotiation “session” is for both parties to get what they want. Negotiating is not about us winning while the other side loses, but about both sides getting what they need.

Much like Chris Voss in “Never Split the Difference”, Michael Bungay Stanier explains to us that giving advice is not a bad thing, but it comes at a cost.

Providing advice makes us better


When we give advice we tend to put out a message that we are better than the other person. It’s not even about the advice itself. It’s about the fact that the moment we say that we are right, through our piece of advice, we automatically admit that the other side is wrong.

The need to become “Advice monsters” is deep-rooted in ourselves. We need to prove our worthiness and if we cannot provide advice if we are not the ones saving the day, then what are we?

We are enablers for others. The answer is there. We just need to make the other person see it for himself/herself. We shouldn’t provide the answer, but provide questions leading to the answer. Let the other side save face and prove themselves that they are just as capable as we are.

The three personas of the Advice Monster




Tell-It is the loudest persona of the Advice Monster. Tell-It is there to convince us that we are hired to have the answers. If we don’t have the answers, we failed at doing our job. Having the answer is the only way to get value and be recognized as a success.

Tell-it loves the spotlight and appears when time is short and things feel urgent. For Tell-It, things are urgent all the time. This persona wants you to believe that you know best. You are the authority, seniority, and wisdom, privilege, and “I know best”.

Save-It is less assured than Tell-It but just as damaging. Its tactics is to take you aside and explain, earnestly, that if it wasn’t for you holding it all together, everything would fail. Your job is to be responsible for every person, situation, and outcome.

He is prevalent when potential conflict is at play. A faint odor of burning martyr. Wants you to believe that you’re the most responsible person there.

Control-It is the most tricky of the three. It’s a black room operator. With gentle authority, he will assure you that the only way to succeed is to stay in control at all times. Don’t trust others, share power, and cede control. If you let control slip, even just a little, disaster will befall us all. He has delusions of grandeur. Ever-present, but discreet, manipulative, and in the background.

Advice Monster or …?


          No matter which of the Advice Monster’s Persona touched a chord with you, all of them share DNA, a core belief that when the Advice Monster is at play: you are better than the other person.

          When we choose to let the Monster out, because it’s, in the end, a choice and not something involuntary, we do it at a cost. The cost is our Future Us. Our Present selves are saved but the cost of the Future Us is sometimes too high.

          The moment we understand and are willing to accept the consequences, we are on our own.

Easy Change vs. Hard Change


          Everyone believes that change is difficult, when in fact, we do it all the time. We start a new job and get the hang of it quickly enough. Take a new route to the office. Learn a new skill at work, start a new relationship. Start by not knowing, figure it out, practice it a bit, get better and eventually master it.

          That’s Easy Change and we are pretty good at it.

          On the other hand, we have a New Year’s resolution. It’s the kind of change that we set, we struggle with and fail, then start all over again. Hard Change is a little trickier but not impossible. Eventually, we get it and we even forget how the change came about.


So, advice or no advice?

          Whenever we are in a position to provide advice, we should take a small break and ask ourselves whether the issue at hand is the real problem.

          Ask additional questions to find out whether there’s more to the issue than meets the eye. Otherwise, instead of solving the real problem, we are only making it worse.

          Providing advice is disguised in proving ourselves that we are right, that we have the solution when the others are lacking.

          Kevin Dutton in his “The art of split-second persuasion” tells us that our brains love a good challenge. The moment we are confronted with a problem, our brains go to work to find solutions.

          That’s where our Advice Monster kicks in. He wants to provide the solution as fast as possible, providing that he is capable of where the others have failed.

          “The Advice Trap” provides us with some guidelines on how to best tame and keep under control our Advice Monster. It shows us that advice is helpful the moment we empower others to find solutions by themselves. It’s not an easy task.

Our happy brain 


In “The happy brain”, Dean Burnett tells us that we are involuntarily happy when others suffer a temporary defeat. Just like animals, we are under the false impression that when others fail, we have the chance to advance ourselves on the social ladder. Nothing can be more wrong. Even if the others fail, there’s no guarantee that we shall prevail.

          Refraining from advice is hard, but not impossible. We just have to get over the idea that we are better than other people and give them a chance to figure things out for themselves. Ask questions and guide answers. Suggest instead of imposing advice patterns.

We sometimes forget we are also human and are bound to make mistakes.


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