How to be a Good Adviser by Playing Pretend

Upon leaving a job about a year ago, at my going away party one of my friends and coworkers asked me if I had any advice to pass on to the team. At the time, I stated that my advice was not to give generalized advice without a specific issue in mind, because it wouldn’t contain actionable information that would improve the receiver’s experience. With the benefit of time, I can see that there are a few more wrinkles to discuss regarding advising.

Most of my early experience with advising was from my school and university years. Later, I’d go on to advise my friends on their business ventures by asking questions then following up with more questions. I’ll disclose a caveat to my thinking on advising: I’ve never been so keen on asking for advice because of all the bad advice I’ve received over the years. My negative advising experiences have given me a lot of ideas to chew on, though.

There is a distinction between offering a piece of advice, and being an actual adviser, and for this piece I’ll touch on both, with an emphasis on the latter.  I’d like to revisit that sentiment and delve a little bit deeper. Before I do, a brief discussion of what advice is and what advisers are is in order.

Generally speaking, people are familiar with the concept of taking advice from others regarding areas outside their expertise. Additionally, people are usually comfortable with the idea of providing advice to others when prompted– and, frequently to the frustration of others, when they are not prompted. Advice is the transfer of topical information or data by a third party to a person looking for a good outcome. A large volume of our communications are offering, requesting, or clarifying advice.

The concept of advice as information will be familiar to almost everyone. Frequently, the topical information that is elicited by a request for advice is anecdotal. If the adviser is careless or not directed, the anecdotal information offered to the advised may merely be tangentially related or actually unrelated to the issue at hand. Not everyone pays close attention to their outgoing advice if they have no skin in the game. The main problem with anecdotal evidence is that it refers to specific instances of a trend rather than the rules which govern that trend. Yet, most advice is anecdotal, perhaps as an artifact of humanity’s sensitivity to personal stories rather than hard data or universal laws.

Informally, it’s nearly impossible to escape anecdotal evidence when requesting or giving advice. Frequently, an adviser will forgo telling the actual anecdote, and skip right to the advice that they have distilled from their own experience, leaving the advised with an even more incomplete view. This has predictable consequences when paired with people’s tendency to do as others tell them. Using an incomplete group of anecdotes culled from the experience of others and processed from an uncomfortable position of ignorance, decisions are made based on the emotions of others rather than clear-headed analysis.

I am sure nearly everyone has received completely heartfelt yet completely detrimental advice in their time. If we are lucky, we avoid the consequences of receiving bad advice and catch the mistakes of our advisers in time to reject their thoughts and prevent internalization. If we are unlucky, we follow the path to nowhere and are upset with the results.

Part of maturity is understanding that while others are capable of delivering bad advice, we too are likely to give bad advice if given the chance. We don’t have to commit to delivering advice if we don’t feel qualified, nor do we have to ask for advice or follow advice once given. Advice is just a perspective on an issue, and not all perspectives are equal.

Critically, good advice is specific and actionable rather than vague. If the best that an adviser can do is offer a general direction to follow up on, you’re outside the realm of their experience or outside the amount of effort they’re willing to invest in you. A typical red flag for bad advice is that it’s delivered quickly, sleepily, or nearly automatically.

Good advising is extremely effort intensive! Rid yourself of advisers that don’t respect you enough to apply themselves fully. In my experience, the prototypical awful adviser is coerced into the role rather than choosing it themselves. University advisers are the worst example of being forced into advising. Identify which advisers are around only because they’re required to be, and then avoid them and their bad advice.

So, how are we going to limit our ability to deliver bad advice and maximize our delivery of good advice? Should we simply stonewall all requests for advice and refuse to ask others for help? I don’t think that this is the answer, because advice is one of the principle ways in which we can share the experiences of others and make use of experiences that we have not had ourselves. Sharing experiences is a critical component to being human, and it’s unlikely that we could stop even if we tried.

The way that I propose to avoid delivering bad advice and to actually deliver good advice is to use a mind-trick on ourselves. The mind-trick that I am referring to is playing pretend. First, I’ll need to build a mental image of the thing I want to pretend to be– the best possible adviser– then when it’s time to give advice, I’ll be able to pretend to be the embodiment of the image and put myself in the correct mindset for delivering good advice. After I’ve built the barebones of this mental image, taking it out for a test run with a hypothetical request for advice will help to fill in the details and also provide a template for how to think when it’s time to deliver real advice.

What are the properties of this mental image of the ideal adviser? I think that the perfect adviser is a professorial figure, and so adopting an academic tone and patient, receptive train of thought is necessary. Advising someone else shouldn’t be careless or haphazard, so the perfect adviser should mentally state an intention to provide their undivided and complete attention to the pupil for the duration of the session. The aim is to achieve a meditative focus on the present where the power of the adviser’s knowledge and experience can act without interference. The adviser is never emotional. Value judgments are deferred or unstated; the details and the pupil are at the forefront.

In order to advise properly, this professorial type will know the limits of his knowledge as well as his strong points, and will weight his statements to the pupil in accordance with how much he really knows, making sure to be precise with his language and to qualify his statements. Reaching the limits of the adviser’s knowledge isn’t something to be ashamed of, as it’s an interesting challenge for the ideal adviser to chew on.

The aim of the perfect adviser is to consider the particular details of the situation of his pupil, relate them to the universal trends which the adviser has uncovered with conscious effort, and then use a combination of the universal trends and the particulars of the pupil to offer a prescription for action. The mental image of the adviser will explicitly recite the universal trends to himself as he ponders the direction to indicate to his pupil. The conversation between the pupil and the adviser is marked by long pauses as the adviser takes the time to call critical trends and details into his working memory so that the pupil may make use of them. Advising is a conversation that can’t be rushed, because the adviser might forget to make an important connection of communicate in a precise way. The best advising has no time limit.

With each stanza of conversation, the adviser will find that his idea of the prescription in progress is stalled by a facet of the pupil’s situation which hasn’t been discussed. The adviser asks deeply focused questions which will unblock the progress of making his advice draft. The draft will have to be completely reworked in light of information gathered from the pupil. Once the draft is completed, the adviser will ask validating questions to see whether their draft is workable and realistic. Upon validation, the adviser will deliver the draft in a reassuring yet detached fashion.

I actually use this mental image when I’m called on to give advice, and I think it helps a lot. “Playing pretend” is just a convenient way of stepping into a foreign mindset without getting too self conscious. The important takeaway here is that the mindset of being a good adviser is very different from our normal range of thought because it is both clinical and creative. Clinical in the sense that facts and particulars are recognizable within a general framework, and creative in the sense that the solution to the clinically described problem probably doesn’t have a pre-established treatment.

Advising is a skill that can be learned and perfected, though it’s seldom prioritized. I think that prioritizing becoming a good adviser is absolutely essential if you think that giving advice is a core part of what you do. For the most part, “first do no harm” is a maxim that I wish more advisers practiced. If you liked this article, follow me on Twitter @cryoshon and check out my Patreon page! I’ll probably revisit this article when I have a bit more experience advising.