The Big Idea
Beware of the monsters you create. Beware of the monsters you have. Beware of whose monsters you invite in.
We have ‘monsters’ in our lives – they might be things, places or people – and in case you are still taking us literally here, we are not talking literal monsters here. Also the kind of monsters we are talking about here are not the Monsters Inc film cute and cuddly ones, we mean the darkest part of our temperament which we would rather ignore and pretend we don’t have hidden. Like the films, most of us like to hide our monsters in the closet. The issue is that these monsters like to make an appearance and strut their stuff. They are the disowned part of our psyche that wants to take a seat at the wheel and is usually triggered by an event or circumstances that can be more hidden in plain sight than we might like to admit. The problem with ‘monsters’ is that they can be easy to invite into our lives, feed and pass onto others. Monsters are often the part of us that is meaning to help us; they have our best interests at heart, they want to protect you and even others. But, and here it is, monsters can be difficult to tame and left to their own devices can bring some unruly and rather unpleasant outcomes.
This is why we thought that monsters and how to better manage them is such an important #Tip.
In this case we are particularly interested in one of the most stealthy and destructive monsters – so wonderfully named by Michael Bungay Stanier as – your ‘advice monster’.
How many of us, when asked our opinions by family, friends and work colleagues take this as the cue to give them our advice, direct and undiluted from the mouth of wisdom and experience – namely our own? Where we so often go straight to advice (telling) mode. Unfortunately this is giving to our ‘advice monster’ and, , at the same time, falling into the, ‘advice trap’ (Michael Bungay Stanier). This so often feeds the monster, ignores the person with the issue, as we seek to help (by telling) what someone needs to do in their life, to get it ‘right’. Our advice monsters here feed off assumptions and half-put-together facts that in the end don’t really help the people we are talking with. Our advice monsters actually denies others the opportunities to grow themselves, to find better solutions to challenges that they have, in ways that are far more likely to have success and meaning. What’s more, most of the advice we ever give is actually ignored and so a complete waste of breath and time. A better way is to learn to tame your advice monster by asking more questions. Questions that are full of curiosity and devoid of judgement. Taming your advice monster like this can make you a better parent, teacher, teammate, partner, friend and leader.
And that’s not all! As our Jen reminds us, taming our ‘advice monsters’ can also tame our ‘post-truth’ monsters. These are the monsters born out of part truths and advice that then morph into the ‘facts’ that we all struggle to filter out thanks to the avalanche of media that we are exposed to every day.
Got it…What’s the Science
We start here where we have visited before and that is that these monsters are created because our brains lie to us – constantly. Every second of every day we are exposed to a deluge of data. Our brains have evolved to deal with this data by filtering out (and in) information that is likely to get us the best result quickest. After all it can only deal with much, much smaller amount of information at any one time. These filters are the sum of biases that are born out of our life experience. Biases tend to operate at a subconscious level and are our brains kind of short cuts. These short cuts and the study of them is called heuristics. A short cut intends to help us make quicker decisions more effectively. The problem is that these short cuts are innately based on partial data, that has been interpreted by our own filters, to give us a good enough fit for us. Remember, as far as our brains go, our perception is not only our reality, but more often than not, what we think is other people’s reality too. This in turn is the mother of all assumptions. In this fascinating, complex process our brain has for better or worse lied about what is really ‘real’. It has trades complexity for certainty. Certainty that is good enough means we should live to see another day and get good enough results in our work and relationships.
It is now that we see our advice monster making it’s appearance too. The saddest and deadliest assumption that we tend to blunder into (unconsciously) is that our own short cuts have not only led to us being successful but will also lead others, like ourselves (similar roles, relationships), into success. We want to help them after all – so what’s the problem. The biggest problem here again is that we are trying to short cut the very process that really needs to happen for someone else for themselves (i.e. using their own thinking). Sometimes of course this absolutely necessary to short cut – as time really is of the essence! For example, shouting warning to stop someone being hit by a bus is going to be much better all round than trying to explore how they feel about it as the bus hurtles to your friend…
The darker side here is that advice is also a form of control. We tend to find it much less frightening if someone approaches an issue in the same kind of way we did. It validates our own actions whilst simultaneously robbing someone else of their capacity to come up with their own way of doing something – and dare we say a better way? This fear response we have come across so often with The52Project on @the52tips already. Fear leads to closed off (tunnel vision) thinking, thanks to less blood flow to the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Fear also tends to be a state we try and avoid. Brain wiring wise, the threat of a painful stimulus is much more powerful and effective(around five times) than a pleasurable experience. So protecting ourselves from the fear of opening our selves up to criticism means we tend to prefer to give advice. It is a shadow of control. Unfortunately command and control (autocratic) is still all too often seen as the characteristics of a true leader. Thought leaders in business, such as David Rock and Michael Bungay Stainer, have realised how damaging this process is, where the advice monster actually robs organisations, teams and families of the creativity, diversity, connection (trust) and capacity that could be instead released if only more ‘advice monsters’ could be tamed. David Rock calls this ‘quiet leadership’, Michael Bungay Stanier calls this ‘the coaching habit’. By simply asking an open question we open up creativity and possibility. we also reduce the stress and limited thoughts that others can have when our advice triggers their defence / threat responses (Fight, Flight, Freeze, Flock). Mark Fritz also speaks to how an advice driven leader is one that tends to be the one that, not only better be right, is more often not the rate limiting factor in the organisation. In other words, the businesses of autocratic leaders, are limited in how productive, efficient and flexible they can be – because it can only go as fast as the leader. Not only do these leaders tend to be unliked and less trusted and respected they are also the ones that tend to burn out more quickly and have a higher turn over of staff. And all this because they let the advice monster in and feed it rather than challenge and manage it by asking questions.
This then brings us to post truth. We have a myriad of psychological biases including the ‘confirmation’, ‘anchoring’ and ‘hindsight’ biases that right our narrative (episodic memory) to justify our action and so why we should do that kind of action next time. The problem is that with so much information floating concisely and unconsciously via the Internet and social media, our advice monster can have another platform to feed itself, to morph into something quit monstrous which can quite literally kill. The freedom of speech and publication means, despite having many advantages, can be very difficult to discern what is real – or at least what is probably best. Just mentioning vaccinations will let you know what we mean. This triggers the flock (#Tip34) and we tend to herd with our flock (apologies for mixed collectives there) – those that see the world in the similar ways as us. In other words we tend to go with what others in our flock are doing. How many lives could have been saved if we had given space for, and truly valued, differing perspectives from curious questions to the legitimacy of the various genocides over the last 100 years?! These parts of history are a sober and very real warning how our ‘monsters’, left unchecked, means we can so easily become the living embodiment of our worst nightmares. Before you loose faith in your humanity there are thinking tools, like Roger Steare’s RIGHT model, that can help you challenge your thinking. And if you are still struggling give us a call, we’d love to help.
Watch our #Tip36 on the Instagram Live Recording….
With our Jen Smith (@DigitalJen)
‘The Coaching Habit’ and ‘The Advice Trap‘ – books by Michael Bungay Stainer [these books are superb, very accessible, and are played a significant part in our Dr. Iain becoming a professional coach.]
‘Quiet Leadership‘ – book by David Rock
The Surprising Power of Questions – Harvard Business Review article (May/June 2018)
How to Persuade People to Change Their Behavior – Harvard Business Review article (April 2020)
Just because our brain likes to make to make short cuts, does not mean it has to, or indeed that it is the best way of doing things.
In our personal and professional lives we are constantly surprised at how easy and loud the advice monster can be. Managing the advice monster is a skill that any professional life or executive coach will tell you is an ongoing mental discipline and skill. Like any skill it can be learned and it gets easier and more effective the more we practice it and make it our new go-to habit – as Michael Bungay Stanier’s colleague coined it – our ‘coaching habit’.
Some say that the mightiest weapon is the pen. We think it’s more likely to be questions.
We’d love to know how you find this #Tip and what other monsters you tame or would like to tame. So why don’t you get in touch via DM or the feedback form on this website.
Tales from our Test Partners
Watch this space…
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