Should You Give Advice or Coach?

“Hey, I need a sounding board. Can I run something past you?” This is pretty typical at work, especially if you’re a leader. But what if you’re not in a position of titled leadership? If you’re an individual contributor, congratulations! Somebody sees you as a trustworthy confidant. Should you offer advice or coach them? Is there a difference? Should you coach if you’re not a leader? Here’s what you need to know to be a helpful collaborator to a peer.

Peer Communication at Work: Advice versus Coaching

All colleagues can be coaches, not just leaders. If someone asks you to be a sounding board, you are in a position to act as an informal coach to a peer. Before you open your mouth, be sure you’re clear on one thing: coaching is not giving someone advice. Here’s an important distinction: Giving advice is saying what you would do. It makes the conversation about you. Coaching helps people decide what they are going to do which sets up a potentially more powerful outcome.

3 Ways to Informally Coach a Colleague

Here are three tactics you can employ to coach your colleague towards a conclusion that is meaningful to them:

Facilitate exploration. When you are coaching someone, you’re helping him or her think through an issue. You don’t take responsibility for the outcome, you simply help guide the exploration using open-ended questions such as:

  • What do you make of that?
  • If you had to do it again, what would you do differently?
  • What do you want? If you got it, then what?
  • What are other options/possibilities?

Point out a distinction. I was talking with a colleague recently who was filling me in on his company’s massive reorganization. I wondered if his job was in jeopardy. He replied that he really enjoyed the specialized type of work he does, saying, “I can’t imagine doing anything else; I wouldn’t want to look for another job.” I casually remarked that those were two separate issues. It stopped him short. “Yeah, I guess they are.”

Help clarify. Many times, people need to “talk out loud” about their situation. Doing so helps them surface inconsistencies in their story and uncover gaps in their thought  process. Use helpful clarifying questions such as:

  • I hear you saying X and Y. Which option holds more power for you?
  • When you say <paraphrase what he/she just said>, what do you mean?
  • You seem to be caught in a circular thinking pattern. How can you break the cycle?
  • I’m hearing contradictions; what are you hearing?

So the next time someone says, “I need your advice,” make a mental note to take the conversation into coaching territory by using exploration, distinction and clarification. That is a way of stepping into a leadership role, if only for a few minutes. And that is far better than doling out advice.

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