‘Offering advice is a sign of good leadership, and asking for advice is a sign of intelligence. If the

exchange goes well, both parties benefit.’

By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

By now we should all know that how we do things is at least as important as what we are doing.

In fact, sometimes the how is more important than the what.

That’s the case, according to Harvard researcher, when it comes to asking for advice – and giving it. Asking “Can I pick your brain?” is not the best way to get the process started.

“The whole interaction is a subtle and intricate art. It requires emotional intelligence, self-awareness, restraint, diplomacy and patience,” said Harvard Business School professors Joshua D. Margolis and David A. Garvin in a 2015 Harvard Business Review article.

After 52 years of marriage I’d certainly have to agree.

My wife has a habit of asking me, “Will you do me a favor?” In the honeymoon stage of our marriage I always answered “yes.”

I can’t say that brought the honeymoon stage of our marriage to a premature end, but it’s possible.

I don’t remember the specifics after all these many years, but I do know that I eventually learned, one way or another, never to agree to an open-ended request of any sort. Now her question is greeted by my own: “What favor do you want me to do?”

Usually when I get the specifics, I agree to do the favor. (Fifty-two years of wedded bliss do not accrue for free.) But not always.

The ambiguity of human communication can be much more substantial in less loving, supportive contexts – say like at work. There it’s a huge help to know what you are asking for and then to ask for it in a clear and considerate way.

An important request is worthy of sound preparation.

Have you noticed?

Have you noticed that you like helping some co-workers more than others? Or that some of your co-workers seem to enjoy helping others more than you, or perhaps you more than others?

I certainly have to confess that while I generally enjoyed helping everyone I could on the job, there were some people I tried to avoid just to avoid their requests for help.

It wasn’t always clear to me why, but after having read an article by Gary Burnison, I have a better idea why I welcomed requests for advice from some people and avoided such requests from others.

It turned out I liked to assist those who made reasonably specific requests, especially when it came to time. “Can you spare 10 minutes?” was a lot more appealing than “I need to talk with you about something.”

Helping was more appealing when people formulated clear, concise questions and then listened to my responses. It helped too if they were generally inclined to follow my advice. If they never or almost never did, the whole listening and responding process came across as a big waste of time.

Burnison has a whole lot more helpful things to say about the process of asking for advice. Assuming you recognize how essential that process is, I heartily recommend his brief essay.