If you have problems with work-life balance or stress, it would seem logical to seek advice. But that’s not something we are prone to do, according to Pittsburgh-based entrepreneur and author Raul Valdes-Perez.
We might vent. But seeking advice is so rare – in work and in life, even in an era of counselling and consultants – that he has written a manual to encourage the process and help us navigate the terrain. “The book came about as I kept observing that people don’t seek advice and therefore make mistakes that are avoidable,” he says in an interview.
He adds in Advice is for Winners: “No matter how knowledgeable, smart, or experienced you are about an issue, someone else is more knowledgeable, smarter, or more experienced than you, with few exceptions! And that person may even be down the hall from you.”
This lapse traces back to childhood, he notes. We’re trained to give thanks when receiving a favour or to excuse ourselves when we cause difficulty. But in adolescence we are rarely trained when facing a problem to ask if we have the knowledge needed to address the problem and, if not, who does and can help. Instead, we tend to go at it alone.
He observes that the research doesn’t show any gender differences on this attribute, despite our sense that women are more likely to share with friends about their personal life than men and more likely than men to ask for directions when lost. There are some cultural differences, but generally we all are weak on seeking advice.
We do know enough to seek medical or legal advice for quandaries in those areas (although men slower than women on health issues). But he notes that most problems in life are not medical or legal and it doesn’t occur to us to ask for advice.
He differentiates advice-seeking from networking. Networking is an activity that we undertake to increase our circle of relationships. Advice seeking is driven by specific problems or issues. “The best networker in the world might not actively seek advice, much less be skilled at it. Conversely, a skilled advice seeker need not have many acquaintances, although this definitely helps,” he writes.
He lists 28 reasons we don’t seek advice, in four categories: intellectual, emotional, social, or biological. We may believe seeking advice shows weakness, or prefer to act than think things through, or believe others dislike giving advice, or don’t know who to ask, or, in our late teen years and early 20s, be too risk prone for such a conservative action.
But the No. 1 reason, which he repeats over and over again, is that it simply doesn’t occur to us. We don’t go through the process of asking ourselves when we hit an uncomfortable situation: Do I have what it takes to handle this well, or should I seek advice? “It’s a problem of reasoning and imagination,” he says.
Your stress levels are going through the roof? That’s a question on which you might seek advice. Should you send your child to a private school? A question for advice. Should you go to university, community college, or work? A question for advice. What’s the best neighbourhood in which to buy a house? A question for advice. Your career isn’t going anywhere and it may be time for a change? A question for advice. Indeed, such issues abound in our life, not just at work but outside of work.
He says good advisers are experienced, discreet, good listeners, serene or unburdened, and able to teach and convey principles. They are also humble. And obviously they should care about you. It’s important that you match the adviser to your needs, which apart from the details of the specific problem at hand breaks down more generally into these five categories delineated in the scholarly literature:
Solution: You want the adviser to provide information that will be used to generate solutions to the specific problem, especially how-to information.
Pointers: The adviser will give pointers or documents that relate to the issue at hand.
Framing: The adviser will help to define the issue, perhaps pointing out aspects of a problem that may not have been recognized yet or helping to change how you look at the matter.
Validation: An adviser provides assurance that your approach or solutions make sense.
Legitimation: The credibility of the adviser helps you to move ahead towards a solution.
“Good advice depends on your circumstances and goals,” he says. “So good advisers have to be good listeners.” Good advice is actually an art, which takes practice when we’re in that role.
As for advice-seeking, he warns young people to not think that any piece of information they see on the Internet is actually useful advice that might help them. Learn to judge the quality of that “advice.” It’s also important to be open-minded, and not seek confirmation of your biases: Advisers, or advice, that fits our preconceptions.
But the most important thing: Get in the habit of thinking about asking for advice when you are struggling with work-life balance issues.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter