We all do it.
Before asked, we offer advice to other people’s problems.
It’s hard to know, however, when a colleague is genuinely soliciting advice, and when they’re just complaining about the task at hand.
At times, a one-sided conversation helps to uncover solutions organically. Just by talking aloud (to another person or to oneself), you discover the missing piece to a solvable puzzle.
Other times, talking provides a forum for brainstorming—for collective thinking—essential for any code breaking activity. Without multiple opinions or ideas, the task at hand might have been impossible.
So, when a colleague enters your office in a ramble, how do you know what advice to offer, or if you should offer it at all?
1. Evaluate your relationship
If a colleague approaches you with an alleged interest in obtaining advice about a problem, evaluate your relationship to them.
Are you two friends? Distant colleagues? Are you on the same case matter? Are you their superior?
If you happen to be a passer-by, it’s possible that your advice is not needed. You serve the purpose of “listener” or “witness” to a problem-solving speech. In that case, consider asking questions instead of proffering advice.
For example, ask them directive questions like, “what would happen if you did such and such?” or “do you think your boss would like that idea?” That way, the person handles the situation alone.
If, however, you are in a position of leadership, it’s more than likely your colleague is sincerely soliciting advice. In this case, be careful what you say. It’s likely this person is highly impressionable, and simple suggestions may turn into words set in stone.
2. Look for specifics
When a colleague describes a problem to you, it’s possible they’ve never actually asked your opinion. It’s human nature to give it, nonetheless.
But, look for specifics. Did this person ask you a pointed question, such as, “what would you do?”
Or, were they simply announcing troublesome news?
3. Keep on target
Finally, there are certain professional situations where it’s obvious your advice is desired. In this case, try to provide productive input, as opposed to personal input.
Productive input would help advance a case, benefit the firm or client, or increase your colleague’s standing at the firm.
Personal input is shallow or self-serving—for instance, prefacing your advice with a critique about how this person has already mishandled the situation.
More than likely, if a person is looking for outside help, they’ve already gone off track. Focus the conversation on the issue at hand and concrete, implementable ideas to solve it.
If you provide productive input to a colleague’s work problem—as opposed to chastisement or your own, subtle agenda—they’ll be more eager to help you in return, when the time comes (and know that it will!).