Guess Who? and Giving Advice
December 10, 2010
It is human nature to take inductive steps to solving a problem, and the same goes for giving friends advice. Advising a friend can cover anything from helping them figure out what is bothering them to helping them solve a crisis. When it comes to advising our friends, it’s nice to think that we will know the answer before they do; that can describe to them what they are thinking and feeling better then they can. You may often find yourself in conversations with friends giving them advice on a problem based on your expertise or experience. When we can tell someone what is bothering them before they even know, it gives us a sense of self worth, as we feel we can tangibly see what we are bringing to the table in a friendly or romantic relationship. What we don’t realize is that when we make these leaping judgements and assumptions, there are a few things that can go wrong. First, they themselves might not even know why they are upset, or even be willing to admit to themselves that something is wrong. Even when you might be right in this case, your assumptions might cause someone to become defensive. Another option that might occur is you may be downright incorrect and cause someone to feel hurt. This tactic is equivalent to shooting blindly in the dark, in a room with a small target and many sensitive ones.
Think of advising a friend as a game of Guess Who?. For those of you who don’t know, Guess Who? is a game where each player has a board with 24 different characters with different physical traits. Each player then draws a card which contains one of the 24 characters who they keep hidden from the other player. The players then take turns asking each other yes and no questions about their character to eliminate possibilities of who that character is. Questions such as “are you a boy?” or “do you have red hair?” This process repeats until you can narrow down the field enough to ask “are you ____?” and guess the name character they are. First player to “guess who” before the other player wins.
At this time, anyone who took statistics in University knows the best way to play this game. You should always ask questions that separate the suspected population by 50%. That way, right or wrong, you will each question wittle your way down to the correct answer. The alternative is asking a question that might have 75% to 25% separation for example. This means you are more likely to end up with the 75% of the population still as suspects. Relating this back to our initial problem, think of advice you give to your friend as each of the possible “characters” you want to guess, with the right character as the “right” advice that your friend needs to hear. When we try to guess exactly what is wrong right out of the gate, this is akin to asking “Are you Frank?” or your first move. People would marvel at your clairvoyance and picking the right character in one try, but in reality you have only a 1/24 chance of getting it right. In reality, you’re more lucky than you are brilliant. From this example, we can also see that when your discussing an abstract problem, that 1/24 change will probably fall to almost nothing. Further to that, when you’re advising a friend you aren’t restricted to yes/no questions. You can ask them open ended ones, like a basic “is there something on your mind?”
Now we might not get the answer in that situation, but that is when you can start asking questions. The right questions. It would nice to be (or at least be seen as) people who can derive everything about your personality from one look. The truth is that people that appear to be able to do this (psychologists, judges, lawyers) are actually just asking the right questions up front. It’s nice to hear a friend tell us “Claire, you know me better then I know myself”, but unfortunately there is simply no truth to such a blanket statement. You may know some side of that person in great detail, but that person will always know the entirety of themselves better than you ever will, they may just not have the confidence to admit it, or want to admit it at all! At best, you’ve only spent fleeting moments in their shoes, and even then its only a bit of the full picture. The only person that knows the whole story is themselves, start to finish.
The worst part about giving advice without all the information is that the advice you give could end up being harmful because of your limited information. Think about when you’ve had a really bad day at work. You meet a friend after work and have a beer. While you try to act like you’re OK cause you don’t want to talk about your day, your just not able to. Then your friend pipes in; “You seem distracted. Are you mad at me?” Suddenly, your feeling guilty for letting them feel like that. The better question for them to ask would be “Is something on your mind?” Not only do you feel more comfortable that your friend noticed your distress, but suddenly you’ve been given permission to vent. Of course your friend could have guessed “Did you have a bad day at work?” and you would have been in awe at their ability to guess, but more likely and given the breadth of knowledge of stuff a friend knows about you, chances are just as likely they might have guessed “Are there problems at home?”, “Are you thinking about your ex?” or worse “Am I boring you?” By taking the non-accusatory route, you feel immediately more comfortable to voice your troubles together
I urge you to stop yourself from jumping into giving your friends advice. Even when they come looking or asking for it, try to spend a good amount of time listening first. Walk along a path of thought with your friend and ask them questions and get as much information as you can. While asking the right questions, you might even help them solve the problem themselves just by helping them vocalize the issue (this process is actually called Coaching, but more on that later). Sometimes the most valuable way to help your friends is to find out first what the problem ISN’T. Try to view the situation from a neutral place. Ask the right questions, and keep narrowing down till the advice just pops out at. Try asking if the suspect has white hair, before jumping to conclusions and asking “Are you Frank?”