Outswimming the Sharks: The best advice is to give less of it

One afternoon when American League baseball umpire Bill Guthrie was working behind the plate, the visiting team's catcher repeatedly protested his calls. Guthrie endured this for three innings. But in the fourth inning, when the catcher started to complain again, Guthrie stopped him.

"Son," he said gently, "you've been a big help to me calling balls and strikes, and I appreciate it. But I think I've got the hang of it now. So I'm going to ask you to go to the clubhouse and show them how to take a shower."

There is a time to provide advice and offer an opinion, and there is a time not to. Don't be too quick to offer unsolicited advice. It certainly will not endear you to people. Sometimes it's better to wait for people to ask for advice or to be judicious in doling out advice.

Socrates learned this the hard way. The Greek philosopher went around giving people good advice. And they poisoned him.

Over the years I have been asked for business advice, career advice, public speaking advice, writing advice, travel advice, fundraising advice and advice on topics I've never even heard of. Each time, I take a deep breath and hope what I have to offer will be helpful and pertinent.

As I write my weekly column, speak to a business organization or choose topics for one of my books, I try to cover subjects that affect businesspeople everywhere. Through stories, examples and morals, I offer my thoughts on how to handle a variety of issues.

I realize that people are reading what I write and figuring out whether they can apply my ideas. If my advice is helpful, I have made a friend for life.

Before you respond to a request for advice, heed Habit 5 in Stephen Covey's classic "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People": "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."

When you have the strong urge to make someone understand your point of view, you should always step back and think before you speak. Why? Because you need to ask yourself what kind of situation you are commenting on. Has your opinion been requested? Do you have the experience or authority to offer help?

If you give advice, will it be appreciated -- or rejected without being considered? If the other person truly is seeking help in solving a concrete problem, then advice might be appreciated. But if not, you should consider that the other person might merely be looking for someone to listen to what his problem is. In this case, advice is not usually appropriate or desired by the other party. This is a skill that is learned over time: determining the best response to another's needs.

The real secret of giving advice is this: Once you've given it, don't concern yourself with whether it is followed, and refrain from saying "I told you so." When advice is freely given, the receiver is free to use it as he or she sees fit.

The bottom line is to be picky about to whom and when you give advice. If you are concerned that your words may make you responsible for undesirable results beyond your control, think twice before you speak. If you know the person is asking for your insights just to be polite or politically correct, decline graciously. You might say, "I'm not sure I'm qualified to help you."

And as you are choosing your words and who will benefit from them, keep this in mind: The best way to succeed in life is to act on the advice we give to others. If you wouldn't follow your own advice, you shouldn't share it.

Mackay's Moral: A person is silly who will not take anyone's advice, but a person is ignorant who takes everyone's advice.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman and author. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or send e-mail to harvey@mackay.com. His column is distributed by United Feature Syndicate.

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