I will never forget the moment when I realized how harmful my advice had been. I’m speaking about the unsolicited advice that I had been force-feeding most of my adult life. I could not help myself. I genuinely wanted to help, solve people’s problems or enhance their situation. It seemed noble, helpful, and it made me feel good about me completely oblivious. In my moments of great intentions, I rarely stopped to consider what the person might need, if anything, from me. Sound familiar?
I was attending a large networking event when I bumped into Bob who shared his vision for a new non-profit venture to support entrepreneurs in developing countries. I thought, oh boy, this is right in my wheelhouse, and I can help Bob. I couldn’t wait to reveal my background of working with non-profits in Africa and Haiti. I started running at the mouth with my suggestions and connections that I knew Bob needed to receive. He was so polite and humbly agreed with every piece of information that I shared. I walked away with great certainty and pride that I had just inspired and helped advance Bob’s new venture. Yay me!
The networking portion concluded, and it was time to introduce the keynote speaker of the main event. As I sat down, I noticed Bob walking up to take the stage. The facilitator introduced Bob as one of the most accomplished businessmen of the year, appearing on the cover of multiple nationally recognized business magazines. Apparently, I forgot to subscribe, and I started to slink down a bit in my chair thinking, oh no, what did I just do?! The announcer went on to share a long list of business successes including taking two companies public. It could only get worse as the announcer began listing the awards for his philanthropic works supporting numerous non-profits with his time, business experience and financial resources. The purpose of the event was to raise awareness for a new non-profit venture, and you can probably guess who’s. That’s right, Bob’s! I’m now under the table hoping that Bob will not see me and give me a wink as my face turns blood red. Then it hit me. Bob would ever do that which made it even worse. So, I crawled further towards the table post to hang on and ride this out. I decided just to sneak out after the lights are turned off.
I learned some valuable lessons:
- Ask more, speak less! Spend more time learning about the person before assuming I have something to offer. Even those that I’ve known for years but met later in life as I might not be aware of their entire history. It would have been so great if I had taken the time to find out about Bob’s background instead of assuming that he was a beginner and that I had something to offer. I wish I had asked a few simple questions to discover his amazing experiences as a business leader and taken that opportunity to learn from him.
- Fools rush in! Ask the person if they have any needs before assuming that they need help or lack knowledge and experience. Typically, people are already knowledgeable in their chosen area, and most of us have had multiple careers and life experiences. Advice that someone needs is a positive contribution, but offering advice that someone doesn’t need or want can be harmful. Once I’ve asked about potential needs and learn that they have one, only then do I contemplate whether I have something of real value to offer for that particular need. Now, that’s helpful!
- Information overload! Offering my input sometimes creates more distraction for the recipient who has limited time. I realize now that I put them in a position of obligation to connect with someone or take action on what could be a dead end.
- Check the ego at the door! My intentions were genuine in wanting to help people, but unknowingly, my ego played a role in this self-serving behavior. In the story about Bob, he shared a snippet about this one venture, and my brain triggered “Ah, I’ve got the answer!” Except, Bob never asked a question. I realized that it was important for me to get my knowledge out to feel good about the exchange oblivious to the lack of value. The ego is a tricky cat so building self-awareness and seeking humbleness on a daily basis is key. Today, I’m driven to provide value more than offering what I know which takes selfless thought and careful listening. Do I still share advice? Absolutely! Sometimes I still slip up, but I do my best to qualify a genuine need and request their permission before I give.
Funny how things show up as a mirror in times of increasing awareness. Early this year, I attended another networking event, and now I’m the one sharing my new venture with others. Not one, but five, energetic small business owners with the best intentions share tips and suggestions about what I should be doing to be successful. They didn’t ask about my career or if I had any prior business experience, which I have a good bit. Like my situation with Bob, they put me in a box as a mere amateur and in one instance assumed that I needed financial help! YIKES! My reaction was the same as Bob’s. I was polite and humbly agreed with every piece of information presented. It was an uncomfortable experience because I was able to see and feel what Bob and so many others had experienced from me. I humbled and laughed at myself, grateful for the growth in maturity, and made a conscious decision to provide more value to the lives I engage.
I still want to offer more than receive, but more importantly, I want to help others effectively and thoughtfully to those who seek or agree to hear my thoughts. Otherwise, there’s never any harm in being an intentional listener and active encourager to anyone we encounter.