Hypothetical Advice

People’s lives are their own. In addition to the respect you should afford others with regards to their own decisions, they always have more “local knowledge” than you do. But even if you’re in a situation with someone where it’s appropriate to give advice, you should aim to “teach someone to fish” as much as possible.

That means asking questions. It means leaving ego at the door and not making assumptions. It means respecting that their fundamental goals and values might differ from yours, so good advice needs to be good advice for them, not always what you would do.

All that being said, there are definitely times when you need to give someone an action. Sometimes doing too much gentle question-asking in an attempt to get them to a solution just makes them frustrated, and if you “prime the pump” a little you can get great results.

There’s a careful way to do that, however!

For instance, let’s say you have a friend who is in the market for a new car, but they’re really indecisive. You know a lot about cars, and you also know a lot about this friend’s daily activities and vehicular needs, and therefore you probably have some good suggestions. But you don’t want to run their life for them, and nor do you want to take responsibility for their happiness! You ask a few leading questions, like “what kind of mileage do you want,” and “how many seats do you need” and so on, but you’re getting nowhere. You know they need a decent-sized truck with a lot of hauling power, but they just don’t seem to get there.

One idea you could try: give them hilariously bad advice and gather their response! For instance, tell that friend, “I think you should go with something really light and compact, like a Mini Cooper.” You know they spend every weekend hauling firewood and take frequent off-road detours in their job as an electrical lineman. They know this too, so now they suddenly scoff – “a Mini Cooper? No way! I need something with horsepower, and with a ton of cargo space, and a lot of clearance. A Cooper doesn’t have any of that.”

Now you can just slyly grin and ask, “Well, what does?”

See, what you gave them was a focus point. You gave them a suggestion, and they had to explain why it was a terrible one. In so doing, they were able to articulate what they needed.

You weren’t telling them what to do. You were shaking the dust off.

There are other ways you can get the same effect. They all revolve around the same concept: instead of starting with a blank page and asking them to fill it in, give them something, anything, to anchor to and deviate from as needed. Give them hypothetical advice and let them explain why it’s good or bad, in what ways, and where you need to go.

I do this all the time with people and food. Someone will say that they’re hungry but they don’t know what they want to eat (all you people with significant others say hey!). I immediately just name something at random, no deliberation. Sometimes it’s a hole-in-one and we eat there. Other times (…most other times), they say, “no, that’s too X,” or “no, that’s not Y enough,” or some such. But great! Now what I did was force you to add at least one actual parameter. Rinse & repeat a few times and we’ll have actual dinner plans.

That isn’t the same as giving a command or removing agency from someone. But it does nudge them out of their indecision. And sometimes that’s all you need.

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