Three Methods for Being an Effective Personal Advisor

Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 15, Issue No. 6a
October 1, 2016

By Dan Coughlin

Ironically, the least important part of being an advisor to another person is the advice you give.

You might be an advisor to other people inside your organization as a boss or mentor. You might serve as an advisor to people in a different organization as a coach, counselor, or some other title. It doesn’t matter. If part of your job is to interact with another person in a way where you’re discussing his or her performance without exercising authority over the person, then here are three ways you can be an effective advisor.

Method #1: Create a Healthy Discussion-Centered Relationship

Act in a way that the other person trusts you and trusts that you will keep the contents of the conversation confidential. Listen attentively to what the other person is saying. The person needs to feel you are interested in what he or she is saying, and that you care about him or her.

Demonstrate that you trust the other person to come up with the solution. Don’t tell the other person what to do. Summarize what you’ve heard so far, and ask, “Do I have that right?” If the other person says that it is a correct summary, then you can ask, “Well, what do you think you should do next?” Then stop talking, and let the other person think. Some people will respond in a second, and some will take a minute. Just be patient and caring. Let the other person come up with an answer. Then you can respond to what the person says. Rather than judging his or her answer, you can ask, “Why do you think that’s the right move to make?”

You will have plenty of opportunities to share your perspective, but start by getting the other person to think. I’ve been an Executive Coach since 1997. About 15 years ago one of my clients said, “I think of you as a thinking partner. You’re not telling me what to do. We’re thinking together about how to improve a situation.” I like the title “thinking partner” much more than “executive coach”.

The best book I’ve read on this method is On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy by Carl Rogers and Peter Kramer.

Method #2: Challenge Thoughts that Produce Negative Emotions

When a person is clearly stuck in a negative emotion (fear, anger, shame, bitterness, pessimism, or hopelessness), the key is to help the person identify the thought that is producing the negative emotion. No emotion just shows up out of thin air. The person had a thought that produced the emotion. When the emotion becomes debilitating, then the key is to challenge the thought in order to think in a way that produces a healthier emotion such as gratitude, optimism, hopefulness, or resilience.

For example, if the person is afraid of failing on a big project, you might say, “Why are you afraid of that happening?” If the person says that he or she is scared that things will go poorly and reflect poorly on future opportunities, you could ask, “How do you define failure?” If the person says it means not getting the desired results, you can say, “Have you ever pursued a goal in the past and not achieved it, but you learned something that was of value on a future project?” If the person says, “Yes, that has happened several times to me,” then you could say, “Why are you afraid? Even if you don’t hit the desired results, you could apply what you learned either on a future project at this organization or at another organization.” It might even help if you share examples of famous people who “failed” to achieve a desired outcome, and yet went on to achieve incredible results on future projects by applying what they learned in previous “failures.”

Just by bringing the negative-emotion-producing-thought out into the open, you can help the person challenge that thought and see his or her situation in a new way.

Two great books on this method are A Guide to Rational Living by Albert Ellis and Robert Harper, and Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman.

Method #3: Challenge a Status Quo Mindset

Sometimes people get stuck in an old way of doing things. They are simply satisfied with what they are producing and are not looking to consider any new approaches. This is when you can challenge the person’s thought process. You can do so by asking open-ended questions, offering a perspective, and providing suggestions. Again, you’re not telling the person what to do. You are simply serving as a thinking partner. Only the other person can make the final decision, not you. You are the challenger, and the other person is the decision-maker.

You might say, “I understand you’ve gotten consistent results using that approach, but is there another approach that you could use to get even better results?”

Or, “Here’s an approach that I’ve seen other folks use in that situation…What do you see as the upside and downside of their approach?”

Or, “I think you may have fallen into a trap in this situation. The trap is you found an approach that works pretty well, and consequently you have stuck with it. How about if we brainstorm to see if we can come up with a better approach?”

Or, “Here’s my suggestion…What do you think of using this approach?”

One of my favorite quotes on this method is from Robert Johnson, the well-known psychologist whose books, He, She, We, and Inner Work have sold more than 2.5 million copies. In his autobiography, Balancing Heaven and Earth, he wrote, “The counselor should be prepared to battle for the other person’s growth.”

In 1998, a year after I began as executive coach, I was working with a client who was an executive in a Fortune 100 company. I thought we got along great. A year into our relationship he said, “Dan, do I ever do anything that you think is wrong or that could be better?” I said, “Absolutely yes.” He said very loudly, “Then tell me. It does no good if you don’t tell me when you think I’m wrong or I could be better.” Quite honestly, I had held off on giving him criticism because I didn’t want to lose him as a client just as I was starting my business. Ironically, I almost lost him as a client because I didn’t tell him when I thought he could do things in a better way.

As an advisor, one important role you have is to be honest with the other person. Give the person your suggestions and perspective. You’re not controlling the person. You are being a thinking partner.


To learn how to work directly with Dan Coughlin as an Executive Coach, click here.