How to Ask for Advice (Without Looking Dumb)
Do it right, and you’ll feel smarter. Do it wrong, and you’ll look dumb.
“When we ask advice we are usually looking for an accomplice.” — Charles Varlet de La Grange
Asking for advice is not easy.
Are you reluctant to request help at work or home? Do you feel odd or weak for asking people for advice?
You are not alone. Most people think that asking for help is a sign of weakness. They are afraid to look dumb, insecure, or incompetent. As Brené Brown wrote, ”We mistakenly fall prey to the myth that successful people are those that help rather than need, and broken people need rather than help.”
However, recent studies show the opposite.
Most people don’t know how to ask for advice
In a society based on self-help, it seems weird to encourage people to learn how to seek for advice. But hard work, smarts, and drive are not enough. Successful people know how to ask for help.
Asking for advice is not a problem. The difference between looking dumb (or not) lies in how you do it.
Your Reputation Depends on How You Ask
Most people have trouble asking for help. But they don’t realize it.
In her book, The Art of Asking, Amanda Palmer explains that we should accept help when it’s offered. And actively seek it and request it.
The instinct to not seek advice is pointless. You can lose vital help when you need it the most.
Contrary to popular belief, asking for advice creates a positive impression. Research shows that when you ask for advice, people don’t think less of you. It makes you look smarter, more confident, competent, and likable.
Intellectual humility helps you grow. Seeking advice encourages curiosity, learning, and builds strong relationships. It has an upside for your advisor too: it boosts their ego.
“I’m smart, that’s why people ask for my advice.”
A study shows that people who were asked for advice rated their partners higher on competence. It creates a reciprocal relationship. Each party feels more open to asking for help to the other in the future.
However, asking too many people for advice can backfire.
You Are Looking for Input, Not Running a Poll
First, you won’t be able to take everyone’s advice. Also, too much input can be as harmful as having none. You will feel confused and overwhelmed. But, most importantly, people will think you are clueless.
People believe that if you talk to everyone, you won’t follow anyone’s advice. Nobody wants to waste their time. But, also, advice-giving is a means to generate prestige. People want to feel important, not become one of your many sources.
Asking for advice is different than running a poll. You don’t need to capture everyone’s opinions but those that matter.
Research shows that advisors feel offended when advice seeker ignore their recommendations. Your colleagues or friends become less secure if you hurt their feeling. They will see you as less competent.
However, most people tend to consult more than one person. And more than half say that they will ignore the advice — regardless of what it is.
Don’t ask for advice if you don’t plan to use it.
Look for Advice, Not Comfort
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” — Mark Twain
Empty your cup. We can’t learn new things if we can’t let go of our ideas. What’s the point of asking for advice if you are not open to unexpected answers? Other people can see the problem from different angles. Don’t expect people to think like you. Embrace new perspectives.
Don’t discount advice. The most common mistake is to undervalue — or dismiss — other people’s suggestions. Organizational behavior research shows that people put more stock in their own opinions. Executives in powerful positions tend to disregard advice from experts. Their desire to win is more prominent than making the right choice.
Former editor-in-chief of Success Darren Hardy once said:
“Never ask advice of someone with whom you wouldn’t want to trade places.”
Asking for advice is not the same as seeking comfort. That’s why most people can distinguish good from bad advice. Advice seekers tend to ask for guidance from those they feel comfortable with. Research shows that CEOs seek advice from friends or executives like them.
Closeness doesn’t equal competence. Several studies have found that we are more likely to ask advice from people we like. Conversely, we tend to dismiss advice from people we don’t like or have regular issues with. Choose the most competent person, not the one closest to you.
How to Be a Good Advice Seeker
Asking for advice is easier said than done. Advice seekers must prepare to use both their time — and others — productively. The reason most people don’t follow others’ advice is that they don’t know why and how to ask for help.
1. Use a Positive tone
People are busy. They don’t have an obligation to help you. The way you ask for help will determine their interest.
Rather than “Can I pick your brain?” be more positive and direct. Show that you care about their perspective, not just trying to have a casual conversation.
2. Provide context
Prepare ahead if you don’t want to tune out your advisor. The clearer your problem, the more effective the solutions will be.
Clarity saves a lot of time. Avoid spending all the time in explaining your issue rather than on feedback.
Share three things that you tried that didn’t work. Or three ideas you think might work but are scared to try.
Structure your message and what you need. Be clear and concise.
3. Be specific about the type of advice
Before you ask for help, do your homework. What are you trying to achieve? What kind of advice do you need?
Do you need pros and cons to choosing among different options? Are you looking for a mentor to make a strategic career move? Or do you need a framework to understand a situation better?
4. Let people know how you’ll use their advice
Set clear expectations to avoid hurting people’s feelings. Let them know if you are talking to other folks and why you choose them. Also, clarify how their advice will shape your final decision.
Are you looking to challenge your perspective? Or just for validation? Will you follow what the majority think? Or listen and then follow your instinct?
5. Be Ready to Be Challenged
Choose the right person, not the closer one. Asking for advice is about getting the best input, not hearing what you want to hear. If that’s the case, don’t waste other people’s time.
Remember to empty your cup. Let go of your own ideas if you want to learn new approaches.
Also, never ask advice from someone who has something at stake — or something to lose — from your decision. The more disconnected a person is from your problem, the more valuable their input will be.
6. Be thankful
We always have time to ask for help, but then forget to say “thank you.”
Being grateful strengthens a relationship. It doesn’t matter if you won’t need that person again. Always be thankful.
Some people believe sending a thank you note will bother the recipient. On the contrary, even the most successful and experienced people appreciate those who are thankful.
7. Close the loop
Treat advice as a prototype. Put it into action. Test it. See what works and be ready to adjust and make changes.
Let people know about the course you took. Or if you will need more help from them. It’s always a great idea to update them on your progress. Especially if things went great because of their advice.
Seeking advice is not a transactional thing. Whether you have an accountability partner, a mentor, or a friend to give you advice — it’s all about the relationship.
Before seeking help, make sure you’ve done the necessary due diligence. Don’t ask for advice when all you need is validation. As Cicero said, “Nobody can give you wiser advice than yourself.”