Someone once asked famed college football coach turned ESPN commentator Lou Holtz what he considered to be the toughest part of his job as a coach. With his typical “aw shucks” charm, he finessed the question but ultimately communicated that one of the hardest parts was “teaching lessons that stay taught.”

Mentors have a similar challenge. Mentoring can involve everything from chalkboard teaching to spirited discussion to circulation of relevant articles, but one of its most challenging parts is giving advice. Recall the last time someone said, “Let me give you a little advice!” No doubt it quickly put you into a defensive posture.

Psychologists remind us that we all have authority hang-ups of varying severity. So does your protégé — and the protégé’s resistance to advice creates the challenge in teaching lessons that stay taught. As one frustrated supervisor commented, “I tell ’em what they ought to do, but it seems to go in one ear and out the other!”

Giving Advice Without Getting Resistance

Advice giving works only in the context of learning — that is, when you are offering advice because you believe that the protégé’s performance will be improved if his knowledge or skill is enhanced. This is important, because for advice giving truly to work, you must be ready for the protégé to choose not to take your advice. If the protégé has no real choice about honoring your advice, then you should simply give a directive and be done with it. Couching your requirements as advice is manipulative and will only foster distrust and resentment.

There are four steps for making your advice-giving more powerful and more productive. Pay attention to the sequence; it is crucial to your success.

Step 1: Clearly State the Performance Problem or Learning Goal

Begin your advice giving by letting the protégé know the focus or intent of your mentoring. Suppose you’re offering advice about improving the performance of a new skill the protégé is trying to master. You might say, “George, I wanted to talk with you about the fact that although your last quarter call rate was up, your sales were down 20 percent.” For advice giving to work, you must be very specific and clear in your statement. Ambiguity clouds the conversation and risks leaving the protégé more confused than enlightened.  Being clear up front about the purpose of your advice can help focus your scattergun thoughts into laser like advice.

Step 2: Make Sure You Agree on the Focus

If what seems to you a performance challenge is seen by the protégé as something else, your advice will be viewed as over controlling or smothering. Make sure the protégé is as eager to improve as you are to see him or her improve. You may learn that the protégé has already determined what to do and has little need for your advice. Your goal is to hear the protégé say something like, “Yes, I’ve been concerned about that as well.”  What do you do if you think there is something the protégé needs to learn but the protégé is unwilling? Many lessons get “taught” (but not learned) under this scenario. As Abraham Lincoln said, “A person convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”  Have patience and find a more fruitful teachable moment.

Step 3: Ask Permission to Give Advice

This is the most important step. Your goal at this point is twofold: (1) to communicate advice without eliciting protégé resistance and (2) to keep ownership of the challenge with the protégé. This does not mean asking, “May I have your permission to. . .?” Rather, you might say, “I have some ideas on how you might improve if that would be helpful to you.”  The essence of resistance is control. None of us is thrilled to be told what to do, and some are more defiant than others.

Step 4: State Your Advice in First Person Singular

Phrases like “you ought to” quickly raise resistance! By keeping your advice in the first-person singular — “what I found helpful” or “what worked for me” — helps eliminate the shoulds and ought-tos. The protégé will hear such advice unscreened by defensiveness or resistance.

Giving advice is like playing pinball: Only by pushing and pulling can you encourage the ball to go in a new direction and increase your score. But too much pushing and pulling can cause a tilt and stop the game. Effective mentors recognize the challenge of “teaching so it stays taught” and meet that challenge by coupling their wisdom with sensitivity. They keep the ball in play as long as they can by judicious application of pushes and pulls, nudges and bumps, building the score — the protégé’s competence.

Photo Credit: Flicker via Laughlin Elklin