Why listening beats giving advice, and what coaches and managers can learn from Motivational Interviewing

Recently I came across an engaging short video by Roksana Anning on the ‘Righting Reflex’.

The term was new to me, but the idea resonated with me straight away, as it turns out to be something I’ve been warning my coaching students about for years.

What is the Righting Reflex?

It’s the urge we all feel to help someone with their problems by giving them advice, suggesting solutions, or telling them what we would do if we were in their shoes.

The intention is good – but the effects are counterproductive.

The Righting Reflex is a concept from Motivational Interviewing. It’s the innate desire we all have to set things right.

So when someone is telling us about a problem, it’s very tempting to jump into trying to solve it for them, by saying things like:

‘What if you…?’

‘If I were you, I’d…’

‘What you should do is…’

‘Have you thought of…?’

It’s not just the urge to help that’s driving this behaviour. Our brains like to solve problems too. If you enjoy doing puzzles, or fixing up an old car, or if you did Wordle today, that’s an example of your problem-solving brain in action.

This is especially true for problems that don’t affect us directly, so our minds aren’t hampered by anxiety or shame. Other people’s problems usually seem much easier to fix than our own.

Why You Shouldn’t Give In to the Righting Reflex

Think about times when you have talked about a problem to someone else, and they’ve instantly gone into ‘advice mode’. How does that feel?

Maybe you felt patronised, as it seemed like the advice-giver was talking to you like a parent (or worse, a ‘critical parent‘) would talk to a child. If you still have an inner rebellious teenager, that’s going to trigger it for sure.

Maybe you felt ‘resistant’, instantly looking for reasons why the proposed solution wouldn’t work, so your automatic response is ‘Yes, but…’. If there did happen to be any useful ideas in among the advice, in this mood you would probably reject them.

Or maybe you reluctantly accepted the advice, but you didn’t really feel invested in it, so you weren’t motivated to carry it out whole-heartedly. Maybe the only reason you accepted the advice was because you felt that it you didn’t, you would be letting the advice-giver down – so now you had that to worry about on top of whatever stresses you were feeling from the initial problem.

None of these likely reactions are going to help you to find the best response to your challenge.

Why Giving Advice Is Counterproductive

In addition to the unhelpful reactions it provokes, there are a number of reasons why the urge to give advice actually makes you less effective at helping, coaching, and managing.

  • While you’re thinking about the advice you’re going to give, you’re not listening to what the person you want to help is actually saying, so you could be missing vital information. Plus, they will be able to tell that you’re not listening.
  • Even if you’ve heard and understood everything they’ve said, you still don’t have the full picture. What about the things they haven’t said – either because they assume that you already had that knowledge, or because they are not themselves consciously aware of it.
  • Even if you somehow did reach a full understanding, what you would do in that situation may not be right for them. You are different people, with different personalities, behavioural styles, and skills. What might work for you could be ineffective or even disastrous for them.
  • Finally, even if you somehow hit on the course of action that is exactly right for them, by just giving it to them on a plate you are depriving them of the opportunity to develop their own problem-solving and decision-making skills. You’re robbing them of a development opportunity.

For hard-pressed managers in particular, it may be tempting to just tell people what to do any time they come to you with a problem.

But while giving advice may save time by solving the immediate problem in the short term, in the longer term you’re giving yourself a bigger and more time-consuming problem.

Dog training with behavioural reinfocement – it works on humans too, although you may not realise you’re doing it

Why? Because when you solve people’s problems by telling them what to do, you’re effectively training them through behavioural reinforcement to come to you any time they have a problem. You’re making them more dependent on you, rather than less. And pretty soon you’ll be spending so much time solving other people’s problems for them that you won’t have enough time to get your own work done.

What Can You Do Instead?

These suggestions apply whether you’re coaching someone professionally, whether you’re in a ‘manager as coach’ role, or whether you’re just aiming to support a friend or family member through a difficulty.

  1. Assume they have all the resources they need to solve their problems., and that they are they experts on their own lived experience. Have faith in them – if necessary, more faith than they may have in themselves.
  2. Ask questions rather than giving answers – ideally, questions that direct their attention to where they might find their own answers. When have they solved problems like this before? If things are sometimes better and sometimes worse, what are they doing differently when things are better? And so on.
  3. Finally, listen. Really listen, without thinking ahead to what you’re going to say next. Be fully present for them. This in itself will be experienced as supportive – and as they describe their situation out loud to you, they will be processing their mental representation of the problem through different neural pathways than when they were just going over and over it in their minds. This could lead to them discovering new options and new ways to overcome the problem.

UPDATE: Roksana tells me that in the recently-released fourth edition of the Motivational Interviewing book, the Righting Reflex has been renamed as the “Fixing Reflex”. I think this is an improvement, as it’s a clearer indication of what the reflex is about.

If you’re interested in change methods that help people find their own solutions, and that work with groups as well as individuals, check out the Practical Appreciative Inquiry course with Andy Smith starting soon!

Is the ‘Righting Reflex’ Cramping Your Management Style?

One thought on “Is the ‘Righting Reflex’ Cramping Your Management Style?

  • It looks like François de la Rochefoucauld got there long before me, way back in the 17th Century:
    “If you want to make enemies, give advice. If you want to make friends, ask questions.”

    (although I haven’t chased down a definite attribution)

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