Letter VI: Stop giving people advice and do this instead

My letters are typically published via email to your inbox, and I select a few every now and again to feature on the blog. Letter VI was originally published by email on 17th May 2019, and was re-published on the blog on 8th August 2019. Subscribe at chrismarr.co.uk

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

– Stephen R. Covey 

As a new step-dad, my relationship with Sophie is still developing. She was 15 when I first met her, and she’s turning 18 soon. We’ve lived together for over two years and this past year has been transformational for her.

She has:

  1. Passed her higher exams with incredible results
  2. Met her first boyfriend
  3. Secured her first job
  4. Passed her driving test and bought a car

She literally finished her final exam yesterday. In a few short months, she’ll be moving out of the family home and starting university in Edinburgh.

I forgot how much change there is at this time of our life. She seems to take it all in her stride. Confident, focused, determined and deliberate.

She’s an inspiring young lady.

It’s fair to say that Sophie has a lot going on in her life. A lot of choices and decisions to make.

To create and build the life we want, it really comes down to the decisions we make.

Our whole life is simply made up choices and decisions.

The way I see it, there are three paths when it comes to making decisions.

  1. You make a decision
  2. You don’t make a decision, or
  3. You do nothing – you make a decision to not make a decision.

What’s strikes me as interesting about decision making is that I can’t think of anyone at any time in my life teaching me how to make good decisions.

Seems to me like a huge gap in our learning and personal growth, don’t you think?


One afternoon a few months ago I was sitting at the kitchen table finishing off some work. Sophie sat down and started chatting to me about her university choices. She had just received a letter with her fourth and final unconditional invitation. She had the choice of the best schools in the UK.

This decision will dictate where she will live for the next 4 years. Her whole experience at university will shape her career and the rest of her life. It’s important that she takes her time and makes the right decision.

Up until this point I haven’t really been involved in the discussion around which university to choose. Sure, I have been in and around the conversations and discussions, and I visited the university in Dundee and St Andrews with Sophie and her Mum. Luna-Rose even tagged along for the experience.

However, I deliberately distanced myself from the conversations. Reflecting on it now I think it was probably because I don’t know her that well, and I’m not her real parent. I decided to wait until she came to me before I got involved.

Take a moment to think back to a time when you had to make a tough decision in your life. Can you recall exactly what happened when you asked other people for help?

I’m going to take a guess here…the conversations probably went something like this:

  • I did it this way and it worked for me…
  • My friend said this about that, don’t do it that way…
  • Are you sure that’s what you want? I don’t think that’s right for you…
  • I can’t imagine you doing it that way, this is what I think you should do…
  • This is such a simple problem, just do this…

Lots of people telling you what and what not to do.

I’ve learned that advice is cheap. Even in my work as a consultant, the advice is easy. However, it’s rarely helpful. In fact, it can be frustrating, confusing and destructive.

Think about how you feel when people start giving you advice without listening to you first.

They aren’t really listening, are they? They aren’t taking the time to get a deep understanding of how you feel about what you’re going through. They don’t take the time to truly understand the problem.

With Sophie, I’ve observed family conversations with her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunties.

Everyone was giving her advice and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. Here she is, with all this change happening in her life, and everyone around her is telling her what to do.

  • I went to Edinburgh, so that where you should go…
  • I stayed in halls/dorms, you should do that…
  • Don’t go to that city, I had this bad experience…
  • I did this degree, you should consider it too…

You get the point.

As humans, we’re wired up to give advice. It’s our default setting, and we need to break the habit.

If we want to truly help the people we love, we need to stop telling people what to do. Instead, we must listen deeply to what they are saying, understand how they feel and ask more questions.


Have you ever heard of a Quaker Clearness Committee?

I’m excited to share this with you.

I’ll give you the rundown (if you want to know more watch this video and then this video)

Here’s how it works:

  • Someone that is struggling to make a major life decision calls for a Clearness Committee – getting married, choosing a college/university, new job, etc.
  • The committee is made up of non-family members and people that are non-experts in solving the specific problem. People that won’t be personally impacted by the decision, or are emotionally connected to the person or are people that default to giving advice.
  • They all listen deeply to the person to understand their problem clearly – how that person feels, what they are struggling with, why this is important to them.
  • They then only ask questions – they use questions to help the person to gain more clarity on their problem and ultimately help them to make the decision for themselves

The job of The Clearness Committee is to clear away all the noise that’s interrupting someone on their path to making a decision. They aren’t there to provide answers. They are simply there to help the person figure out the right decision for themselves.

When my Dad first told me about this it blew my mind. I’ve been doing this in my work for a long time. Learning about how Quakers do it made me feel even more strongly about why we need to act and behave like this if we truly want to help the people we love and care about.

This is not something we learn in the home or at school. So we must learn from this.

When someone asks for help we default to giving advice.

We bring our bias, or experience, our perspectives, our ideals and our expectations to the table. You may have your own desires for that person, but it’s not about you. It’s not your life.

Sure, advice can help people choose a path, but it doesn’t help people take the path with ownership and confidence.

If we can help people to get clear and make a decision for themselves, they will then walk that path knowing that they made the right choice.

They don’t question it. They own it. They believe in it. They take full responsibility for it. They are better because of it.

If advice creates chaos, questions create clarity and order.


Asking questions is so powerful because it stops us from giving advice.

That’s exactly what I did when Sophie sat down at the kitchen table that day.

I went to the University of St Andrews, so naturally, you’d think I’d be keen for her to go there. Sure, it would be nice, but that’s my story, not hers.

Here’s a sample of the questions I asked Sophie that shaped our discussion.

  • Which city would I like to spend the next 4 years of my life in?
  • Which city would I like to fall in love with?
  • In 15 years, will I look back on my time in this city fondly?
  • What are the people like?
  • Do I want to go to a small or large university? (10k students or 40k students? Does it matter?)
  • Do I want to live in a small town or a large city?
  • Do I want to travel?
  • What factors would make me feel like I made the right choice? (And how much control do I have of these factors?)
  • What do I want to do after Uni?
  • Is the cost of uni a factor? (Living expenses, etc)
  • Where will I be happy? What factors contribute to my happiness?
  • What kind of social life would I like to have?
  • When it comes to studying conditions, what are my ideal conditions? (If it’s the library, which Uni has the best library for study?)
  • What could make me sad or upset?
  • Do I want to live in a room on my own or will I share?
  • What living conditions are important to me?
  • How will I make friends?
  • Will I keep a part-time job while at Uni? (If so, where? What?)
  • What will I do with my car? Take it, leave it, sell it?

[I wasn’t planning to share all of this with you, but when Sophie and I were talking about this, we did some research online and we couldn’t find a list of questions quite like this that would help someone choose their university. Maybe you will find it useful to build upon with your children or close friends.]

After our conversation, it was clear that Sophie was leaning towards one university, and we completely eliminated another choice too.

I’m so glad she decided to sit with me and chat it through at the kitchen table that day.

It gave Sophie and me a chance to bond, and although I truly wanted to help her, it was important that I waited until she was ready.

Now that she’s about to leave for university I feel like I could have done more to bond with her over this past few years, but at least she knows that if she wants to talk through something with me that I’ll listen and do my best to help her.


It’s over to you now…

When it comes to making big decisions in our life, we don’t need more people giving us advice.

What we really need is people around us that can help us make the decision for ourselves.

Your challenge is simple, but perhaps not easy – the next time someone you care about asks you for help, stop yourself from giving advice. Instead, listen with the intent to understand their problem – how they feel about it, why this is such an important issue for them, and push yourself to only ask questions.

For most of us, we will be breaking the habit of a lifetime, but there’s no doubt that this change in your communication style will dramatically impact the conversations you have and the relationships you have with the people you love and care about.

Try it and report back, I’d love to hear how this works out for you.