Advice giving as vocation, avocation, and hopefully not annoyance

For almost two decades, I’ve made a living handing out advice about fundraising and board governance. But truth be told, my family says I’ve been telling people what to do all my life. Like Lucy of the Peanuts cartoon gang, ask me a question and I’ll give you my two cents worth. I can’t help myself. It’s my vocation to advise.

Peanuts cartoon

Most of the time, people seem happy to hear what I have to say. If not, why would they ask? Or so I tell myself. Like all consultants worth their salt, I live to assist and feel badly when I annoy.

Which explains why an article in the latest edition of the Harvard Business Review on giving and receiving advice grabbed my attention. Despite years of dishing out pearls of wisdom (including via this blog), I know I can do it better and that I must. As the authors of the HBR piece warn, “getting it wrong can have damaging consequences.”

So to my clients, family, friends, and anyone else who may “benefit” from my counsel in the months to come, here’s what I’ve learned. And to my colleagues in consulting, may we encourage each other to better advice giving.


First, advisors must be careful about overstepping boundaries. It’s tempting to jump in with advice before being asked, but unsolicited counsel is seldom heeded and often resented. Unless seekers are putting themselves and/or their organizations in jeopardy, don’t answer before a question is asked.

Second, advisors mustn’t rush a diagnosis. A wise counselor knows that the presenting issue rarely tells the full story. Jumping on the first thing out of the other’s mouth almost always leads to problems. Probe, listen, and ponder before launching into advice giving.

Third, advisors need to keep their own experiences to themselves. Advice framed as “how I would respond if I were in your shoes” is, according to the HBR article, “both off-putting and ineffective.” There’s no “u” in advice.

Fourth, advisors must communicate clearly. Use words the other understands, avoiding jargon and/or overly academic language. And the more specific the advice, the better. “Vague recommendations can easily be misconstrued,” say the HBR authors.

Fifth, advisors shouldn’t be hurt if their counsel is ignored –which it frequently is. I know it stings to have your wise words cast aside, but that’s life. At the end of the consultation and after you’ve said all you have to say, “the decision and the consequences are the seeker’s.”

The HBR article includes other great advice, including how to choose an advisor and guidelines for each stage of advising. You can find the article here. Or ask me, and I’ll tell you all about it.



  1. Burt Hamilton says:

    Interesting that I would receive this the day before I have been asked to give my pearls of wisdom to another. Even after doing this kind of thing for over 30 years, I still need reminding of the best way(s) to proceed.

    Burt Hamilton
    Issachar People (“…who knew the times and seasons, and what Israel should do…”)

  2. Ruth Lapp Guengerich says:

    Rebekah, I am a mental health counselor by training. Your 5 points are the same as what any good counselor would practice! I think you have learned, and we in the mental health field have learned also, that good listening is key to a good relationship.

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