The Advice Trap is a book about giving (less) advice, in which the irony of writing a book that offers lots of advice about giving less is not lost on its author – Michael Bungay Stanier. It describes itself as a book to “give you the tools to make curiosity an everyday leadership behaviour” and which “will convince you exactly why saying less and asking more matters” I think it achieves both well. 

It’s also a book that dovetails into other books that we have read in the Building Better Business Bookclub such as More Time to Think by Nancy Klein and Atomic Habits by James Clear  Indeed, I think that having read those other fantastic works I can see how to add further value to Stanier’s work. We’ll return to that throughout the review. 

In part one of this book Stanier discusses how to tame your ‘Advice Monster’ – something that comes in three guises ‘Tell-it, Control-it and Save-it’ and he provides a link to a short online questionnaire to help readers identify which monster is most prevalent for them. He also identifies the difference between hard change and easy change. Easy change is solution-based, where our experience and skills lead us to see what is needed and to do it, hard change is where the change is more about how we approach things generally, where we don’t (yet) have the relevant skills and experience, an operating system if you like. I think these map to parts of the Journey to Mastery, easy change is the learning of practical skill and once learned you are a Practitioner, hard change is what takes you to Expert or Master of your art.

The bulk of the book lies in the 10 chapters of part 2 under the overarching heading of ‘Stay Curious Longer’. From a personal point of view, I view that as a good mantra for life generally. I agree. A further point that Stainer makes, with which I also agree, is that we are better at having a coaching mindset all of the time, in all of the work we do; not just in a session with another. It’s here that he provides a deceptively simple yet significantly powerful set of questions to use. These questions naturally create and develop a level of curiosity that works in most situations. 

  1. What is on your mind?
  2. …and what else?
  3. What’s the real challenge here for you?
  4. What do you want?
  5. If you are saying “Yes” to this, what must you say “No” to?
  6. How can I help?
  7. What was most useful or valuable here for you?

These are powerful questions that also need skill, empathy, care, experience and talent to ask in a genuine and effective way. Most of this second section provides insights into the ways that we can all hone our ability to ask them. I was struck by how the first three align with the questions used in a Thinking Partnership based on Kline’s work. The second question, for me, has the most risk of failing. In this form (what else?) it asks the other person to change the direction of their thinking to new areas. By asking ‘and what more?’ instead leads the other person to dig deeper into what they have been discussing. Both are needed depending on the circumstance. 

The third question is one that, in my experience, opens up real insight. As Stanier opines in the book it is being curious about the challenge (from the other person’s point of view) that opens up insight. That insight is often the difference between offering powerful impactful advice and advice which fails to make an impact. 

One of the things that I find most delightful about this book is the reminder that we all need to be humble. Never assume that we know what the issue really is until we have exhausted our curiosity about the issue. Understanding comes from deep within, and often the understanding comes long after the recognition of the existence of the challenge. Working with a partner who is curious to understand will unlock new insight that would be lost without the right questions to explore them. The book is a great reminder that curiosity opens doors that advice alone will ignore or omit. The advice we offer can only be much improved as a result.

In Part 3 Stanier invites us to Master the habits – music to my ears – with four principles that always apply. Firstly, being generous, generous with your time, with your transparency, with your curiosity, your silence, and your appreciation. Secondly, being vulnerable, by sharing your own fears, mistakes and concerns. Also, by proactively seeking out the feedback and insights that will help you to improve your own work (scary huh!). Both of these things build strong and close, trusting relationships. Thirdly, be a student, and be open to learning at every step of the way. Finally, when all those are done, it is time to be an Advice Giver, but in that role, make sure you do it well.  If you’ve read the book, applied its principles and reflected on the learning you will get then Stainer makes that easier.

I liked the way this book is structured, the opportunities to add reflections as you go, and the links to resources online. It is a book I will refer back to often and if you have not yet read it, I recommend it, it is a powerful book for all business people.

About the Author:

Michael Bungay Stainer is also the author of “The Coaching Habit” and the founder of “Box of Crayons” a learning and development company. He is a speaker who has appeared nude on stage (more on that experience in the book). He is a Rhodes Scholar, and the first Canadian “Coach of the year” You can learn more about him at MBS.works