Avoiding Giving Advice

There is a famous experiment in behavioural science called the Marshmallow Experiment. In the simplest version of this experiment they sat down a child in front of a marshmallow, the instructor told the child that if they sat there and waited the instructor would come back with an additional marshmallow and they could have both. However if they took the one marshmallow before the instructor returned then that was all they would get. Once the child understood the instructions they were left alone for 15 minutes.

Some children could resist and gain the improved reward. But a lot could not and gave in to the immediate gratification. Follow up studies showed a high correlation between that restraint and schooling results. There’s a lot we don’t understand about the behaviour and results but it’s something I think about when trying to apply restraint to myself.

When I see others having a debate over solutions the engineer in me immediately wants to consider solutions. To put my problem solving brain to use and find the “best” answer. But I have to restrain myself and put those thoughts on hold. As the third party coming in, I can add a lot of value as a moderator, to help ensure all sides are being heard. If I put in my own suggestion I’ve planted a flag and become just another player in the debate.

As a moderator I can help ensure all sides are being heard. I can build up a clearer understanding of the problem and the solutions being considered. As well as consider the big picture and viewpoints that may have been missed. As that third person I can guide people through their thinking and explore options that they may not have seen otherwise.

Once you have a solution in mind it becomes very hard to step back from that solution. It’s much harder to consider other options when you’ve got one that you think will work. It’s also harder to consider the complexities and nuances of the problem as our biases kick in to try and re-enforce our belief that the solution is the “right” solution. So those already in the debate have that mindset already set and are going to struggle to consider alternatives.

Like the children in the marshmallow test, I have some tools to help me free my mind of the solutions that may pop into my head. The children who restrained themselves would do all kind of things to distract themselves or look away from the marshmallow. Move their seat to face away or sing songs to pass the time. In my case I keep a notepad handy and if an idea comes to mind I quickly write it down. Now that it’s on paper I can forget about it and focus on the people in front of me.

Maybe I’ll suggest that idea that I’ve written down – if an appropriate moment presents itself. But most of the time I throw it away and let the others form the final solution. The permanent record is not valuable to me. It’s a temporary thing to get it out of my head while keeping my mouth shut. Having a solution is not important. Helping others understand the context and solutions available is important.

Keep nurturing those ideas!