By Norris Burkes March 6 2020

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was a 25-year-old seminary student assigned to preach a series of messages in a Phoenix church. The pastor of the church fancied himself a mentor to ministerial students, so he paused from his busy schedule to offer his unsolicited advice:

“I recommend that when a parishioner visits your office for a second counseling session, ask him or her if they’ve followed the advice you gave on the previous visit.  

“If they say ‘no,’ then you should dismiss them. Pastors give professional advice just like doctors, so you shouldn’t take time for people who won’t heed your professional advice.”

“Well,” I thought. “That’s guidance I’ll never forget – mostly because I don’t forget bad advice.”

But these 40 years later, I get it. Ministers see and hear the deep hurts of people, so it’s more tempting to dictate quick advice than it is to walk with folks in their pain.

The old pastor had become what Michael Bungay Stanier calls an “Advice Monster.”

Stanier is the senior partner and founder of Box of Crayons, a company that claims to “help people and organizations do less Good Work and more Great Work.”

I recently heard Stanier speak at the TEDx Talks in Reno. If you haven’t heard of TED Talks, imagine a day-long parade of people presenting 20-minute speeches from Technology, Entertainment or Design — hence TED Talks. (The “x” indicates the economical version.)

I’m sure you’ve met an advice monster or two. Stanier says you’ll recognize them as the people who enter your business determined to solve your problem. Their monstrous approach tells people they aren’t good enough to solve their own problems. Unfortunately, they often become busy solving the wrong problems. Or worse yet, they offer bad advice.

Anxious not to morph into a critical creature, I listened closely to Stanier explain the three ways advice monsters are motivated to:

  1. “Tell it.” This guy will tell you what to do because it’s the only way he can add value to his life.
  2. “Save it.” This is the rescuer who must save people to claim his own value. (As a chaplain, I most identified with this one.)
  3. “Control it.” This is the worst. This person gives advice to control others.

Fortunately, Stanier offered a method that managers, coaches and well-meaning clergy can use to shake their advice-giving habits. He calls his technique “Stay Curious” because it promotes curiosity over our need to be instant problem solvers. “Stay curious a little longer,” he says. “Be a little slower about rushing to action and advice-giving.”

The Stay Curious approach involves asking three problem-solving questions. “After all,” Stanier notes, “questions are the kindling of problem solving.”

If you’re really trying to help someone, begin by asking them, “What is the real challenge here for you?”

It’s a good beginning, but Stanier admits that people will rarely be completely honest. So he recommends that you ask it again. Say, “And what else? What is the real challenge?”

Finally, ask “What do YOU want?”

This is the question that separates the monsters from the ministers. Monsters will seek to control a person with their brand of wisdom. Someone motivated by ministry will seek to discover the needs and wants of others.

Stanier’s teaching rang with a truth I’d heard before.

In James 1:19, words traditionally considered to be written by Jesus’ brother say, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (New International Version).

As I finished my first TEDx conference, I left with a ringing question: “Which do I want to be? Monster or Minister?” I have resolved to be the latter. Which will you choose?


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