This is a story about how to give good advice--and how to identify bad advice before it can hurt you.

Because I've just had a realization that will change forever how I give advice, and perhaps even the way I seek it.

I won't hide the ball here. The whole thing comes down to emotional intelligence. And the practical lesson, if you're pressed for advice, is that the key to giving better advice is to ask lots of questions. 

In fact, if you're an Advice Seeker, you might even judge the quality of the advice you're getting by the number of questions the Advice Giver asks.

I'm borrowing that term, "Advice Giver," from Daniel Gross, whose essay about business advice got me thinking about this to begin with. As Gross points out, Advice Givers usually want to be helpful, but they also want to be efficient:

The Advice Giver is usually an established, busy person. They have a lot of meetings. They have their own problems (which might be the same as yours, by the way). The Giver isn't really thinking about your business. They're pattern matching.

The Giver will often give you the advice that comes with the most cognitive ease. The simplest advice, instead of the most correct advice.

In fact, I think the Advice Giver might not even notice this tendency in himself or herself, and without asking questions, it's hard for an Advice Giver to know the difference.

The Advice Seeker has a reciprocal challenge. For one thing, if they assume the Advice Giver has expertise (and if not, why ask them for advice?), they might also easily mistake "simplest advice" for "best advice."

The key to unpacking this, as either an Advice Seeker or an Advice Giver, is emotional intelligence. 

Because one of the core attributes of an emotionally intelligent exchange between any two people is that the person reacting to the other person does so with a support response, rather than a shift response. Here's what that means:

  • A support response moves the focus away from yourself, and towards the other person.
  • A shift response refocuses a conversation toward you (and away from whomever you're speaking with).

So let's look at some specific examples, starting with an admittedly simple one that Gross uses:

  • Advice Seeker: "Should we be focusing on fixing our bugs or growing?"
  • Advice Giver: "You should focus on growth. Growth is good."

This is a shift response. Even though the Advice Giver frames the response in terms of what the Advice Seeker should do, the advice is generic--and almost certainly rooted in the Advice Giver's experience, after a very brief reflection.

It shifts away from the Advice Seeker's experience and assumes similarities to the Advice Giver's experience.

A support response, instead, would almost certainly take the form of a question--maybe even a series of questions. Something like this:

  • Advice Seeker: "Should we be focusing on fixing our bugs or growing?"
  • Advice Giver: "How significant are the bugs? What's your rate of growth? What are customers telling you?" 

Perhaps the most all-around useful support response would be something like this: "What do you think you should do?"

It's worth noting that this doesn't just apply to business advice. A few other examples:

Question: "Should I go back to school and get another degree?"

  • Shift response: "I certainly never regretted getting my MBA." (Or else: "If I had to do it over again, I probably wouldn't have gone to law school.")
  • Support response: "What would you plan to do with the degree? What's the opportunity cost of pursuing it?"

Question: "Should I break up with my significant other?"

  • Shift response: "If you're asking the question the answer is almost certainly 'yes.'"
  • Support response: "Are you in love? What kinds of problems are you facing? What do you think he or she wants to do?"

Question: "I don't know what to read next, do you have any suggestions?"

  • Shift response: "I just finished reading In a Time of War by Bill Murphy Jr., and it's utterly amazing."
  • Support response: "What kinds of books do you usually enjoy? What's the last book you truly couldn't put down?"

I should note that I didn't come up with these definitions of emotional intelligence or the shift versus support dichotomy, myself. For more on that, I'd recommend my colleague Justin Bariso's book EQ Applied and the work of sociologists like Charles Derber.

But the bottom line is this: All other things being equal, advice offered with emotional intelligence is likely better advice.

And the No. 1 sign of emotional intelligence in this kind of situation? More question marks at the end of your sentences.