I spend about a third of my time working with entrepreneurs who come to me for advice. I tell them I'll help on one condition: They have to listen to what I have to say and think about it, whether they like it or not. Then they have to make their own decisions and take responsibility for them. That way, if a decision turns out to be wrong, they'll have the opportunity to learn from it. If they blame the failure on me or anyone else, they'll only learn not to ask for advice, which is a terrible lesson.

Assuming they agree to my terms, we start talking. They generally have a specific question they want answered. It's almost always the wrong question, and I don't bother answering it. Instead, I ask them my own questions. How old are they? What's their family situation? What do they want and why? When did they start the business? How do they make sales? Who are their competitors? And on and on.

I'll listen carefully until I feel I have a good understanding of both the people and their problem. Usually, that problem is something they haven't thought of.

For example, one fellow came to me for advice on how to expand his business to 10 times its current size in five years. As we talked, it became clear that he really wanted to know how he could spend more time with his family and afford a bigger house. Or consider the travel agents at a company in Boston who wanted to spin off their office as a separate business and were worried about getting sued. It turned out that the only thing stopping them was their (baseless) fear of moving to a new location a mile away.

I'm glad to say they all eventually got what they wanted--because they found the right question and listened to the answer.