Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Difference Between Advice and Coaching

Author: Lisa Chu, M.D.

Have you ever sought someone's advice, and then realized halfway into the conversation that you really didn't want them to tell you what to do?

Or have you ever followed someone's advice, which never quite felt right to you, but they were in a position of authority or had done it themselves before, and you didn't know how to get out of it?

Have you ever wished you had more trust in yourself, and didn't need to rely on so much advice from other people?

It's been ten years now since I've set foot in a traditional academic institution. Yesterday I stood inside the walls of a venerable one right here in my own backyard.

And it struck me that there is A LOT of "advising" going on at the formative stages of a lot of smart people's lives. A lot of people who are very curious, very bright, very capable, and very imaginative. But who just don't know. So they ask. They seek advice.

And what do they get? Well, what typically surrounds them in these places of academic prestige are a lot of people who got there by playing a certain game. They navigated a particular system, they overcame their own particular obstacles, and they achieved a certain status. Usually if they are in a position of enough authority to merit students' seeking their opinions, they've hung on to this status over a period of years. They've done the work of making all the right people happy in all the right places. They consulted the rule books, they found out what was expected of them, and they met those expectations.

They have seen the world through one particular lens.

This is perfect advising for someone who wants to experience life through that particular lens, and to find out what hoop is to be jumped through next. If you're asking, "How high must I jump?" and "Where is the next hurdle?", these advisors are perfectly prepared to tell you the answer.

But there's a different kind of questioning that occurs for all of us at some point in our lives. Perhaps even at several points in our lives.

Questions That Have No Right To Go Away

We come up against questions in our hearts, questions that ultimately ask us to test how much we trust ourselves, and invite us to grow into the next version of ourselves.

In these moments, some part of us actually knows the answer and knows what we must do.

The questions appear at the most inopportune times. We're "busy" doing something else. There's "not enough time". We're "supposed to" be focused on something we believe to be more important.

But the questions don't go away. They pull at us, beckoning us to pay attention to the part of us we'd rather be able to ignore.

It poses a dilemma. Should we go this way or that? Should we keep going as if everything is "normal" or actually stay with the question and listen to what it brings?

This is when we might seek advice from others.

And this is where knowing the difference between "advice" and "coaching" can save your life.

Some Advice I Once Received

I've received a lot of advice in my lifetime. I can remember these pieces of advice quite vividly.

For example, when I had made the decision in my heart that I would not be doing a residency after medical school, I started to do what all the career guides told me to do: informational interviews.

As I told people what I intended to do, I encountered a lot of advice. "Why don't you at least do an internship? Then you'll have more options, because at least you'll have a license."

These conversations never seemed that helpful to me, because I felt like my desires were being dismissed as naive, and that the risks I felt called to undertake were insurmountable (which I found insulting). As I continued to talk to more people, I heard more advice.

From one person: "Why don't you at least finish a residency in SOMEthing? You know, general internal medicine, something like that. Then at least you'll have the credibility of being able to practice something."

From another: "If you liked cardiology in medical school, why don't you at least get trained as a cardiologist? Then you'll have so many more contacts and you'll be able to get so much more done."

And another: "Well, why don't you at least practice for a few years, get some money and respect under your belt before you go off and do your little dream? Then at least you'll have experience."

And yet another: "Why don't you wait until you retire to do 'fun' things like following your heart and doing what you love? Then at least you'll have lived a full life before you go and throw it all away."

What I realized is that each of the people who gave me advice was only speaking from their own experiences and beliefs. None of them had actually done what I was going to do, for the reasons I was doing it. And none were actually helping me to listen to the voice of my heart, which was the one posing these questions.

I ended up listening to a lot of different advice and following no one’s, instead creating my own opportunities through willingness and determination. I am forever thankful for my own intuition that guided me to follow something inside me, despite advice to the contrary.

Fast forward ten years.

Now that I have opened space in my life, space in my mind, space in my body, and space in my heart, to receive guidance, it just keeps flooding in. I don't ask people what to do. I don't tell people what to do.

I lived the life of trying to gain fulfillment from seeing other people follow my advice. I thought I was doing the right thing, but I would always encounter an aspect of someone else that my experience could not comprehend, that my best knowledge could not penetrate. I had no tools at the time to help other people access a deeper part of their own wisdom, to help them find the keys to their own locked doors. I was giving advice, where people were in need of coaching.

Coaching Helps You Follow Your Own Advice…The Kind You’ve Ignored For Too Long In Favor Of Others’

The kind of reward I received from advice-giving pales in comparison to the nourishment that is provided by coaching, the way I do it. I get to be free, as I gently observe the process of a person finally doing exactly what their hearts have always been telling them to do. I get to share in their moments of joy in discovering that the answers they sought outside for so long, in so many ways, were already inside them, waiting to be decoded.

In short, as a coach, I get to watch people finally follow their own advice!

There is nothing more beautiful in this world than to witness a person free themselves, and become enlivened by the light inside them, dancing to the music within them.

I recognize the feeling of a person's truest longing spoken out loud. I recognize the pain of staying silent and hidden for too many years. I recognize the joy of meeting yourself again, of finally looking at yourself in the mirror with love and kindness.

This is not what comes from taking someone else's advice. This is true learning and growth. This is the drink of water I'd always been thirsty for, but never knew existed until now.

So the next time you ask someone for advice, listen to them very closely. And then ask yourself, "Does this feel more freeing? Or more constraining?" Any advice that does not bring you alive in your heart is not advice for you to follow.

Follow your freedom. It is the voice of your divinity speaking to you.

Come, take a drink with me. Be free.

About the author:

As a life coach, musician, writer, teacher, and speaker, Lisa Chu, M.D., supports and encourages adults who are seeking to live more creatively and passionately. She completed medical school, but left medicine before doing a residency, in order to follow her dream of creating a life of passion, creativity, and authenticity. She has since been a partner-level investment professional in a venture capital firm, the founder of her own violin school, the creator of music improvisation workshops for personal growth, and the co-creator of an acoustic rock band. Learn more about Lisa Chu, M.D. here.

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