Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Give Unsolicited Advice

Ron McMillan

Ron McMillan is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


Crucial Conversations

Q Dear Crucial Skills,

In my day job, I am a consultant. However, in the evenings I train with a very knowledgeable and inspiring martial arts instructor. I have never learned as much or been as happy working with someone.

However, his business management habits do not set him up for success. He doesn’t maintain his website; his school has several names and logos that change from reference to reference; and he doesn’t record when or if people pay him. There is evidence he and his family sometimes run out of money before the end of the month.

While he is friendly and open, I feel like our life experiences and difference in age (he’s my senior by twenty years) mean that he would take my attempt to help as butting in. I am also certain his way of doing things made sense once upon a time. How can I help him while remaining respectful of his experience?

Worried Student

A Dear Student,

Many crucial conversations are complicated by differences in age or social status—direct report to boss, child to parent, student to teacher, and junior to senior. These differences are complicated by our expectations as to what is appropriate communication and what is not, and frequently those expectations are not clearly defined.

In your situation, it sounds like there is a clear teacher/student relationship, but for you to assume the role of teaching your teacher is awkward. Furthermore, it seems that to you, the twenty-year difference in age creates unclear expectations.

The essential condition to create in your crucial conversation is Mutual Respect. From your description of the relationship, I can see that a great deal of respect already exists. Build on that respect and create new expectations by using a few simple skills.

Begin by asking for his permission to discuss a personal situation. You might say, “Sensei, may I talk with you about an important issue that doesn’t have anything to do with my training?” Asking for permission alerts your teacher that the topic you wish to discuss is outside your normal interactions. If he agrees to talk or wants to know the subject, introduce the topic of your conversation. “I’ve been blessed by your gifts to me and I want you to continue to give them to others. I have some ideas I’d like to share with you that will help the business side of your enterprise. May I discuss that with you?”

If he declines, contrast to share your good intentions. “I don’t want to presume to tell you how to run your business. That isn’t my place. I do want to share some ideas that will reduce your worries and help your business succeed into the future.”

If he says “no,” do not continue, but look for opportunities to talk this over in the future, after he has thought about your words.

If he expresses interest in your invitation, begin by using your STATE skills.

Share your facts. Factually describe what you have seen. For example, “I’ve noticed you receive payment from your students, but do not record when you receive them or when the payments are due.”

Tell your story. Tell him what you are assuming as a result. “I’m wondering if the business side of your work gets less attention and that maybe better tracking would give you more income.”

Ask for his point-of-view. “Am I seeing this correctly? Do you see it differently?”

Talk tentatively. Be clear that your purpose is not to challenge your friend. You are not trying to hurt, humiliate, or judge. Your purpose is to create enough Mutual Respect and Mutual Purpose to make it safe for your teacher to consider your ideas.

Encourage testing. Your questions, “Am I seeing this correctly?” and “Do you see it differently?” test your stories and your perceptions. Perhaps you are missing something. You want to create mutual understanding, not convince or compel. Be open. Listen well and entertain the possibility that your view is not the whole truth.

Using these simple skills with the intent to help, not hurt, increases the likelihood that your teacher will hear you out and won’t be offended. If not during this single conversation, then over time as you respectfully and consistently communicate that you are trying to help him.

All the best,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

8 thoughts on “How to Give Unsolicited Advice”

  1. Jan Cohen

    Excellent advice!! I hope everything works out for the student and his sensei.

  2. Janet

    Hmmm… If a student approached me in this fashion, I would assume after not very many words, that he wanted to sell me something. I would assume he saw me as a sales target and was setting me up, which would make me suspicious. Therefore, I believe it would be essential to mention up front that this is not a prelude to a sales pitch.

  3. elsy mejia-carpio

    I will recommend don’t ask don’t tell because it is a personal matter. Your boss is well mature and many years with the business which means he knows what he is doing. As a young person you assume according to your knowledge and perception but assuming does not lead you to the right solution. Private matters need to keep private. Unless you are a relative it would be easy to talk to anyone your point of view. Things are not always the way we see them.

    I can see that you are a sensible person just let it go. A mature person will always ask for advise to the right person. Keep friendly and if he approch you and ask your opinion then start give him your opinion. I will not consider as an advise unless you are an accountant or you own a business.

  4. Kate

    “I do want to share some ideas that will reduce your worries and help your business succeed into the future.” I would not recommend saying this. The Sensei never said he was worried–it’s actually the student who is worried. Don’t assume to know someone else’s feelings. The student might instead say, “I do want to share some ideas that could help your business.”

  5. Kim Ellis

    Thank you so much for this wonderful outline of how to handle delicate situations such as these. I’m printing this & putting it into my “what if” file.


  6. Greg

    I totally agree with elsy mejia-carpio.

    It’s perfectly natural to want to give-back to someone who’s helped us so much. I think by following the advice given you can damage a good relationship. I suggest, back away from this idea and think no more about discussing it with your teacher. Find another way to express your gratitude.

    And consider, it’s likely these various gross “oversights” have been brought up before.

  7. David Penglase

    Ron, as always, this post is wonderfully practical and a proven approach. I am sharing your links, recommending your book and continue to sing your praises down here in Australia. You guys are the thought leaders in this field, and just a quick note to Jan (Comment #1), stick with the thought leaders in this field who have completed the years of validated research on what does and doesn’t work. Being clear on your intention and using the approach Ron is recommending will build on your mutual respect and mutual understanding in your trust relationship with your Sensei. Warm regards, David

  8. Sharon Hamersley

    Boy I wish I had read this about a week ago! I had some concerns about a client who was doing work my company was hired to do, and expressed them to the client who became quite defensive. I can see that I forgot about the asking for their point of view part…:<(. Hopefully I'll remember this step in the future!

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