Growing up, I made every decision through my personal committee.
Fellow people-pleasers will recognize the habit. Any time I had a tough decision to make, I started the rounds: What did my mom think? My dad? My friends? The internet?
I let them pour their opinions into my brain. Then, after filling up on all their perspectives, I went with the path of least resistance—whichever option I thought would receive the least amount of judgment.
Unsurprisingly, this led to 1) indecision, when my committee didn’t agree, and 2) a deep lack of confidence in my own decision-making ability.
It took years to develop trust in my own decisions. Truthfully, it’s still something I’m working on. But I can wholeheartedly say that I’m much better at it than I used to be.
And all of that progress has come from getting much smarter about how I ask for advice. So if you want to get better at making decisions for yourself, here are a few principles to follow.
1) Determine ahead of time whose advice you trust
For any given decision, take a moment to consider who really should have input, or who could add something valuable to your decision-making process.
And honestly? The answer is often no one.
But of course, we can all use a good sounding board once in a while. I trust my business friends for business advice. I trust my husband when I’m working through an emotional topic. But heaven help me, I do not mix the two!
My business buddies would be there for me if I needed the emotional support. But frankly, my husband knows me far better—that’s only natural. But when it comes to work? People in my industry are going to have much more specific ideas than my husband could provide.
This applies not only to the people in your life, but also to the media you consume. That YouTuber might talk your ear off about how to start a six-figure business. But does their money actually come from all the six-figure businesses they started? Or is it from… their YouTube channel? (This is more common than you think 🙊)
It’s okay to get advice when you need it. But take an extra moment to consider the source and who you want to trust.
2) Ask the right questions
“So here’s my problem. Should I do X or Y?”
That’s where we usually start when we’re asking for advice. And we get predictably bad answers. Why? Because we’re limiting the options by naming them ourselves. Also, everyone loves to have an opinion—even if they don’t have any good reason to.
Instead, learn to ask open-ended questions. Here are a few to keep in your back pocket:
“What could I do here?”
Instead of “What should I do here?”
This comes from Mike Vaughan’s TEDx Talk “How to Ask Better Questions.” It’s powerful because it opens the situation to possibilities you might not have yet considered—focusing on the unknown, rather than the known.
In Vaughan’s words: “With questions, you get what you ask for.” So make sure you’re leaving the door open for the right kind of answer.
(“What could I do here?” would also be a great question to ask yourself.)
“Have you experienced anything like this? What happened?”
So here’s a secret: No one is actually giving you advice. They’re giving themselves advice.
In other words, they’re giving you guidance based on what they would do in your situation. They’re limited by their own point of view. This can throw a wrench in the works because you may be very different people who approach problems in very different ways.
To combat this issue, ask for stories about their own experiences. This works because we’re humans, and humans understand the world through stories. When you ask for a story about a personal experience, you come away with much deeper insights than a surface-level opinion.
Bonus: Asking this question will also give you a clear idea of whether or not the advice-giver has any credibility to be giving you advice in the first place!
“If you were to play devil’s advocate, what would you say?”
This comes directly from the HBR article “The Surprising Power of Questions.” The fact is, most people shy away from sharing the harsh truth. This question forces even the most optimistic person to acknowledge the tough side of the situation and give more balanced feedback.
3) Act first, share later
If your friends and family are used to having a say in all of your life choices, they might be in the habit of giving advice (or a pointed “…Are you suuuuure that’s a good idea?”) even when you don’t ask for it.
So get advice from those you trust and who make sense for the problem you’re facing (that was step 1). But then, before you tell your wider circle about your decision, take action. Get started and see for yourself how it turns out. Then you can share the outcome with them.
It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission, as they say.
The right advice can change your life
But remember—outside input can only take you so far. What do you think about the decision you’re trying to make?
For more on this, check out one of my most popular articles: 6 questions to ask yourself when you’re considering a big life change.