At Your Service: August 19, 2009

In the midst of a telephone conversation with a friend, it occurred to me that the project I was about to begin was one that other circumstances (i.e., if I could afford to have someone else do it) he might be hired to do. In other words, he is a professional who earns his living doing what I was doing as an amateur. I took the opportunity to ask him a quick question about my little project.
He hesitated and then responded by providing a direct answer to the precise question I had asked. Then he added that for best results I would first use a particular product. I thanked him for the advice and was reassured because I had already purchased that product. Bolstered by a little knowledge, I began the project and quickly made an alarming discovery: for all that I knew, there was a multitude of things I did not know and that ignorance was making the project very complicated.
For a brief moment, I was angry with my friend. After all, he must have known that there was equipment that I did not possess that would have made the work easy. In addition to the one product he had suggested, there were other things I might use to simplify the process. As I continued to work, muddling through to the best of my abilities, I groused about how easy it would have been for him to “help” me.
Then I had an epiphany. Like any other moment of reckoning, it came in a flash when I made the shift to thinking about how I would have behaved were I in his shoes. The fit was very tight and more than a little uncomfortable.
My expertise is often solicited by people who are facing a particular problem in their business. Usually, the question is phrased simply and keyed to one aspect of the issue they are facing. Years of experience tell me that there is no simple solution to the problem, although there is a simple answer to the question. My response is to answer the question.
When I asked my friend about my project, I had already figured out how I would go about doing it. I was the embodiment of the dangerous “little bit of knowledge.” The need that drove my question was for him to affirm that my plan was a good one; I was not open to hearing the best way for the project to be done. What I already knew filled my ears and there was no way for any new information to get through (particularly anything contrary to my prevailing beliefs about how to do the project).
People often remark that when they ask a professional a question the “pro” doesn’t tell them what they need to know. The reality is that people can only help us if we are willing to learn something new. When we want to learn, we must be willing to ask open-ended questions and then listen to the answers. We should also consider the magnitude of the request we are making.
When someone, anyone, is a professional, they have a great deal invested in their body of knowledge. They have completed whatever formal education is needed to qualify as an expert in their industry, they have purchased whatever equipment is required to facilitate the work and they have years of hard won experience. In order to make a living, they need to be compensated for that investment. When we ask for “advice,” we are really asking for free services; it is not a fair request.
In hard times, or at any other point, few people can afford to give away their services. Friends do us a great service when they nonetheless give us free access to their expertise.