Recently, I was spotted in an audience by a CEO who is familiar with my work and knows that some of what I do is executive presentation skills coaching. After he was finished, he hunted me down and asked me what I thought.

He was, frankly, pretty awful. Knowing the information I’m about to suggest to you, I told him, “I wasn’t really focused on your presentation from a critical standpoint, but I’ll give you one thing you can work on and one thing that worked for me. If you’d like a deeper analysis, I’ll look at the video and you can have your admin call my office to set an appointment.”

He was cool with that. Like you, I get paid for my advice. The operative word is “paid.” I guarantee you, if I gave the executive everything I thought, I probably would not have done more business in his company.

And not because I’m indelicate when I give feedback or because he didn’t value my opinion. The reason: When most people ask for “free” advice about something they’ve already done, they are usually looking for validation, not necessarily the truth. When they pay for your advice, then you can be a true advisor.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give free advice. Just be careful and aware of what happens when you do. Here’s what happens when you give advice that someone hasn’t paid for.

1. Status shifts. Pecking order is one of the most ancient wirings in our brains. When we feel “lesser” than someone (less smart, talented, informed, favored, etc.) we have a tendency to behave differently. We’ll play little unconscious games to get back the upper status. Defensiveness, one-upping and good old blank-but-malevolent stares are a few of the things that happen when someone tries to regain status.

2. Advice shifts status. When you offer someone advice, you’re showing how you’re smarter than they are. These few phrases are examples of how easy it is to negatively shift status:
a. “You should…”
b. “What I do is…”
c. “You might think about doing…”
All of these infer some kind of advice and can get bad behavior going.

3. Read between the lines. Even if someone says they want your opinion, he may just be looking for validation. If he insists that he wants your advice, ask him if he wants both the good AND the bad of how you see things.

Advice is tricky. Be careful about it. That’s my free advice.