A friend recently approached me in distress saying she wasn’t sure if she should dump her boyfriend or not. With wide, wet eyes, she asked what I think she should do. It gave me pause. Of course, I thought she should get rid of the guy, but I didn’t want to put our relationship at risk in case she stayed with him after I shared my opinion.
As anyone who has offered guidance knows, giving spectacular advice doesn’t necessarily mean people will take it. Advice is a gift, albeit one bundled with inherent power dynamics. That “I know your situation best and here’s what you should do” attitude is what can make advice-giving so fraught.
“Expertise is a tricky thing,” said Leigh Tost, an associate professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. “To take advice from someone is to agree to be influenced by them.” Sometimes when people don’t take advice, they’re rejecting the idea of being controlled by the advice-giver more than anything.
Nevertheless, it’s understandable to want to help when we see people struggling or in pain. It feels good to give direction. In fact, giving advice increases one’s sense of personal power, according to a study published last year in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Researchers identified three factors that determine whether input will be taken to heart. People will go along with advice if it was costly to attain and the task is difficult (think: lawyers interpreting a contract). Advice is also more likely to be taken if the person offering counsel is more experienced and expresses extreme confidence in the quality of the advice (doctors recommending a treatment, for example). Emotion plays a role, too: Decision makers are more likely to disregard advice if they feel certain about what they’re going to do (staying with a dud boyfriend no matter what) or they’re angry (sending an ill-advised text while fuming).
So, where does this leave caring friends and concerned co-workers — those people in our lives who aren’t necessarily experts, but want to help? You can chime in, but it’s crucial to approach the matter with sensitivity and center the person who is looking for assistance.
“It may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how often people can overlook the need to consider what the decision maker wants and why,” Dr. Tost said.
Here are other things to keep in mind to make sure the advice you give to others will land so you, and the person you’re advising, can feel good about the exchange.
Evaluate the situation
Make sure you’re actually being asked to give counsel. It’s easy to confuse being audience to a venting session with being asked to weigh in. Sometimes people just want to feel heard.
“It’s almost like people will say to you, ‘I want a strategy,’ and what they really mean is, ‘I want someone to understand,’” said Heather Havrilesky, an advice columnist and author of “What if This Were Enough?”
Melody Li, an Austin, Texas-based licensed and marriage family therapist, suggests asking, “Would you be willing to hear some of my ideas, or is now not a good time?” This balances the playing field, she said. Be prepared for the person to decline your offer to give input. Respect the person’s wishes because if you don’t back off, it will come across as if you have an agenda.
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Be clear on the advice-seeker’s goals. When people approach Austin Kleon, author of “Steal Like an Artist,” for advice, he drills down and identifies the exact problem: “What do you want to know specifically that I can help you with?” This way, he won’t overwhelm the person with irrelevant information.
Ms. Li suggests repeating back what you heard to be sure you’ve grasped the heart of the issue. Ask what outcome the advice-seeker hopes to see so your ideas align with the person’s desires. Next, inquire about what has been done to address the problem so your suggestions won’t be redundant.
Consider your qualifications. People often go to those close to them for advice, even if family members and friends aren’t always in the best position to effectively assist, Dr. Tost said. Ask yourself: “Do I have the expertise, experience or knowledge needed to provide helpful advice in this situation?” If you do, fantastic! Advise away. If you don’t, rather than give potentially unhelpful advice, identify someone who is in a better position to help.
“The key is to put your loved one’s needs and interests front and center,” Dr. Tost said.
Collaborate on a solution
Be friendly. Words have power. Words can heal. A recent study found that doctors who simply offer assurance can help alleviate their patients’ symptoms. It’s essential to start the advice-giving conversation with this same reassuring tone. Certified life coach and leadership trainer Dee C. Marshall makes sure to praise the advice-seeker before she offers a single suggestion. She’ll say something like, “I really applaud you for knowing to do X and knowing to do Y.” Complementing someone’s judgment not only makes the person feel good about his or herself, but it helps keep the equilibrium intact.
Share experience. People tend to resist when advice is preachy, Ms. Marshall said. Saying, “I’ve been there and here’s what I did,” makes people more receptive. In guiding clients, she also recommends books and tools that might provide additional insight: “I’m not telling them what to do, but I’m offering them a real resource beyond me.”
Similarly, Mr. Kleon’s books and blog have the same encouraging energy: “My M.O. is to share things that I’ve learned along the way in the spirit of, ‘This worked for me, maybe it’ll work for you, too.’”
Look for physical signs of relief. Examine facial cues and body language: eyes and mouth softening, shoulders lowering or letting breath out, for example. Those are good indicators your advice is resonating. Even the word “advice” can sometimes be triggering to hear, Ms. Li said. She tends to use language like “suggestions” and “ideas” because that feels more collaborative: “I’m working with you as opposed to working on you.”
Offer support as needed
Identify takeaways (and give an out). It’s not realistic for people to act on every piece of advice you give. After discussing a problem and suggesting how to handle it, Ms. Marshall asks her clients what tidbit resonated with them the most. Then she gives them permission to disregard any suggestions she made that weren’t a good fit. Not only does this take pressure off the advice-seeker, but they both can leave the conversation on a positive note by having at least one actionable item to focus on.
Mr. Kleon agrees with this approach. He wrote the following in the introduction of “Keep Going,” his book about staying in a creative mind-set: “Your mileage may vary. Take what you need and leave the rest.”
Agree on next steps. Lastly, ask what kind of continued support is needed (if any) and what efforts should be avoided. Would checking in motivate the person, or would it feel overbearing? “There’s only one way to find out,” Ms. Li said. “Ask with an open heart.” Meeting the advice-seeker at this level further establishes the person’s autonomy. And by setting expectations for next steps and approaching the issue as a team, you’re both more likely to come away feeling empowered by the encounter.