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Why giving advice isn’t always the best advice

giving feedbackOne friend says I need to quarantine my food and my mail for three days. Another advises me to go on an “immunity” diet. A third tells me I should listen to a new medical podcast. A newspaper columnist offers advice on how to stay upbeat during the COVID-19 crisis.

I find myself reacting in various ways to this barrage of advice. And so, I’ve been thinking about, well, advice.

What is advice, anyway?

It’s the assumption that you know something that will benefit me – and that I need to hear it. I’ve observed, as I imagine you have, too, that the very act of giving advice can trigger many different feelings, not all of them positive.

leadership coachingPsychologists have studied advice-giving and have found that people who dispense advice are often motivated to do so in order to feel more powerful and increase their social standing. The research also suggests that if someone wants to increase their social standing, they will put themselves into positions and situations where they can give lots of advice.

Research has also shown that being on the receiving end of advice can generate feelings of resentment because the implication is that you, the recipient, are less knowledgeable, less powerful, than the giver.

In short, giving advice can be a double-edged sword. Yes, advice may impart useful information. But it can also generate feelings of resentment (and recrimination). It can have the opposite of its intended effect and lower the social status of the advice-giver if their motivations are plainly visible.

So, what can you do? Here are four tips:

1. First, wait to be asked before you give advice. This can be hard, but if you listen attentively to another person’s narrative, you will often find that they conclude their story by asking what you would do if you were in their place, particularly in a professional setting. At that point, feel free to jump in, because solicited advice is always welcome.

2. If you want to give unsolicited advice, ask permission first. This is an easy thing to do. You can say, “Do you mind if I offer a suggestion?” Or, even better, “Your story reminds me of a similar situation I experienced. May I share something I learned?” These preludes will make people much more receptive to hearing your words of wisdom.

3. Avoid the appearance of criticism. The mere act of giving advice is implicitly critical. It implies that you, the advice-giver, are privy to some bit of wisdom that the other person needs to hear. In essence, the act of giving unsolicited advice is a judgment that the receiver has been found wanting in some way.

4. Control your need for social status and power. The act of giving advice is, like all things, best done in moderation. You can’t possibly be the expert in all things. Be brave enough to let others offer you wisdom once in a while. Remember that humility is the key to building long-lasting trust-based relationships, which is the source of real social standing and influence.

And what if you’re on the receiving end of all the advice? Remind yourself that, for whatever reason, the person may feel a need to increase their social standing. Perhaps you can find it in your heart to give them positive feedback. The more you do, the less they may rely on giving advice to gain social validation.

providing feedbackIn a professional setting, of course, it is often our business to give advice. My recommendation is not to stop doing so, but only to be aware that you can set the stage for how positively it will be received. Asking questions first is always a good idea. Showing empathy is always a good idea. Displaying a desire to get at the root cause is always a good idea. Offering advice with humility is always a good idea (e.g., “Based on what I’ve heard so far and my own experience, here are some thoughts…”)

Above all, don’t overload people with advice. Try to boil it down to two to three suggestions. That, in short, is the best advice I can give.

For more than 20 years, Eric Douglas has provided management consulting to public agencies, non-profits, and corporations in Sacramento and beyond.

This post was originally published at the Sacramento Business Journal.

Eric Douglas

Eric Douglas

Eric Douglas is the senior partner and founder of Leading Resources Inc., a consulting firm that focuses on developing high-performing organizations. For more than 20 years, Eric has successfully helped a wide array of government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and corporations achieve breakthroughs in performance. His new book The Leadership Equation helps leaders achieve strategic clarity, manage change effectively, and build a leadership culture.

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