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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
“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
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.” Complimenting someone’s
judgment not only makes the person feel good
about his or herself, but it helps keep the
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
Will these insights empower you to evaluate, collaborate