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How to Give Advice People Want to Take

Discover 3 ways to give requested advice to people so they accept it instead of resist it
in this guest post courtesy of NYT.com, written by Anna Goldfarb.  Photo credit: Derek Abella

Credit…Derek Abella

  • 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

    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

    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
    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

    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.” Complimenting 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


Will these insights empower you to evaluate, collaborate

and support people who request your advice?

Communicate in ways that make love last,

Hadley Finch

Claim a gift copy of my audiobook interviews of relationship success experts HappySexyLoveInRomanticRelationships.com


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