Unhappy Truths: Giving Advice Hurts Everyone

This past Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal article, The Perils of Giving Advice by Elizabeth Bernstein focuses on how men and women typically give and (don’t) take advice from each other.  It ties-in well to a question raised in a discussion on a previous post on this blog:  To what degree can a person provide coaching when they are in a relationship?

To the extent that coaching involves direct or indirect advice-giving (and to the extent that asking questions in a coaching conversation can be perceived as ‘advice’) , the short answer to the above question is:  Don’t give advice – even (and especially) in a close relationship.

According to the studies cited by the article, the problem is usually the person receiving the advice. People receiving advice don’t take it well, and will typically distort the giver’s positive intent into something negative.

I hate this finding… but grudgingly admit to its truth from experience. More on that below.

stuck in the muck

A fun tidbit from the article: In studies of male-female couples giving and receiving advice to each other, the researchers noticed different trends based on the gender of the advice recipient: In one direction (male-to-female) advice gets perceived by the (female) recipient as condescending, while in the other direction (female-to-male) advice is perceived by the (male) recipient as scolding.

Seriously, people get paid to do research to “prove” this stuff.

Blog Audit:  Taking My Own Advice

Some earlier posts here on this blog reveal my ongoing personal learning and re-learning around this issue of advice-giving:

..and of course, there’s the It’s Not About The Nail video, from earlier this month.

Also, I most recently took a break from blogging regularly in order to — yes, you guessed it — take my own advice and focus on some important long term goals.

Suffice to say, advice-giving-and-receiving is a topic of constant professional and personal concern for me.  On the deepest level, this is an ongoing, four-year-old exploration of the art of giving and receiving a gift and how the Japanese tradition deals with it… even four years ago, I knew that giving a gift (like advice) is mostly a problem of how to artfully receive it… yet as the professional advice-giver, as the “take full responsibility for the conversation” guy, how to tread on these eggshells?

consultant guy

What I’m now challenged by is the scenario of talking to someone while I’m wearing my trainer / consultant / coach hat and noticing the other person sending me ambiguous signals about wanting / not wanting advice.  They are sort-of asking me for my advice… but should I take the bait?

My Advice: Don’t Take the Bait

It’s not enough to resist giving unsolicited advice.  Even when you think someone is asking you for advice, you have to be absolutely sure they actually want your advice.

Don't Become Gator Bait, aka, "It's a trap!"

Often people seem to ask for advice indirectly, but if you think that’s what they’re doing, you should still avoid taking the bait… or risk becoming bait yourself.

  • If they say, “I don’t know how to do x,”  don’t take the bait.
  • If they say, “I could never to x,” don’t take the bait.
  • If they say, “I wouldn’t be able to do x as well as you,” don’t take the bait.
  • If they say, “Well, you’d probably know what to do”  …don’t take the bait.
  • If they say, “What do you think I should do?”  …don’t take the bait..!  …well okay…. maybe… just maybe… take a nibble of the bait…. and ask them back, “You want to know what I think?” and pause… and if they seem interested, give them just a teeny bit of your opinion and check to see that they’re still interested in hearing any more.

Sometimes you can simply ask up front, “Are you asking me for my advice?”  though I’ve noticed that a lot of people will suddenly backpedal on the conversation by such a direct request, as if they are embarrassed. Maybe they don’t like to admit that they’re asking for help.

It seems that the I’m-not-sure-if-I-want-your-advice crowd would prefer to do a delicate dance… perhaps an exchange of little stories, quips… and some empathy.

Yes Dan, it’s not about the nail.

Let us conclude this post with something else from about four years ago… my Consultant’s Prayer:

God grant me the fortune
To have good clients;
Ability to perform well;
Integrity to deliver real value;
Courage to get paid for that value;
And discipline to take my own advice.

all done


About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on June 28, 2013, in Coaching, Communication Skills, Learning, Management, photography, Psychology, Talent and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. ill answer the other question in here, since it would be much longer than a simple “NO”

    it all comes down to ontology. By now, being a master etc.. you’re probably very familiar with the terms positivism, post-positivism, and constructivism, etc.. etc..

    i view giving advice as a very positivist thing to do. there’s one reality. one clear reality. and we can achieve comprehending it. and i’ve done something that has remotely worked, therefore i feel qualified to let others know how to do said thing and it will work for them too, because that’s how life is.

    thankfully, the positivist train left the station a long time ago.

    when we start believing the world is a more complicated place, and individual experiences vary. individual interpretations vary. our interpretations of their interpretations vary. their interpretation of our interpretations vary. then giving advice, in its traditional sense, just seems silly. all it does is show the person that the advice giver lives in a positivist world.

    having said that (and since i lean towards a more constructivist view), i think sharing experiences is a much better way of helping, assuming helping is necessary. “when i lived thru this, this is what happened to me, this is how i felt, this is what i did, and it did this good thing and that bad thing to me. but the same thing could have happened if i had done something else, maybe..”, no judging involved. i feel this is listening+, not just listening.

    i think this sort of shared experiences enrich our knowledge. we can interpret it and add it to our repertoire and take out of it what we need to take out of it, decide what applies and what does not apply.

    thoughts? 🙂

  2. lol you know.. i was doing this thing one time and then…


    • That’s nothing. One time when I was asked advice by an amazingly smart and attractive individual, I decided to tell them a really awesome story about myself but then in response they tried to top my story with an even more awesome story about themselves. We continued this way back-and-forth, each trying to out-not-advise-the-other with stories that moved the conversation in every direction.

      See, I’ve found — in my vast, vast experience — that when a person is highly educated, they listen with a critical ‘meta’ ear and can choose to consider the act of sharing experiences as a way to be condescending or controlling in the conversation. For some of them, their defenses are so incredibly high that all conversation is subject to competitive scrutiny.

      In short: Yes. I agree with what you’ve written. Constructivism is where I’m at. 🙂

      Knowing my audience and gauging their level of guardedness / cynicism is a key factor, as well as just generally watching/listening for an affirmative signal of “okay, I’d like to hear what you have to say.”

      Maybe this is one of the reasons why a lot of people like to drink wine and beer together, before having life conversations? What works for dentists… nitrous oxide?

      • lol. nice story. well done, sir. 😉

        dentists are not a good example to follow, they tend to be very positivist (it’s a surgeon thing..). however, some, eventually migrate towards more interpretive notions.

        “knowing your audience” is tricky tho, very easy to be biased and make assumptions. there’s an inherent risk involved in making assumptions, tho. it usually pays off, especially if we’re good at making correct assumptions, but sometimes it can backfire.

        there’s a movement in medicine in getting more “person-centred”. one of its aspect is getting to know the person, instead of making assumptions. getting to know them better psychosocially. exploring their illness. getting to a “whole-person understanding. involving them in the decisional process instead of assuming “what’s best for them” (paternalism).

        (incidentally, we’re trying to bring this to dentistry, and we’re getting a lot of of resistance. the interesting part is the resistance is not under the “i disagree with this” form, it’s more under the “but of course, this is obvious, im already person-centred”, when observation after observation shows that they’re not.)

        one-upping ftw, mr meta-ear 🙂

  3. I think the real peril in giving advice is the expectation that the giver has… Namely that it will be taken.

    Good advice is never a bad thing to pass along so long as you do so without the demand or assumption that it will be followed. That is the difference between advice and a mandate. If information passed along is given as a mandate then the recipient is more likely to perceive it as condescending or scolding. On the other hand, if it is given as information to be taken or left (and the communicator has a lot of responsibility in communicating this message) I think advice is less perilous.

    My mother does not ask for advice or my opinion, generally. She asks for “my thoughts on the matter.” We are both well aware of the way the information conveyed is intended and received, as a result.

    So, what are your thoughts on the matter?

    • I’m taking a firm stance on this one. The intent behind the advice — in whatever form it comes — is largely determined by the recipient.

      • (..and agreed, if the Advice Giver loads an expectation of application/compliance into their words of wisdom, then it vastly increases the odds that it will be perceived by the recipient as overbearing.)

      • it’s situational as well.

        if im doing something technical, and i need some advice on how to do it by you, because i know you know how to do it. (say, configuring a router so that you can connect 2 together…) any advice would be well received.

        human situations are more complex, and the applicability of the advice would be rightfully questioned.

      • Yeah, I forgot to mention, your router is totally set up wrong. I can increase your peak load bps if you’d just let me… grab… that… cable…from ya…


  4. I’m genetically predisposed to try to offer advice…to think I know how to solve everyone’s problems. When someone complains or vents, my visceral reaction is to come up with solutions. And the more they resist, the more frustrated and…yes…angry I get. I get it honestly and share the trait with at least one of my siblings (possibly both).

    In one of those ironic twists of life – or perhaps by divine design – I married someone the polar opposite. When she’s upset, she doesn’t vent to solicit advice but… shockingly…just to vent. It took several years before finally, one day, she explained to me that sometimes – most of the time – she doesn’t want advice. She just wants sympathy. Someone to say it will be ok. Someone to say, I’m sorry you have to deal with this. It’s been an amazing life lesson and one, I hope and believe, that has made me a better husband, a better friend to her and to others, and a better professional.

    In the spirit of this post, I will stop short of offering drawing a broad conclusion and offering advice to others…but you get the point. 🙂

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