The Giving and Receiving of Advice

I received (an unusually high) 45 comments on my post asking for advice about studying Spanish vs. Japanese. I valued the advice, and it prompted thoughts about the fascinating world of advice giving and receiving.

As someone committed to personal growth and self-improvement, I count myself among those who look to others for feedback and guidance for how I can get better at any number of things. I’ve also given advice from time to time.

Here are some general observations on the topic from both perspectives:

* Sometimes people ask for advice but really just want your attention. People like talking things through in their own mind. Though it might appear they want explicit advice (“So I’m thinking about taking this new job, but I’m torn about the benefits package”) what they actually want is someone to hear them out, and perhaps probe a bit, but not prescribe a solution.

* Emulation: Peripheral or central. There’s a tendency to gaze at someone successful and want to copy every aspect of their life — even silly things like what they wear or eat. Emulating what a successful person does 100% rarely makes sense; when it does make sense, it’s only in situations where you’re imitating a peripheral habit. That is, it may make sense to directly copy someone’s email-management tactics if she’s superbly competent in this area, but don’t carbon copy their basic leadership style which is highly individual. When you feel the urge to emulate someone, first consider whether it’s a peripheral or central habit / characteristic.

* We get too much general advice, not enough specific. Jack Welch didn’t run a small business, and yet many small business owners look to him for specific guidance (on hiring, for example) when they’d be better off, I think, consulting a peer. Following Welch might be an act of self-protection: it’s easy to make excuses if you can point to a famous person’s piece of advice.

* It’s easy to appear to be an expert. You can speak authoritatively without being an authority.

* Overvaluing and undervaluing advice. People tend to overvalue advice when the situation is difficult and undervalue advice when the situation is easy. I saw this a lot in college admissions process — kids would get a million opinions on an admittedly important and difficult situation, but in the end they received so many contradictory thoughts that they ended up confused. On the other hand, when faced with where to go for lunch, people would do better to ask around a bit for a recommendation.

* Does money corrupt the process?. If you hire and pay a “life coach” to give you feedback on tough decisions, how does the compensation affect the coach’s advice? How does the paid nature of professional therapy affect the therapy? Is the most honest advice free? Do we overvalue advice we pay for?

Those are some initial musings. Agree? Disagree? Additions? Subtractions?

9 Responses to The Giving and Receiving of Advice

  1. Ben Casnocha says:

    Hat tip to Dave Jilk on the second point (emulation).

  2. To me, the best advice is that which is given accidentally and without request. I’ve noticed that when someone is asked for a piece of advice in an area in which they are unfamiliar, they default to a generalized topic and provide assistance on a tangent. On the other hand, an “expert” on the requested topic might, with good intention, overshoot the scope of the request, providing endless alternatives to already arbitrary solutions.

    True, these are pessimistically extreme cases. However, consider the weight of that advice which, seemingly unprovoked, is proffered by a master of timing and subtlety, and is truly provoked by observance rather than request.

    P.S. Japanese

  3. Scott Young says:

    Great points. I completely agree.

    You mention that money could corrupt advice. Can’t anything though? Intimate relationships, partners and anyone who has a personal stake in the outcome of your relationship will give biased advice.

    Some advice is only accepted to gain certainty. Not knowing how to go through a tough decision, you accept any advice just to remove the uneasy feelings of doubt when either side is a guess.

  4. Shefaly says:

    Advice or attention: It is a cliché perhaps but attention-seeking mumbling is something apparently women do; and advice or solutions is what men provide. I am a woman, who somehow listens but does want the droning to end after a point so I offer a method to structure the problem, generate alternatives and arrive at a preferred outcome.

    Emulation: That you use the term ‘carbon-copy’ when many of your age may have never seen a manual carbon copying machine leaves me amused and speechless! :-)

    * Too much general advice, not enough specific: The advice seeker makes broad assumptions about the advisor’s capability. Another comment above makes this point much better. However advice given also depends on how well the question is structured. Asking the right questions is half the battle, and many advisors, especially those whom we pay and who expect us to ‘depend’ on them bit, will not impart us this skill. ‘Teaching a man to fish’ versus ‘giving him a fish’ come to mind.

    * Easy to appear to be an expert: And for most smart people, it is also easy to tell apart those who clearly are not experts, but just poseurs. This relates to the point above too in some respects.

    * Valuing advice: That example of kids in admissions process getting advice is no different from unconcerned or half-interestd parties spewing general wisdom. A child is unique, he may or may not know his goals, he may or may not know possibilities, he may or may not even understand options. As adults, we may do them a favour by helping them see possibilities and give them a guiding hand in making up their mind and knowing their options. As an Aunt, I am doing this a lot these last few years. ‘Skills, not advice’ is my mantra.

    * Does money corrupt the process? The advice seeker needs more due diligence before asking than after. As another commenter says, bias can also corrupt the process. Fair but tough people, although unpopular and rare, should be valued more. And this judgement only emerges in time, through repeated interactions. C’est la vie!

    PS: I had mentioned German for its overarching grammar which makes French and Spanish easy to learn. The IHT today says many executives are learning Mandarin now. But to learn anything to be a fluent thinker in it is a lifelong effort. English is not the first language for most Indians – including me – but those, who work at it, get better by the day.

  5. Foster says:

    I agree with Shefaly, above. Women tend to want you to listen as they talk themselves through their problem, while men present the problem and expect to be presented with a solution in return.

    It took me a few years of horribly unsuccessful dating to realize this pattern. Now my advice to young guys is “nod and smile.”

  6. Provide advice and accept advice. Numerous individuals think their advice is the only advice. I believe in learning and continuous development – so not only do I help others, I want and like individuals to help me!

  7. Nina K says:

    As somebody who actively seeks out mentoring relationships and advice, I have two gripes about advice-giving (and I’ve had a lot of great advice scenarios, but these are some recurring lows).

    First, I’ve often found that the people who are the most competent, established, and knowledgeable about a problem have been so humbled by the process of attaining their competence that they are unable to view themselves as authoritative. In the worst of cases, because they are reluctant to assume the role of expert, they sometimes dole out advice in a very unclear way, or dodge requests for advice altogether. In the best of cases, they absurdly couch every fragment of advice in layers and layers of contextualizion in order to make it clear that they are not speaking authoritatively on the problem at hand (“Well, in my case, this was very specific to me, and my own experience of this, as someone who tktktk, is tktktk, but I don’t know if that would mean anything for anyone in general…”)

    (Related to this, I am often skeptical of those who too readily assert themselves as authoritative–their confidence says to me that they haven’t gone through the self-flagellation and ego-smattering it takes to really get into a subject or area and try to understand it well)

    And second, more of a rarity, but the occasional person who takes that prototypical hollywood movie shrink mantra to heart and throws back every request for an opinion about a problem to the requester: “Well, what do _you_ feel would be the right solution” “Well, what other options do _you_ see” Gimme a break! Let’s assume that if I’m half way intelligent I’ve already gone as a far as I can within my own head.

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