You Can’t Give Advice Until You’ve…

Thoroughly acknowledged the difficulties of their situation, acknowledged that they are very busy, etc. In other words, you need to actually listen to them and proactively appreciate them before you play the role of advice-giver.

A friend told me this today and it rang true.

Suppose you tell a busy person: "You should check out this museum — they have a great Asian Art exhibit." A busy person’s first quiet thought might be, "I’m a busy person, I can’t just go to museums whenever I want." He will discount your advice because you haven’t acknowledged a basic fact about his life.

Now suppose you preface your suggestion: "I know you’re really busy. But you should check out this museum — they have a great Asian Art exhibit." I would expect a higher follow-through rate.


Most people think they are busy. Many people annoyingly make a big deal out of how busy they are. Whether it’s self-delusion or reality, it’s important to acknowledge the busy-ness of those we work with — both verbally ("I know your time is valuable…") and in our actions. Chronic tardiness to meetings with other busy people is a sign of arrogance as it implies one does not respect the other people’s time.


The giving and receiving of advice has long fascinated me. Here’s my post on overvaluing advice when the problem is hard and undervaluing advice when the problem is easy. Here are more general thoughts of mine on the topic. Here’s my post on how disclosure of one’s bias doesn’t cancel out its effects — ie we don’t account for the bias of an advice-giver as much as we should, even when we know it’s there.

6 comments on “You Can’t Give Advice Until You’ve…
  • The way we communicate advice and/or feedback makes all the difference. When you hear it done effectively it sounds simple but it’s absolutely not. It must reveal a genuine interest in the other person’s success and speak in a voice that is sincerely respectful and supportive.

  • Ben, another small improvement to communicating constructive criticism and advice is substituting the word “but” with “and”. “And” provides a warming, smoother transition than “but” which can often be perceived as abrupt. This works better for constructive criticism and could also apply to advice.


    You did a great job on that assignment, but if you work harder you will do even better.

    You did a great job on that assignment and if you continue to work hard you will do even better on the next one.

    Substituting “and” for “but” frames the sentence in a different way that, IMHO, comes across more caring and considerate of the person you are speaking to.

  • +1 on the use of “and” in place of “but.” I’ve tried to apply this in my own life but (and?) it’s a hard habit to break. It comes easier to me in email.

    Also, I hate to admit it, but Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus actually has some very useful insights into this. The #1 rule in that book for women is, “Don’t offer unsolicited advice to men.” Something about the way we’re wired — we want to be self-reliant — means men generally don’t like unsolicited advice. It’s the same reason we don’t like to ask for directions.

    So I’ve found that prefacing advice with “Can I make a suggestion?” or phrasing it as a question (“Have you thought of trying XXX?”) can make a difference as well. This works in sales as well. (The alternative, often less-successful approach being “we have the best product for you.”)

  • Ben, I think your example is of a recommendation, not advice. We often tell friends about great restaurants or short-running exhibitions (seriously, when the Terracotta Army is due leave the British Museum to go back on 6th April, it is worth mentioning it to everybody). But those are sometimes conversational pieces, sometimes just the glue of socialisation.

    I do think however that the cardinal rule of giving advice is first to be asked for it and second, to ensure upfront that the advice-seeker has done all he/ she can do to solve the problem at hand.

    Why? Well my time is as valuable as the next person’s and I do everything to manage it efficiently. Saying ‘no’ to requests for advice is one of the tricks.

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