14 Thoughts on Advice Giving and Receiving

Tyler Cowen discusses the economics of advice and makes two interesting claims:

You don't know what a person really thinks until you hear his or her advice. Along these lines, if you really want to know what a person thinks, ask for advice and he or she will open up.


Often we do not trust people until we hear their advice.  We suspect in any case that they wish to control us, and until we know what they have in mind, we remain wary.  Sometimes it is necessary to give advice — even pointless advice — to establish trust.

I have thought a great deal about giving and receiving advice. Below are 14 thoughts to add to the mix. I believe #12 is the most insightful (it comes from Chris Yeh).

1. Sometimes people ask for advice but really just want your attention. People like talking things through. 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. Books on gender say men usually try to play Mr. Fix-It right away while women are better listeners.

2. We overvalue advice on difficult decisions and undervalue advice on easy ones. So say some studies. During the college admissions process, kids get a million opinions on an admittedly important and difficult situation, but in the end receive so many contradictory thoughts that they end 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.

3. "Just get started" is the most popular advice dished to aspiring entrepreneurs. But it's a debatable point.

4. Advice is a form of nostalgia. For this reason, we should view advice from others primarily as an opportunity for greater insight into the mind of the advice-giver, rather than as something useful to be acted upon ourselves.

5. "Passion" and "Voice" are two of the most frequent and most vague pieces of advice. Career counselors tell young people to follow their passion and writing coaches tell writers to find their voice. Both are horribly misunderstood.

6. Beware of advice from meta-careerists. That is, beware of advice from someone who is a professional advice-giver (a full-time self-help author, say), rather than someone in the trenches.

7. When giving advice, include the word "because." It increases eventual absorption, regardless of what you say after the word "because."

8. When you give advice, give the person options, and let them choose the best path. People hate to be told what to do — need to make them feel empowered to make the decision for themselves.

9. When you seek advice, should you consult the domain expert or someone who knows you best? Your mother may know you best but she may not know your industry. The domain expert knows the market but doesn't know your individual preferences or history. Conclusion: Get advice first from the domain expert to get a model and assess your choices. Then consult the person who really knows you to understand which choice makes most sense for you.

10. People who are "unconsciously competent" are not the best people to ask for advice. True experts often can't explain what they're doing and why.

11. Actionable advice is best advice. Saying "speak up more" to someone who doesn't talk in meetings is not actionable; saying "say at least three things in the meeting" is more clearly actionable.

12. When you give advice, it's easy to fan the embers but hard to strike a new fire. So listen carefully to their situation and find some aspect of it that you can build upon and emphasize. This will result in best outcome, rather than trying to instill an entirely new idea or some concept that's not already part of their framework.

13. Even if you know the other person is biased, studies show you still don't discount that bias enough. Your car mechanic wants to sell you more parts, and you know that he wants to do that, but we still don't discount his advice as much as we should.

14. Bottom Line: It's fruitful to think about advice on the meta level before engaging in the critical business of asking for advice, or the tricky business of dishing it out.

4 comments on “14 Thoughts on Advice Giving and Receiving
  • For better or worse, I get asked a lot for advice on a bizarre range of things about career choices, health, food, travel and books. I disagree with Tyler Cowen that somehow being asked for advice makes a person open up about an issue. It is perhaps true for whose egos are stoked by being asked for advice but not for others. I think your number 8 is influenced by that assertion. A good advice-giver does not let on what she thinks. Her preferences do not and should not matter in advice-giving. In fact she enables the asker to ask the right questions and to generate options based on articulated and unarticulated driving factors. In all rational analyses, little account is taken of a person’s emotions and political predilections. If the asker generates the options himself, those preferences are accounted for. If the asker is not even able to picking what suits him best, the best advice-givers withdraw. It really is true that much advice is wasted and until I judge a real desire to make a change (or an honest admission that all he is seeking is to verify his own opinion), I usually turn down the asker’s request.

  • On #9 – Selfless counsel even from domain experts can often be counter productive especially if it is on something the counselor himself missed out on and genuinely wished the seeker shouldn’t (noble intention, alright). But then he is counseling on something that he has had no experience about and the outcome may or may not be desirable. I think it can be risky if not dangerous since the seeker believed in the counselor’s domain expertise.

    On #13 – Wouldn’t a customer go for that car part because he feels his car will be better off with it than without it ? I see an overwhelming ego and selfish urge to that buy than inadequate bias discounting. A better metaphor could be that of a Doctor prescribing calcium pill to a Joe that hates drugs. I assume he would rather chomp on dried apricot or black currants than act on that prescription, not just discounting the bias fully but duly giving in to the beliefs that he is sold on.

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